SweetWater 420 Fest | Mouthwatering Beer and Cheese Pairings
The 3-day long SweetWater 420 Festival in Atlanta has become a celebration of music, Mother Earth and Georgia’s largest brewery.
Tucked in between the two larger music stages, you’ll find the SweetWater Experience tent, where beer education — and special one-offs that you often won’t taste anywhere else – live. Home brew sessions, visits from hop farmers, and Q&As with SweetWater Co-Founder and Chairman Freddy Bensch are featured, but the most popular event each year is the beer and cheese pairing.
This year’s pairing team was SweetWater brewer Sarah Green and Michael Landis, the Director of Education for Institut du Fromage.
The idea behind beer and cheese pairings — and beer and food pairings, for that matter — is to find flavors that compliment each other, creating flavors that, when combined, are more exquisite than each of the components on their own. While pairings are “a lot of trial and error,” Sarah and Michael will tell you, there are some overarching ideas that make the process easier on beginners.
“You want to match the intensity of the beer, and the alcohol as well,” Sarah explained. “If the beer is a big, bold, strong beer, you’re going to want a big, bold, strong cheese.”
What if you’re not a “big bold” cheese person? Both Sarah and Michael agree goat cheese can be a good place to start your own beer pairing adventure.
“I would say a farmhouse, or a saison farmhouse with a farmhouse goat cheese. Something very simple and basic like that makes sense,” Sarah said. “It’s very traditional as well. If you think about it a farmer who has goats to make the cheese could also a brewer.”
“I’d recommend a fresh goat cheese, which pairs with just about anything,” Michael said. “They could never go wrong. They could pick up a porter, an oatmeal stout, a red ale or an IPA — it doesn’t matter.”
Michael also suggested lagers and pilsners, since both have a bread-like flavor to them. “It’s going to be like cheese on crackers,” he said.
The theme for the 2016 SweetWater beer and cheese pairing was additives, so each cheese had at least one, if not a few special components. Each cheese was paired with one of the beers found inside the Experience tent, which also are one-offs or twists on the Atlanta brewery’s traditional recipes.
Marieke Gouda Foenegreek + SweetWater 18th Anniversary
Michael and Sarah say the first pairing was the toughest because the Foenegreek is a big cheese with a lot of maple and carmel flavors.
“There was so much sweetness with the maple of the cheese, it was challenging to take something that had any amount of acidity and bitterness and it would just amplify that,” Michael said. “We really needed something that could stand up and work together.”
They found the right beer in the SweetWater 18th Anniversary beer, which is a Belgian-style tripel. Sarah said the two worked because the 18th Anniversary has “nice fruity esters in it.” She said a little bit of spice from the Belgian quality of the beer, along with the effervescent carbonation working against the fats in the cheese helped them blend together nicely.
Sartori Rosemary & Olive Oil Asiago + SweetWater I am Gruit
A Gruit beer doesn’t traditionally use hops. SweetWater’s version was made with 420 wort taken off the tank before it was dry hopped, then put in a cask with lavender and lemongrass.
“This pairing is awesome,” Sarah said. “The beer itself with lavender is delicate, light, with beautiful flavor and the cheese is a rosemary asiago, so rosemary pairs so well with the lavender.”
Beecher’s Marco Polo + SweetWater Pulled Porter
This is the beer and cheese pairing that inspired the rest. The Pulled Porter is a Dank Tank release collaboration with Atlanta’s Fox Bros. BBQ. The restaurant took two row malt from the brewery and smoked it on cherrywood. SweetWater took that smoked malt and used it in the beer to create the Pulled Porter, which, as you’d guess, has a little BBQ sweetness and a bit of that smoke (particularly on the nose).
The Marco Polo is an aged, peppercorn-infused cheddar that Michael said has flavors of “bacon, pepper and molasses,” and some buttery characteristics up front that match well with the smoke from the Pulled Porter.
Beehive Creamery’s Big John’s Cajun + SweetWater Blackberry BSP Quad
The two say this was the second-hardest cheese to pair, but they loved the flavors they found when it came together. Big John’s Cajun is a 6-month aged cheddar with honey and cajun rub. Michael says the rub “permeates all the way through the cheese, but right at the end, you get a sweet spice.”
The hurdle of pairing the cheese was to find a beer that would cut the heat, so they wanted something with some sugar and sweetness.
“This was really nice because the blackberries kinda mellow out the quad, which is a really dark, raisiny, dark fruit flavors and can be a really thick beer,” Sarah said. “But with the blackberry addition it made the beer a little thinner in body and a little easier to drink and it meshes very well.”
Cheese can pull flavors you’ve never noticed out of even your favorite beer. If you pick up some cheeses and try a pairing at home, Sarah says you shouldn’t get discouraged if a few don’t match as well as you’d hoped. What really matters, in the end, is, “Good food, good beer, good conversation, good company — it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s all in the environment aspect of it.”
Cheers to beer and cheese!