By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
When looking back into the history of beer and brewing, one thing that you notice almost immediately is the strong monastic connection. For centuries, monks in Western Europe were famous for their skill as brewers, thanks to the rule of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, which called for monks to live by the fruits of their own labor.
Even today, in our essentially secularized world, the beers produced by the Trappist monks of Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria are still considered some of the finest beers in existence.
However, there is another type of food besides beer that also has a long monastic tradition — cheese. Some of the same monasteries that are famous for their beers are also celebrated for the excellent artisanal cheeses they produce. Just as craft beer, brewed in small batches using traditional ingredients and methods, has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years at the expense of the insipid macrobrews, so, too, has artisanal cheese made a comeback, as consumers looked for some relief from the bland, pasteurized, mass-market brands of cheese flooding our supermarkets.
Given the fact that their production has been intertwined throughout so much of history, it should come as no surprise that artisanal cheese and craft beer taste wonderful together. Yes, I know that, traditionally, it is wine, rather than beer, paired with cheese, but in actual fact beer typically pairs better with cheese than wine for several reasons.
All cheeses have fat and salt, while all beers have alcohol and carbonation. The fat in cheese coats the mouth, giving the perception of richness, while the salt adds to that perception and heightens flavor. The alcohol in beer cuts through that fat, while the lively carbonation cleanses the palate, contrasting nicely with the perceived richness. Since almost all wines lack carbonation, they lack beer’s ability to cleanse the palate and ready it for further tasting.
The other advantage beer has over wine is the sheer number of beer styles and differences between them, which are much greater than the spectrum available in the world of wine. Beer’s range from a thick, dark imperial stout to a light, hoppy pilsner is light years greater than anything available to a sommelier, so it comes as no surprise that, with so many more options, finding the “perfect” match for a particular cheese is that much easier.
The world of artisanal cheeses is every bit as varied and complex as that of craft beers, and I am by no means claiming to be an expert. One book that has helped me greatly improve my knowledge and understanding of this fascinating subject is “Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager” by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. It’s well written and profusely illustrated with color photos, making it a great starting point for boosting your cheese expertise, should you feel the need to do so.
Let’s look at a specific example of a beer-cheese pairing. Ever since my days of living in London, I’ve been hooked on the mellow and buttery flavors of truly fine Stilton cheese, like one from Colston-Basset Dairy in Nottinghamshire.
Take that cheese and pair it with a rich barley wine, such as Buffalo Head from Kassik’s Brewery or Arctic Devil from Midnight Sun. The flavors of the powerful barley wine meet those from the Stilton head on, and the beer’s toastiness and dried-fruit aromas envelop this buttery blue cheese, moving beyond the merely delicious into the sublime.
This is only one example, albeit an exceptional one, of many possible pairings. But there was a problem for those wanting to learning more about pairing cheese and beer — and who of us wouldn’t? Until recently there weren’t any books focused exclusively on that. Fortunately, now there is one, “Cheese and Beer” by Janet Fletcher. It’s nicely illustrated and is organized to provide suggestions of cheeses to pair with specific beer styles, as well as general pairing principles. If you like craft beer and artisanal cheese, I’d strongly suggest you pick up a copy.
Finally, don’t forget that the third annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival will take place Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Soldotna Sports Center from 5 to 10 p.m. Admission tickets are $20 per person and are on sale at Kassik’s Brewery, Kenai River Brewing, St. Elias Brewing and Seward Brewing Company. Last year’s festival was a great time, sold out completely, and raised more than $17,000 for local charities.
This year’s event will be even bigger, with a total of 16 different breweries from around the state plus beers from around the U.S. and imports from around the world. So be sure to get your tickets for this year’s event early so you can enjoy the live music, great beer and delicious food — perhaps even some cheese.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.