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How to plan a beer and cheese pairing party

The idea of pairing wine and cheese is as old, it seems, as wine itself. Setting out a cheeseboard with beer is a newer notion, though it makes perfect sense especially now that Tampa Bay is bursting at the seams with breweries and tap houses. Liquor stores and even grocery stores are carrying a variety of interesting beers, too, and there are places like Shep's Food Market in St. Petersburg, which boasts 1,200 varieties of suds. In recent years, our selection of cheeses has bloomed, too. Beyond European cheeses, some of the well-known creameries of the West Coast (Humboldt Fog, Point Reyes, Rogue and Cowgirl) are sending their products all over the country. (When I moved to Florida in 1992, it was near impossible to find fresh mozzarella. Those days are long gone.)

So the time is now, to invite your pals over for a party featuring beer and cheese, and maybe some other nibbles, too. Think of it as your twist on the Oktoberfest celebration.

For those of us who don't really know hops from a hole in the ground, the process can be daunting. Think of me last week perusing those 1,200 beers and then a 100 or so cheeses to figure out what might go well with them. It's a tough job.

I turned to food writer Janet Fletcher's very informative Cheese & Beer (Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2013) for suggestions. With her guidance, I was able to pick out six beers (all about $2 a bottle) and six cheeses to sample (much more expensive but ask for small pieces to be cut fresh).

(See my pairings and comments in accompanying story.)

In general, I like lighter, fruity or delicate beers like American pale ales and pilsners, over hop-heavy India pale ales or dark porters and stouts. But during my tasting, I was surprised how much cheese complemented and mellowed the stronger beers.

In fact, Cigar City's José Martí American Porter could be a new favorite. Paired with Point Reyes original blue drizzled with just a bit of honey, the earthy undertones of the robust beer mellowed and brightened pleasantly.

What an education.

Guide for beginners

In general, the stronger the beer, the stronger cheese you'll need. A blue cheese stands up to the muscle of a dark beer or to one that has pronounced hops. Aged cheeses also pair amiably with complex beers. The tender tendencies of a mellow cheese are swallowed by a brutish beer.

Mild, high-fat cheeses, such as triple creams like Saint André, are better suited to be served alongside light-bodied beers, like pilsners. Still, some will like how they cut the bitterness of an IPA.

According to Fletcher's Cheese & Beer:

Delicate beers go with young, fresh cheeses. For example, wheat beers or pilsners with unaged goat cheese, feta, burrata or mozzarella.

Pair malty and nutty beers with "sweet" cheeses. Brown ales, stouts, porters and holiday ales play well with aged alpine cheeses, such as Gruyere, Goudas and other aged cheeses such as manchego.

Offer hoppy beers with tangy cheeses. Goat cheese and cheddars are appropriate pairings with India Pale Ales.

Strong beers like imperial stouts, barley wines and quadrupels match well with blue cheeses and aged sheep's milk cheese.

Confused? So was I.

I headed to Shep's and picked out six varieties of beers, some I figured I'd like, others I knew I wouldn't. Then I stopped at the Fresh Market and scooped up six cheeses, ranging from mellow to strong. FYI: The six-pack of beer was about $13 and the cheeses totaled about $35, with plenty left over for snacking.

The lighter beers I stored in the fridge and the darker ones I let warm a bit. The cheeses mostly came to room temperature so that their flavor could fully develop.

I learned quite a bit by taking a wee mouthful of beer and a nibble of cheese. In some cases, the flavors separated disagreeably. In others, it seemed as if the brewmaster and cheesemaker were working side by side when they came up with their recipes.

Mostly, it's important to not stress about putting on a beer-cheese pairing that will satisfy an expert. Buy a few different types of beer, put out some complementary cheeses and let your guests determine what they like.

It is, after all, a matter of taste.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

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