Today, you can find entire aisles of grocery stores filled with different beers. The selection of beers often far exceeds the selection of cheeses. America’s taste for beer has gradually shifted toward the fuller-bodied ales and away from the lighter lagers. Our per capita consumption of “light” lagers still far exceeds that of the bigger ales, yet the trend toward the heavier direction is apparent. One might think that the lighter-flavored lagers do not measure up to the bigger ales on the “artisanal” scale, what with the way that the larger producers appear to be directing their creative energies into those vats. This has been the focus of most of the newer microbreweries as well. These bigger-flavored beers remain a niche part of the beer market yet that niche is growing.
There could be something to be said for getting flavor for your beer dollar. Possibly. It could partly be the desire to get more alcohol for that dollar, as many of these bigger beers have elevated alcohol contents. These levels often approach the levels found in table wines. It bears mentioning that those fuller flavors can hide those higher alcohol levels, perhaps unrecognizable until you have had that “one-for-the-road.”
Many of these new craft beers are flavored with other ingredients besides grains and hops. The added flavorings can make for delicious brews but they can also overwhelm meek cheese partners. Flavored beers and heftier porters and stouts can dominate cheeses. They tolerate few insipid cheeses. On the other hand, strong cheeses can be beautifully quenched with the lighter beers.
Those perceived imbalances that occur between stronger-flavored beers and lighter-flavored cheeses may be less problematic because of some advantages that beers enjoy. The more obvious advantage is the effervescence. This helps to lift up the acids and fats in cheese so they do not weigh down on the palate. The cheeses and beers can swirl around in the mouth and leave graceful finishes. Most beers have a lower alcohol level than most wines. This is desirable partly because the salts in cheese can make you thirsty. It is more effective (and advisable from a health perspective) to quaff your thirst with a little less alcohol.
A less obvious advantage that beer enjoys with cheeses is the pH levels in beers more closely approximate those of most cheeses. The acids in beers help to metabolize the fats and proteins in cheeses. The salt and sweet on the palate is a balancing relationship, while the pH relationship is one of harmony. The more acid cheeses generally pair better with the more acid beverages. Cheese is (or should be) a little acid and beer is a little acid too. This balance of acids helps make the pairing of cheese and beer more pleasing.
This helps explain why some of the bolder cheeses can pair fairly well with some of the lightest of cheeses; the acids are balanced. The more assertively flavored beers can find those balances and harmonies with cheeses, so long as their flavors are complementary. For example, a chocolate-flavored ale may find a successful mate in a cow milk blue cheese because the aromatics often blend well together, so long as there is that balance of salt (recognizable in most blues) and sweet (indicated by the chocolate in the beer) and harmony of acid levels.
Added to the aesthetic relationships of beer and cheese pairing, the wholesome nutritive qualities of fine cheese coupled with those qualities provided by beers (gentle acids, generally low alcohol contents, and B vitamins) add another advantage to exploring the wide world of beer and cheese partnerships. Plus, in many more cases than not, they just taste good together.
Max McCalman of Artisanal Premium Cheese