The bagpipes announcing the mid-October opening of the Great American Beer Festival had barely subsided and Garret Oliver was already at a podium talking about beer and cheese. 

DENVER-The bagpipes announcing the mid-October opening of the Great American Beer Festival had barely subsided and Garret Oliver was already at a podium talking about beer and cheese. Glass partitions created a small pavilion in the center of the Denver Convention Center where various presenters would, over the course of the three-day festival, demonstrate the compatibility between beer and food. The partitions did little to curb the din of more than 20,000 beer enthusiasts eagerly sampling from among 1,884 festival beers brewed by more than 400 exhibiting brewing companies. But Oliver, a self-made expert on craft beer and food, had the attention of a hundred or so festival goers squeezed into the pavilion to hear him speak.

“I’ve done a series of presentations in New York with a friend of mine where we do cheese with beer vs. cheese with wine,” he says. “And no matter who the audience is, I know I’m going to win, because I have better weapons.” The audience is sampling some of those weapons-a  Belgian-style wheat beer from New Belgium Brewery of Colorado, paired with Humboldt Fog cheese from California’s Cypress Grove Chevre.

The founder and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewing Co., Oliver has for nearly a decade espoused the notion that today’s diverse selection of complex, flavorful beers deserve a place at the table with the best of American cuisine. The author of The Brewmaster’s Table, he has become the most visible authority on the subject.  When the New York Times is writing about food and beer, they call Garrett Oliver.

A couple months before the record crowd of 46,000 beer geeks descended on Denver, Oliver was in Vermont talking to an equally enthusiastic audience of artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers at the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference.

The annual ACS conference has had panel discussions on the relationships and parallels of artisan cheese and craft beer for nearly as long as Oliver has been popping up in articles in the Times.

Plenty of wine drinking and wine discussion when the fast-growing organization gets together each year, but the real buzz (no pun intended) has more to do with beer and cheese.

Grass and grains

Some of the affinity between beer and cheese is intrinsic. Supporters like to note that both beer and cheese are essentially derived from grass-beer being made from barley, and cheese from milk, which in the best-case scenario, is made from grass by a ruminant animal.

In terms of flavor compatibility, the acidity in wine can be a nice contrast to the creaminess of cheese, but sometime it can be more of an ugly collision. In general beers have a lower acidity, with some malty sweetness working in harmony with the cheese, but also the sharp hop bitterness that can contrasts nicely with the richness of milk fat. 

Then there’s carbonation. If you ever read to the bottom of a story on anything from  quiche to chocolate in a food magazine there’s a discussion of wine pairings. When there’s not a lot of pairings to pick from, you will inevitably read, “or try Champagne.”

Carbonation expresses the flavors in the food and scrubs the palate between tastes, and nearly all beers are carbonated.

Cheesemakers and cheese people also seem to have a natural affinity with brewers and beer people, and the feeling is mutual.

Kirsten Jaeckle, VP of marketing at Wisconsin’s specialty cheese heavyweight Roth Käse puts it this way.

“I don’t want this to sound corny, but having met with people in the beer industry and people who love good beer, they seem very real, and they don’t get caught up in a lot of   pretense,” says Jaeckle, who makes beer pairings part of Roth Käse’s promotional material and has coordinated special tastings with Wisconsin brewers.  “They really want to make enjoying good beer accessible.”

Discovering how well full-flavored cheeses pair with beer, Jaeckle has begun investigating affinities with non-alcoholic and alcoholic ciders, coffee and tea, and other foods as well as the more traditional wine parings. This information is gobbled up by retailers and consumers who are more interested than ever in exploring taste sensations.

Jaeckle says she was actually introduced to the idea of paring artisan cheese and craft beer by the Chicago Beer Society, a 30-year-old enthusiasts organization that conducts beer tastings, often involving particular food parings, in the Chicago area.

“We’ve sampled some of our cheeses at Chicago Beer Society events and the people in attendance really loved the cheese and were very interested in learning more about it. At one of the events I was talking with a brewer for Goose Island Brewing Co., and he suggested that I read Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table.”

At Roth Käse’s 15th anniversary open house a tasting was put together featuring the brewmaster from the Huber Minhas brewery.  Jaeckle says she found what has become her favorite cheese and beer paring-Huber Bock with  Roth Käse’s award winning Vintage Van Gogh.

The Chicago Beer Society, meanwhile, has done some pairings of its own. In June, 2006 the group hosted a special event at Rock Bottom restaurant in Chicago that Brought together what might have been the largest single assemblage of  artisan cheese and craft beers in modern history. Curds and Ale, as the event was called, included more than two dozen cheeses, primarily from North America and an equal variety of craft beers from the U.S. and abroad.  Suggested pairings included sweetened Belgian lambic beer with fresh goat cheese, and American-made strong Barley Wines and stouts with award winning American blue cheeses.

“We had about 150 people there just to taste beer and cheese,” says Randy Mosher, one of the organizers of the event. “We tried to set it up so the parings weren’t just handed down from on high, but so that there were lots of possible combinations on a given table. There were a lot of attendees saying ‘hey try these two together’ and that sort of thing.”

Mosher says some of the combinations were astounding.

“One of the first ones on the list was a mozzarella stuffed with cream paired with a hefe weizen. The wiesse beer has a lot of white fruit flavors in it and when you pair that with something creamy, you really get ice cream. This one tasted just like peaches and cream.”

Mosher says that’s just one of the flavor combinations that work for beer and cheese, adding that the rich meat-like flavors in an aged cheese go well with toasty flavors like those typically found in the dark malt of a stout or porter.

Cheese at brewpubs

Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. has been a champion of the beer and cheese marriage for many years, sponsoring activities at the ACS conference.  Goose Island’s brewpub menu include a cheese plate course with a number of artisan American cheeses. Servers will suggest parings particularly with the beers from Goose Island’s Brewers Reserve series.

Back at Denver last month, the GABF as it is known to regular attendees of the event, included a lunch and media briefing focused primarily on beer and food.

Author Lucy Sunders draws applause from the industry-friendly crowd when she mentioned that her new cookbook The Best of American Beer and Food contains nothing about chicken wings or chili. “I’ve covered all that in my previous books,” she quips.

The Brewers Association, the Boulder Colo.-based industry group that organizes GABF has in the last couple of years taken a decided tact toward elevating beer’s status in part by equating it with good food. GABF also included a beer and food booth this year. But Saunders’ comment really captures the kind of attitude beer enthusiasts and those in the industry are taking in doing that. There is still plenty of room for ribs and burgers in the discussion. At the same lunch brewer Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing, and Philadelphia-based wine consultant Marnie Old explained how they have conducted a series of good natured face off events called Wine is From Venus and Beer is From Mars, while the lunch crowd tasted wine, beer, and a chocolate raspberry brownie dessert made with beer.

During Oliver’s presentation he touched on a theme that was later echoed by Old.

“Wine has become more approachable as an every day drink for the middle class, and beer has become more acceptable as some thing you enjoy with food and for special occasions, so in a sense they are meeting in the middle.”

Roth Käse’s Jaeckle says the most important advice she can offer other cheese marketers is to keep an open mind.

“I’ve learned that while wine and cheese are the first thing you think of, you shouldn’t limit yourself,” she says. “Consumers who buy artisan cheese are really adventurous and they want to try something different.”