Crafty Combo

Artisanal beer makes a better match with cheese than many wines.

September 21, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,sun reporter

A prize-winning soft chevre from Quebec.

A buttery California brie.

A semi-firm, washed-rind cheese and a potent blue, both from Wisconsin.

Like fragrant, edible jewels, the cheeses nestle on a rectangular ceramic platter. Four different bottles of craft beer are arranged behind them.

The delectable still life has been assembled by Susan Scovell, cheesemonger at the Wine Source in Hampden, as an introduction to the ambrosial pleasures of pairing cheese and beer.

The two farmhouse products that have long been a part of traditional meals in Europe, including the venerable ploughman's lunch, are being reinvented with inspired finesse. The resulting proliferation of artisanal cheeses and craft beers has brought forth boundless possibilities for pairings in restaurants, gourmet shops, homes and even wine bars.

Scovell initiates a novice with a modest selection so as not to overwhelm the palate. "Think in terms of contrast or similarities when you pair cheese and beer," she says.

Scovell begins with Biquet, a soft goat's milk cheese made by Fromagerie Tournevent in Canada. She smears a bit on a cracker, takes a bite and lets it rest in her mouth with a sip of Blue Moon's Belgian White, a tangy ale made with wheat.

"It lifts a little bit in the mouth - nice," Scovell says.

The Biquet is a young cheese, high in acidity, she says. "Pair it with something fresher, a little higher in acid." Also, "The cheese tends to be dense. A wheat beer will cut through that."

The combination does a tingly tango on the tongue that begs the question: Why should wine grab all the glory, particularly when both traditional and innova- tive beers can frequently be a better mate for cheese?

"Wine struggles with cheese," says Tom Cizauskas, a sales representative for Clipper City Brewing Co. and a veteran of many cheese and beer tastings. The butterfat in cheese "often overwhelms the flavor of wine. And the acidity of wine seems to create an off-putting metallic character in the presence of cheese," he says.

Beer and cheese "don't joust with each other in the mouth; they complement each other," Cizauskas says. "The natural sweet graininess of beer brings forward the aromas and flavors of cheese, just as a good hunk of bread does with cheese."

Cheese and beer are natural companions, he adds. "The fermented flavors of cheese -- cream, nut, slight fruit, funk -- all are present to various degrees in beer."

Beer, as well, "has its own built-in palate cleanser," Cizauskas says. "The bubbles, or carbonation, cleanse the palate after each nibble of cheese."

Like others who take pleasure in food and drink, Cizauskas has a strong gustatory memory and can wax poetic about tasting a particularly transcendent match of cheese and beer. "Nelson Carey at the wine bar Grand Cru in the Belvedere Square has hosted formal beer and cheese tastings. He once offered me a slice of Livarot with a rauchbier I was drinking. The pungent slug of the Livarot's aroma chased by its creamy flavor was an inspired mate for the smoky, almost bacony, aroma of the rauchbier and its finishing sweet German malt."

When exploring traditional beer's born-again clout in fine dining circles, all roads lead to Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and champion of a series of tastings that he calls "The Cheese Wars -- Beer vs. Wine With Cheese."

In these tempting tournaments, Oliver and his friend, sommelier Paul Grieco, have paired cheeses with beers and wines and let guests who sample the selections judge the winning matches.

Oliver recounts one such battle in his book, The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer With Real Food (Ecco, 2005, $16.95): "I drew my secret weapon -- Castelain, a French biere de garde, displaying a complex aromatic interplay of damp earth, herbs and aniseed, wrapped around a soft, golden beer with a warm, malty center. Eyebrows were raised. The match was perfect. The wine was vanquished."

Designed to be humorous and fun, the wine against beer smack downs allow "people to learn a lot about flavor and really get into it," Oliver says by phone as he speaks of beer's new gastronomic credentials. "People have expected wine to do everything. [But] often there are a lot of areas of food where wine has considerable difficulty -- for example, with spicy food or various vegetables, and cheese is actually one of those areas."

The first rule of beer-and-cheese pairing is that there are no rules, "only enthusiastic suggestions," Cizauskas says.

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