The Session No. 51: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off

For much longer than I’ve been writing Growler Fills, I’ve tuned into The Session, a collective effort of beer bloggers around the world to write on a common topic once each month.  The idea originated with Stan Hieronymus and his long running, excellent blog Appellation Beer and is co-pioneered by Jay Brooks, beer author and blogger at the Brookston Beer Bulletin.  The Session is hosted each month by a different beer blogger who picks the topic and does a round up of the other posts.  Since The Session began in 2007, topics have ranged from particular beer styles to cooking with beer to that “special place” where beer provides some sort of connection.

To participate, beer bloggers merely choose to take part, write on the topic and post it on the first Friday of the month.  Its that simple.  In fact, its so simple I emailed Jay to make sure it really was that simple. Jay politely and quickly responded, confirming its simplicity.  I really don’t go out of my way to make people question my intelligence. Sometimes it just happens. 

I decided it was time to take part in The Session, not realizing Jay would pick the toughest challenge to date: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off.  First, Jay picked three cheeses: Maytag Blue Cheese, Widmer Cheese Cellar’s One Year Aged Cheddar, and Cypress Grove Chevre’s Humboldt Fog.  The idea was to find each of the cheeses then do one of a few options: guess what beer to pair with the cheese and see if you’re right, try a few beers with the cheese and report the results, or whatever else catches your fancy pertaining to beer and cheese pairings.

I set out one Saturday to Missoula’s Good Food Store to find the cheese, knowing I’d seen Humboldt Fog there many times.  I also knew I’d need to deviate from Jay’s list since I’ve never developed anything close to a taste for blue cheese.  Instead, I picked up some Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. I’d had this cheese with a variety of red wines during a trip to Spain at numerous tapas bars and thought it would be interesting to see how it paired with beer.  I couldn’t find the Widmer’s aged cheddar and picked a fifteen-month aged English Cheddar as a substitute.

Now, I’ve got no business guessing which beer might pair well with any particular cheese.  I love cheese, but haven’t ventured too far from the normal suspects. Instead, over the course of three tasting sessions, I picked a variety of beer styles that happened to be in the beer fridge and put them up against the three cheeses, deciding what worked and what didn’t work.  Frankly, one I didn’t expect to work at all – and was right.  Others, as you might expect, paired well with one cheese, but not another.

First, a bit about the cheese.  According to the google searching I did, Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog is one of the best goat’s milk cheeses around, anywhere. It is super creamy smooth with a pronounced tang that alternates between salty and a touch of creamy sweetness.  There’s a black/blue line running through it that is a layer of vegetable ash which also covers the outside of the cheese helping to form the rind. It simultaneously melts in your mouth and hits you with a tang of flavor.

Manchego might well be the official cheese of Spain and certainly its most famous. To be Manchego, it must be made with 100% Manchega sheep milk, a breed of hardy sheep that hang out in the arid, rocky region of La Mancha, Spain.  It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.  The younger, smoother versions were what we were served often in Spain while the more aged versions (1+ year) develop a texture that is easily grated like you might a Parmesan or Romano. It seems to be paired most often with Spanish Rioja or Tempranillo red wines. For the Cheese-Off, I picked up a 6 month aged El Trigal Manchego (Toledo, Spain).

Westminster’s Vintage English Cheddar Cheese (aged over 15 months) has a strong, sharp, savory cheddar flavor that remains smooth, but a bit crumbly from the salt crystals that form in the cheese during the aging.  As a sharp cheddar fan, I found this cheese growing on me quickly, particularly once I hit on some good pairing.

Now for the beer.  Remember, I picked only from what was already in the beer fridge. I tried to mix up the styles, but realized (to my feigned horror) I had no stouts (of the non-imperial variety), pale ales or pilsners.  So here’s what I picked:  Deschutes Inversion IPA, Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock, Dick’s Working Man Brown Ale, Bridgeport Cafe Negro, and Sierra Nevada Ovila Dubbel.

I had no hope the Bridgeport Cafe Negro (5.5% abv, 30 ibus) would work and considered it a kind of control sample.  It’s a lighter bodied, quite good, coffee infused porter with coffee, roasted malt and charcoal flavors.  I enjoyed it throughout the winter, but wasn’t expecting much with these cheeses.  I was right, so let’s get it out of the way.  The coffee and sharp hop flavors clashed particularly heavy with the Humboldt Fog and didn’t do much for the other two either.  Leave the coffee porters to ice cream and desert.  (Hmm . . . maybe a smoked gouda?) 

Dick’s Working Man’s Brown Ale (5.5% abv) and the Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock (7% abv, 23 ibus) ended up having similar flavor profiles with strong, smooth caramel malts.  The Bock has a touch of grain flavor and the Brown Ale has a bit of the classic biscuit and nut flavors common to the style.  Yet, despite some similarities they interacted differently with the cheeses. The sweetness of the Blonde Bock tended to balance out the pungency of the Humboldt Fog, pairing and complementing well without wiping out the flavor.  The slight salt flavors in Humboldt Fog also interacted well with the sweetness.  Given the high level of caramel malts in the Brown, I figured the tang and sweetness would play off each other like the Bock, but there’s something in the Dicks that just doesn’t work with it.  Conversely, the Bock paired fine with the nuttiness of the Manchego, but merely managed to stay out of the way of the flavor without playing off it.  The Brown Ale fared quite better, perhaps merging the biscuit/nut flavor of the ale with the nuttiness of the cheese.  Both paired very nicely with the cheddar, with the sweetness of the beer playing nicely with the tangy sharpness of the cheese. Maybe those yin/yang theorists are on to something.

Deschutes’ Inversion IPA (6.8% abv, 80 ibus) has become a frequent staple in the beer fridge thanks to its full, citrus/pine hop flavors and moderate hop bitterness that doesn’t push the envelope in any direction, but always satisfies in a comfortable, easy going manner. It was by far the hoppiest beer of the bunch and I probably should have picked out a more mid-level pale ale to broaden the hop comparisons. Inversion’s strong citrus/pine wiped out most of the flavors in the cheeses, even the pronounced tang of the Humboldt Fog.  There was no symbiosis or complimentary interactions. While it contrasted poorly with the Humboldt Fog, it did tend to pick out some of the sharp, savory flavors of the cheddar. After a few more bites of the cheddar, I started to think the flavors might be blending, but the bitterness stood out as being too much to let it all work.

In the 30 seconds it took to make my head swim while googling “beer and cheese pairing” for inspiration, I did notice Belgian style ales were frequently mentioned.  Given the infancy of my Belgian ale exploration, I had exactly one in the beer fridge:  Sierra Nevada Oliva Dubbel.  Cool. Its good to have an excuse to pull out a quality brew.

Sierra Nevada Ovila Dubbel (7.5% abv)  is a warm, rich abbey style ale with strong caramel malt flavors complimented by an earthy spice of the Belgian ale yeast. The caramel malt and light spice blended extremely well with the tang of the Humboldt Fog.  It slightly muted the tang in the cheese, but complimented it in a way making me quickly reach for seconds. It’s a pairing I’d readily do again and by far the best pairing with the Fog. As for the Manchego, it paired fine, but there was no wow factor like with the Fog. It certainly doesn’t get in the way and the sweetness interacts fine with the nutty flavor without clashing. The sharp, savory flavors of the Cheddar provided a very similar taste experience to the Fog.  It had a way of bringing out the earthiness in the beer in a wonderful blend of flavors.  I enjoyed it so much, I cut off another chunk of cheddar to keep going.  The tang of the cheddar was never diminished by the Dubbel, and the two worked together very nicely.

This Session topic was certainly a challenge, but enjoyable, and a great introduction to the collective blogging project.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that a sweeter, caramel malt flavor tends to blend better with savory and tangy cheeses.  My prior experiment in pairing beer and spicy baby-back ribs served me well in that regard.  I was surprised at just how well the Belgian yeast flavor complimented, enhanced and fortified the flavors in the cheese, creating a real wow factor.  I also noticed that the tasting order often mattered significantly. For instance, the richness of Dick’s Working Man’s Brown Ale tended to overpower the Manchego when sipped after the cheese.  Reverse the order, however and the pairing was a rich combination of all flavors.  

Cheers to a fun experiment and The Session, a/k/a Beer Blogging Friday.