Book Review & Interview | Cheese & Beer
It may come as a surprise to many people that beer pairs beautifully with cheese. Wine has long held a stranglehold on cheese pairing, and while excellent wine and cheese combinations abound, cheese might actually find its ideal companion in the nectar of malt and hops rather than grapes. Janet Fletcher has written a book to help beer lovers get the most of this match made in heaven.
“Cheese & Beer” by Janet Fletcher (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2013)
Fletcher has written more than two dozen books, most of them unpacking the secrets of great cheese and great wine. However, in “Cheese & Beer,” she brings us the definitive book on pairing our favorite dairy product with Ales and Lagers. The winner of three James Beard awards for her food journalism, Fletcher brings her easy-to-understand style and extensive knowledge to this direct and to-the-point book.
After a brief introduction explaining the concept of pairing cheese with beer and explaining how to properly store and serve both, she jumps right into the recommended pairings. The book is organized by beer style (or style group), and for each beer style, she explains its general cheese pairing guidelines and then recommends and describes several specific artisan cheeses to try out. In all, she covers two dozen style groups; in the back of the book, she provides a quick reference chart for her recommended pairings. She also provides separate indexes for the hundreds of individual beers and cheeses she references throughout the book.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Fletcher about “Cheese & Beer,” her current favorite pairings, and the importance of forming a relationship with a good cheesemonger.
PD: Reading through your biography it’s clear that cheese—and other aspects of food and drink that tie in with it—is a huge part of your life. How did you discover cheese and how did it become such a passion in your life and career?
JF: I did not grow up with good cheese. I discovered it when I was a college sophomore studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France. I was captivated by the cheeses in the local farmers market and smitten with the ritual of the cheese course in homes and the cheese cart in restaurants. All so new to me. When I married (a winemaker), we began having cheese at the end of our meals as well—often just a single piece of cheese, but an excuse to sit at the table a while longer and share another glass of wine. Almost 20 years ago, I noticed a trend in restaurants serving more cheese and wrote a book, “The Cheese Course,” based on some of the ideas I was seeing in restaurants. That led to a long-running cheese column in The San Francisco Chronicle, two more books on cheese (“Cheese & Wine” and “Cheese & Beer”) and now my blog “Planet Cheese.” It’s a fascinating topic that merges history, culture, place, people, science. Always something new to learn.
For the broader population, wine is the drink that comes to mind when they think of cheese pairing. When I tell people I’ll be leading a beer and cheese pairing somewhere, I often get surprised responses. What is your elevator pitch for why beer and cheese are such a fantastic combination?
Beer and cheese are easier to match than wine and cheese. I find that the malty flavors present in most beers to varying degrees harmonize with the butter/nutty/caramel aromas in many kinds of cheese. And hoppy beers pair well with tart cheeses, like fresh chevre and tangy Cheddars. Beer’s carbonation also helps make the marriage work because it scrubs the palate between bites.
Can you give us a couple of sure-fire beer and cheese pairings that would convince any skeptic of the potential magic of putting these artisanal products together?
I love alpine cheeses, like an aged Comté, with deeply malty beers like Doppelbocks.
Another reliable pairing is fruity Saisons with mushroomy Brie- and Camembert-type cheeses.
Most of the readers for this interview are far more familiar with good beer than they are with good cheese. Where’s a good place for people to start if they want to understand more about the world of cheese?
A great cheesemonger can guide you in your cheese education. Find the best cheese counter in your community and patronize it. Don’t shop where there is no service. You want to engage with somebody knowledgeable. Ask what they’re loving in the cheese case at that moment and why. Then take home a piece. Make notes. Get a book or two. You learn about cheese the same way you learn about beer or wine—by paying attention to what you are tasting.
“Cheese & Beer ” was published in 2013, just before two current fads—fruit beers and hazy New England-style IPAs with low bitterness—became a big deal. What kind of cheeses would make sense with these beers that are currently en vogue?
I haven’t done much focused tasting with these styles but my instinct is that triple-cream cheeses like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam or Brillat-Savarin would work with fruit beers, as would some bloomy-rind cheeses. I think of how harmonious Normandy cider is with Normandy Camembert, so I’m inclined to think Camembert-type cheeses would work with many fruit beers. I’m really not sure about the hazy IPAs—I don’t have much experience with them. Gotta get back to you on that!
If a reader wants to host a beer and cheese pairing in their home, what are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind to make the evening a success, and what would you recommend as a good basic variety of beers and cheeses for them to serve?
Well, excuse the self-promotion, but I think my book “Cheese & Beer” would be a good guide. Choose a half-dozen beer styles—some malt forward, some hops forward, some yeast driven—and then buy six or eight cheeses in a range of styles (fresh, aged, different milk types, different rind types, a blue). You might do a Pilsner, an Amber Ale, an IPA, a Saison, a Belgian Tripel, a Sour and a Barleywine. Serve a fresh, unripened cheese, a bloomy rind, a washed rind, an alpine cheese, a Cheddar, a Gouda, a blue. Then have at it!
Finally, what beers and cheeses have you most enjoyed recently?
Boulevard Tank 7 with Jasper Hill Farm Moses Sleeper. Doesn’t get much better than that.