This past Sunday, October 5th, I was invited by Hal of the excellent LA Beer Hop tour service to come aboard the bus and take the intrepid beer explorers on a tour of not only some of my favorite craft beer spots in Los Angeles, but also into the incredible world of pairing cheese and beer! Under a sweltering sun, the coolest short-bus around embarked from Union Station for stops at Sunset Beer Co., The Surly Goat, and Beer Belly that included some world-class brews and the cheeses to match.
A natural combination
You may think that pairing food and beer is difficult, or that it takes an expert’s guidance to do it right, but I assure you that if you spend some time experimenting, matching food and beer together quickly becomes second nature. And there is no better place to start than by matching cheeses and beers.
Beer and cheese have a natural affinity. The flavors of fine cheese mesh and meld with the flavors of beer so well because the two products are really quite similar. There’s a great quote in Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer that the author attributes to Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver that goes something like, “Cheese is grass processed through a cow and modified by microorganisms. Beer is grass processed through machinery and modified by microorganisms.” It’s this common origin as some of humanity’s first processed foods that make the match of cheese and beer so special and revelatory.
The Beer + Cheese tour aimed to show the curious explorers just how simple it is to match cheeses and beers. We wanted to demonstrate some basic concepts while showcasing some of our favorite brews and cheese and then offer some starting points for further at-home experimentations. The team behind the LA Beer Hop: Hal and Cindy Mooney, met with me a couple of times for the all-important “research” sessions before the tour, and we came up with a killer list of cheeses and tour stops.
Pairing made simple
I, obviously, love to experiment with matching foods and beers, and the cheese plate is a fixture at nearly every party or tasting I host. There’s a secret with matching beers and cheeses: it’s hard to have a terrible match. Beer and cheese go together so well, that there’s really only one important guideline to follow: match intensities.
As with any food and beer pairing, you want the two elements to have similar intensities of flavor. Milder beers like cream ales, pilsners, and biters should be matched with more mild cheeses. Intensely pungent blues and washed-rind or well-aged cheeses require a more assertive brew. Beyond that, pay attention to commonalities in flavors as well as contrasting elements. Brown ales and nutty cheddars are a perfect match. The tang of a fresh goat cheese complements the tartness of a belgian wit splendidly. Stilton and barleywine is perhaps the most iconic beer and cheese pairing.
Planning and research is critical to successful pairings, but due to the nature of the tour we wouldn’t be able to plan exactly which beers were available at each stop. This added bit of complexity when designing the pairings was actually a lot of fun. We were able to play to the room a little and improvise with some pairings. It was a fun challenge that worked out really well.
Here are some of the matches we showcased on the tour.
A virtual Cheese and Beer Tour
After departing Union Station, our first stop was the near-by Sunset Beer Co where a progression of four cheeses, each with a beer, would showcase the spectrum of beer and cheese interactions.
- We began with Moser Charmant – a rich and runny cow’s milk cheese with a delicate mold rind. A little more flavorful than a basic double-creme brie or camembert, the Charmant is still more about its dense and gooey texture than the flavor. For the beer, I started – as I nearly always do when hosting a tasting – with a pilsner. I love the way a light and delicate pils will perk up the palate and awaken the appetite, and when matched with the runny cheese the firm effervescence of the pils provides a wonderful textural contrast in addition to the “scrubbing bubbles” effect that washes the richness from the palate. We poured Noble Ale Works Pistol Whip’d Pils which has an understated tropical earthiness from the New Zealand hops that actually amplified the funky flavors of the cheese.
- Next up was Abbaye de Belloc – a semi-firm French farmhouse sheep’s milk cheese. Intensely grassy with a subtle caramel sweetness and an enticing funk, this Basque-style cheese is one of the more versatile cheeses to serve with beer. It goes with almost everything. We served it with the phenomenal new rye saison from Monkish – Arrivant. The saison has a firm malt background made piquant with a generous helping of rye (if you’ve ever wondered what flavors rye grains lend to a beer, Arrivant is a wonderful demonstration of the spicy complexity that the grain adds) and bottled with the wild yeast brettanomyces.
- The third round ended up being the favorite cheese for many of the attendees – a cave aged gruyere that had an incredible texture filled with those crystalline deposits that cheese lovers rave about. Nutty, grassy, salty, and with a pronounced barnyard funk, the gruyere may have been an even better match for Arrivant than the Basque. We served the IPA from new LA brewery Three Weavers – Expatriate – with the third round, and the beer’s complex (for an IPA) malt character matched the full-flavored cheese while the hop bitterness renewed the palate and compelled another taste.
- For the boldest of the cheeses on offer during the first stop we had Shropshire Blue – a hybrid cow’s milk cheese from England that married the tang and nuttyness of aged cheddar with the funk and texture of a runny blue cheese. Stinky, messy, and ugly, the Shropshire was amazing. We needed a big-gun to stand up to the funk, and while a barleywine would be the textbook brew in this situation, we chose the coffee-tinged Speedway Stout from Alesmith. It’s one of the best big stouts on the planet, and all those chocolate, coffee, roasty, boozy flavors stood up to the stinky, melty funk of the cheddar/blue. I can’t wait to try that cheese on top of a burger with bacon and grilled onions!
After grabbing some bottles for the road (and a can-or-two for the next leg of the bus ride) we headed out to The Surly Goat in West Hollywood for round two. Things would go down a little differently at The Goat – instead of presenting a series of selected pairings we had four cheeses ready to be sampled, and the explorers would get a couple of tasters and they could order anything off The Goat’s taplist while they snacked at their own pace. And we had more to snack on at this stop as friends of the LA Beer Hop M.Greenwood Jams were there with samples of their awesome preserves.
We started the stop off with tasters of Firestone Walker’s take on the Flanders-style brown ale Agrestic for everyone and laid out the next four cheese:
- Cotswold – A double gloucester cheese with the addition of onions and scallions, this is perfect alongside English ales, IPAs (especially simcoe-heavy IPAs because of their inherent onion-like aromas), brown ales, and even dry stouts.
- Hereford hop – Another English cheese, this is a firm cows milk cheese that’s been covered in toasted hops. The core of the wheel is salty and tangy, with a hint of grassiness that becomes more pronounced as you move towards the rind. Cheese near the rind takes on a distinctive hop bitterness, and the rind itself is intensely hop flavored. It’s a cheese that works with IPAs, but also with sweeter, milder styles like a helles lager or cream ale.
- Townsend Off Kilter – A washed rind cheese (read: stinky) that uses Kilt Lifter scotch ale instead of brine for the washings. The results are a full-flavored funky cheese with a semi-firm texture and a flavor like a Guinness and mushroom pie. Break out the barleywines, wee heavies, and strong ales for this redolent wheel.
- Wilde Weide – It’s against my better judgement that I call attention to this cheese as it is my new favorite, and it’s hard enough to find already. A 15-month old gouda from Holland, Wilde Weide (sounds like vil-duh vey-duh) means “wild meadow”, and the cheese is named so because the cows from the small dairy graze on an island-bound wild meadow. The result of the extremely small production farmhouse operation is a complex and beguiling cheese that tastes not unlike fresh-sliced pineapple. It’s a revelation in cheese flavors, and I can’t get enough. Serve it with an intensely tropical IPA to play up the delicate caramel flavors and big pineapple sweetness, or a dry saison for some contrast.
If you want to delve into pairing beer and cheese on your own, here are a few helpful educational resources:
- Craftbeer.com has a good introduction to cheese + beer in three parts here, here, and here.
- Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer has a great primer on pairing food and beer, and specific tips for cheese pairings as well.
- If you’re looking for a book on the specifics of cheese and beer pairings, I recommend Janet Fletcher’s Cheese & Beer
Few things are better than chatting with your local cheesemonger about what they like to serve with beer, and if you’re in Los Angeles you’re spoiled for choice among some great cheese vendors. Here’s where we did most of our shopping for the Cheese + Beer Tour:
- DTLA Cheese – A great cheese counter in Grand Central Market, and the best place to find the elusive Wilde Weide
- The Cheese Store – Tucked away in Silverlake’s Sunset Junction, this is a great shop with a really helpful staff
- Say Cheese – A cheese and gourmet foods store with a cafe!
- Whole Foods Markets – Lots of great cheeses to be had at the Whole Foods; check out their odds-and-ends basket for little surprises.
This was my first trip on the LA Beer Hop bus, and I had a blast! I highly recommend taking one of their tours, or booking the crew for a private event.