What goes better with cheese than beer? Pretty much nothing. We’ve got beer and cheese pairings, plus beer cheese fondue and other beer-cheese recipes.
It’s not a state holiday in Wisconsin, but it probably should be.
National Beer Day is April 7, the anniversary of the Cullen-Harrison Act being enacted in 1933. It wasn’t the end of Prohibition, but it was definitely the beginning of the end. The Cullen-Harrison Act specifically legalized the sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% or less by weight, which was deemed too low to be intoxicating. President Franklin D. Roosevelt quipped upon signing the legislation, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
When FDR spoke, people listened. Prohibition would officially end December 5 that year, and that’s another special day entirely. Come to think of it, there are two more days devoted just to beer: National Beer Lover’s Day is September 7, while National American Beer Day is October 27.
Skeptics will say those special days are just excuses to drink beer, but here in Wisconsin, no excuse is needed. Anyone who’s watched a Packer game on television knows “Cheeseheads” are known for drinking beer but, truth be told, the Badger State is not even in the top 5 for beer consumption per capita. (It’s number 6.) The top 5 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, South Dakota, and Vermont. Something about living up north, apparently. Anyway, one thing Wisconsin does better than any other state is make cheese. And there’s nothing better to wash that cheese down with than beer.
Wait, what? Surely wine is the classic accompaniment to cheese. Yes, of course wine and cheese are fabulous together…but, as many connoisseurs will tell you, beer is better. And it’s kind of scientific, at that. One reason is that, while wine is made from grapes, beer is made with cereal grasses…the very food that is used by cows to create milk. (Maybe that explains the number of classic beer-cheese recipes.) Another is that beer’s carbonation cuts through the creamy fattiness of cheese. So does wine’s astringency, but beer’s “scrubbing bubbles” are more of a palate cleanser. Also, in many cases there are more beer options for pairing with any given cheese.
Beer and Cheese Pairings
So what cheese pairs well with beer? A better question is, what cheese doesn’t? Still, some cheeses go better with certain beers—and vice versa—than others. When pairing cheese and beer, the same factors that apply to pairing cheese and wine still hold true:
A strong cheese demands a strong beer. A lightly flavored lager will be beaten into submission by a well-aged Cheddar, just as a super-hoppy IPA will completely drown a mild Brick. If you’re pouring a pale, crisp Pilsner, pair it with a mellow Muenster or Butterkäse. Quaffing a heavy, toasted stout? Here’s where that sharp Wisconsin Cheddar is at home…and nothing loves stout like a big, bold Blue. Those two cheeses also stand strong with that hopped-up IPA.
Complement or Contrast
As with wine pairing, match notes in the beer that complement or contrast with flavor and texture notes in the cheese. A nutty Swiss or Gouda, for example, is a perfect match for the nutty notes in a brown ale. For a contrast, a super-creamy Brie is a nice counterpoint to an acidic cider or fruit beer, or a pungent pale ale.
Now, unless you know your beers and cheeses really well, the various intensities and complementary/contrasting notes can be a little hard to keep track of. Never fear; we’ve already identified the basic types of cheese (by texture) and the beers that go well with them.
Soft-ripened spreadable cheeses with bloomy rinds, like Brie or Camembert, pair well with ciders, fruit beers and pale ales. A fresh, creamy chèvre, with the unique flavor of goat’s milk, is perfect with a Belgian-style wheat (such as Blue Moon) brewed with citrus and coriander.
Mild, delicate cheeses like Havarti, Muenster and Butterkäse, are best with lower-hopped beers like pilsner, amber ale, saison or stout. This also goes for pasta filata (stretched-curd) cheeses like mozzarella or provolone, which especially like Belgian and Bavarian wheat beers.
Firm, savory favorites like sharp Cheddar and Swiss, as well as harder, granular cheeses like Parmesan or Asiago, have been aged longer and have developed stronger flavors across the nutty or sharp spectrum (sometimes both). They go hand in hand with hoppier or more robust beers like bitter and pale ales (including IPAs), double bocks, strong ales (like Scotch ale) and any Belgian ale.
Funky, pungent blue cheeses demand strong-flavored beers like porters and stouts, and heavy dark beers like barley wines and Imperial stouts.
Now that we’ve identified which beers go with our favorite cheeses, let’s look at some beer-cheese recipes to provide sustenance for your beer tasting.
Beer Cheese Fondue
Cheese fondue is always a fine choice for informal dining. It’s one of the great winter comfort foods, and makes a fun feast for a crowd or an intimate meal for two. While most cheese fondue is made with white wine, there’s absolutely no reason not to make cheese fondue with beer.
Beer cheese fondue practically needs no recipe; all you need is shredded cheese—preferably a mixture of or at least including some Swiss alpine-style cheeses—some beer (1 cup per pound of cheese) and a little cornstarch. Some people like to add a little stone-ground mustard.
Toss the shredded cheese with a tablespoon of cornstarch to help thicken the sauce, then add it to a pot with the beer (and any mustard of flavoring you’re using) and bring it to a simmer over low heat, stirring frequently. Rub the inside of your fondue pot with a cut clove of garlic, add your hot cheese sauce, and keep it warm for dipping pretzels, mini pickles (cornichons), sliced sausages, crusty French bread cubes, and even roasted Brussels sprouts.
You can even save work by ordering pre-shredded fondue cheese blend with cornstarch already added. Just substitute beer for the wine in the recipe on the package. (We used Spotted Cow from New Glarus, Wisconsin, but if you’re out of state you can use any farmhouse-style ale or flavorful lager.)
Other Beer-Cheese Recipes
The classic beer-cheese recipe, of course, is Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup, which is right in season from September through April, or any evening that could come with a bit of a chill (in Wisconsin, that’s practically any evening). Another popular beer-cheese recipe that’s good all year long is Beer Cheese Dip.
How to make beer cheese dip: Well, that depends on whether you want it hot or cold. There are versions of both. The hot versions, like this one from Betty Crocker, aren’t too different from a beer cheese fondue, but often have some extra fat. If you want something that’s cooler and will be more stable (i.e. won’t break like melted cheese likes to do), Hidden Valley has a simple, and excellent, recipe.
You don’t need a special day to enjoy beer…especially when you have cheese around. In Wisconsin, that’s just how we celebrate life.