Beer Meets Cheese
local chef Nathan Berg pairs his favorite regional delights
Economically speaking, beer and cheese might not be Wisconsin’s biggest exports, but they – and the culture surrounding them – certainly transmit the strongest vibes kicked out beyond our border (a border that I’ve heard referred to my entire life as “The Cheddar Curtain”). We have a long history of pairing cheese and beer in our state. In fact, with both products so intertwined in our state’s vernacular, the combination of the two is often unintentional. However, the Flavor Revolution that has swept through the United States over the past 15 or so years has introduced a whole new slew of remarkable cheeses and beers. And, wouldn’t you know, a ton of them call Wisconsin is home! It didn’t take long for us to recognize how these high-quality cheeses go really well with these craft beers. Yes, beer and cheese pairings are “in,” proving that we Wisconsinites have been hip for centuries.
But before we begin our exercise in tasty team building, know that the most basic of all rules applies to the successful pairing of great beers and cheeses: if you have great beer and a great cheese, then you have already achieved success. There’re very few situations where a beer and cheese pairing will deter from the flavor of the other. However, when the right cheese finds the right beer ... you can achieve a taste experience that’s almost indescribably beautiful. And so here’s a few examples of those kinds of beer/cheese friendships one can seek out, utilizing the amazing products created by artisans right here in our neck of the woods.
BEER: Lazy Monk’s Bohemian Pilsner is what pilsners are supposed to taste like! The beer is light and crisp, but with a soft maltiness, a smidge of acidity and the beautiful complexity of traditional Czech yeast strains. (Eau Claire)
CHEESE: Saxon Creamery Green Fields is an earthy, washed-rind cheese made with raw cow’s milk. Flavors are subtle but outstanding. Nutty and buttery, with the age and rind wash giving it enough complexity to impress. (Cleveland, Wis.)
Its not too hard to see why these two make such good friends. Both are on the lighter side of their respective crafts, but both utilize some old-world techniques that give them far more flavor and character than their mass-produced brethren. Serve this combo to anyone you know that hasn’t yet gotten aboard the craft beer or artisanal cheese bandwagons. This will turn them from the dark side.
BEER: Central Waters Hop Rise Session Ale is a brand-new beer from the masters in the middle of the state. It’s geared to the growing number of “hop heads” out there, with heavy doses of piney and citrusy hops, but made into a lighter, more drinkable style that’s far more approachable than all the Double IPA’s on the market. (Amherst)
CHEESE: Hook’s 10-yr Aged Cheddar actually ages for 10 years! In fact, the Hook’s have older cheddars on the market, but there’s just something that’s practically perfect about their 10-year. It’s got loads of salty tanginess and tastes as if the very essence of Wisconsin cheddar was concentrated and pressed into these crumbly, orange blocks. (Mineral Point)
These two are both just unbalanced enough to make it work! The beer is obviously tipped towards the bitter, piney hops, while the cheese is heavy with a superb tanginess. Together, their imbalances match wonderfully, with the hops being able to cut through the creaminess of the cheese and play well with the bold, salty flavors within.
BEER: Dave’s BrewFarm Roggen Lager – named for the German word for “rye” – is a lighter-bodied lager made with a significant amount of rye, which gives beer an incredible, dry spiciness. This one is hit with a triple-bill of hop varieties, though none come on strong enough to make their presence uncomfortable. Like all of Dave’s beers, there’s a level of complexity and balance here that will knock your socks off. Coming to a craft beer bar near you soon! Don’t want to wait? Then go get to the BrewFarm for their next taproom hours. (Wilson)
CHEESE: Bleu Mont Dairy’s Alpine Renegade is made by Willi Lehner, who is perhaps the best cheesemaker we’ve got here in the United States. And this cheese can easily show you why. It’s Willi’s twist on the various cheeses he learned to make while training in the Swiss Alps. It’s a washed-rind, raw cow’s milk cheese that takes about a year to complete. When ready, this cheese is funky and packed with notes of fruit, with more going on in the finish than an entire book could summarize. (Blue Mounds)
Both Dave and Willi are truly rock-star, mad scientist geniuses in their respective fields and they have more than a little bit in common. Flavor-wise, they both innovate by creating their own originals instead of merely focusing on doing their takes on already-popular styles. Additionally, both can achieve remarkable level of complexity and balance in their products that are downright stunning to experience. In this particular case, the layers of fruitiness in the cheese match the spicy, rye-bread qualities of the beer and, with the help of their well-integrated background flavors, these two play a duet that lasts well past a second encore.
BEER: Valkyrie’s War Hammer Porter is billed as a “Coffee, Oatmeal, Milk Porter” but the most prominent flavor is dark chocolate. Yet, with all that dark, toasty malt going on, this is a pretty low-ABV, light-bodied beer. One of the most interesting and drinkable porters you’ll ever meet! (Dallas, Wis.)
CHEESE: Marieke’s Aged Gouda is the flagship cheese for one of the very best Gouda producers outside of The Netherlands. This cheese is nutty and deep-flavored, with a prominent but pleasant saltiness. It is sold at different ages and I recommend trying it in all of its stages to see how much it changes in relatively short periods of time. But for the purposes of this pairing, try to get the 9-12 month-aged. (Thorp)
There’s both contrast and congruence to be found between these two. The nuttiness in the cheese plays off the chocolate notes in the beer to create a dessert-like joy, while the deep, dark flavors and medium body of both make for a sturdy partnership.
BEER: Lucette’s Hips Don’t Lie is a new beer from this Menomonie brewery that combines the classic style of a German wheat beer with rose hips and honey. The result is a crisp ale with just a hint of floral sweetness and a rich, bread-like aftertaste. (Menomonie)
CHEESE: Hidden Springs Creamery’s Bad Axe is pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, aged 70 days, then dipped into black wax to lock in the remaining moisture. Bad Axe is extremely fresh-tasting, creamy and smooth, with a long-lasting tanginess on the finish. (Westby)
The “fresh-tasting” element of the cheese brings a floral element aboard, which pairs well with both the floral esters of the weissbier yeast and the actual flower parts (rose hips) tossed into the kettle. But it’s that bread-like finish of the brew, along with the fresh tangy aftertaste of the cheese that really makes these two a match made in heaven.
BEER: Rush River’s Nevermore Chocolate Oatmeal Stout is only available when it’s cold, and this beer is heavy on the chocolate and roasted malts, while a little bit lighter in body than most big time stouts. The result is a brew that’s filled with plenty of the roasty, chocolate flavors you’d expect from a chocolate stout, only with a slightly subdued body that doesn’t get as thick and syrupy as so many stouts can. (River Falls)
CHEESE: Castle Rock’s Smoked Blue Cheese is blue lover’s blue cheese. It is not subtle with its tanginess, nor its assertive blue “punch.” Additionally, this is cold-smoked with hickory in the cheese caves to give it a whole new dimension that marries well with the traditional blue acidity!
The bitter flavors of the chocolate and other dark malts going on in this beer make for an interesting contrast to the general tanginess, borderline-sour flavors of the blue. Yet the roasty malts match almost seamlessly with hickory smoke, making for a flavor-pairing that you won’t soon forget. But, if you don’t want to wait for winter to try this one, Rush River’s Lost Arrow Porter also makes a fine friend for the particular cheese.
Words of Advice: Ethereal beer and cheese pairings generally require your full attention to appreciate. You need to be able to comfortably taste, concentrate, and repeat. And so, while the two will still go well together, you’ll probably have a hard time recognizing one of these great pairings when you’re tailgating or hanging out at the family reunion. You’ll enjoy them much more if you either camp out with a tulip glass and cutting board somewhere by yourself, or with a small group of friends who are looking for the same experience. Additionally, it’s probably necessary to point out that Americans, as a whole, typically consume their cheeses and beers far too cold. Lower temperatures mask the true flavors of beer and cheese. The products listed here are hand-crafted by our amazing neighbors – neighbors who know how to care for a product so it comes to you loaded with intricate flavors and textures. So please, do them (and yourself) a favor – let both your beer and cheese sit at room temperature for a good half-hour before consuming them. It will really help you to notice the subtle nuances and greatly increase the experience.
About the Chef: Chef Nathan Berg was the owner of Native Bay (Chippewa Falls), has worked at Harvest (Madison), and was the chef at The Creamery and Canoe Bay. Before that, he was the Chef Intern at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy. He served as the Chef Ambassador for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (promoting Wisconsin artisanal cheeses). Berg has also apprenticed with brewer David Anderson (Dave’s BrewFarm) for a year and a half.