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Made in Hop Heaven

Why beer might just replace wine as the perfect cheese partner


Published February 26, 2008 at 8:55 p.m.

Montserrat Almena-Aliste - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • Montserrat Almena-Aliste

"Before you bite into the cheese, observe the cheese," a woman wearing a microphone headset urges while she strolls among the tables at the crowded Vermont Pub & Brewery. "Touch the cheese with your fingers," she continues in Spanish-accented English. "When a cheese has high moisture, you can play with it like Play-Doh."

Around the room, people comply, holding chunks of Maplebrook Farms' fresh mozzarella to their noses and sniffing it or squishing it between thumb and forefinger. Then, after tasting the cheese, they raise glasses of the Pub & Brewery's own Burly Irish Ale and begin to sniff and sip the amber fluid. The malty, refreshing brew complements the ultra-delicate cheese without overwhelming its fresh, milky flavor.

The European knockout behind the mike is UVM Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences Dr. Montserrat Almena-Aliste — nicknamed "Montse." Almena-Aliste is an expert in sensory evaluation, the study of how foodstuffs are perceived by the senses, and a member of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. Besides working in commercial product development — she helped the now-defunct Woodstock Water Buffalo company develop its yogurt varieties — Almena-Aliste teaches students how to detect and discuss the flavors in everything from chocolate to coffee. But dairy products, particularly cheeses, are her specialty.

Tonight, she's one of two taste meisters leading an eager group through the Vermont Pub & Brewery's second annual beer and cheese pairing. The other is Greg Noonan, the Pub's brewmaster and co-owner. Behind the scenes, his business partner, Steven Polewacyk, is making sure the heady stuff keeps flowing. And it's a good thing. In front of each guest is an individual plate of nine Vermont cheeses — a decadent spread ranging from Willow Hill's aromatic, washed-rind Paniolo to Jasper Hill's rich Bayley Hazen Blue. Throughout the evening, increasingly talkative participants will sample each selection with a different Green Mountain brew. While many of the beers are the Pub's own, there are also offerings from Trout River, Otter Creek and McNeill's.

Everyone's heard of the carefully orchestrated "wine-and-cheese pairings" at fancy parties and restaurants, but the idea of matching beer with cheese is a fairly new one in the U.S. Just a couple of decades ago, it might have evoked images of some Homer Simpson type lounging in front of the TV in his undershirt, chugging Bud and digging into a bag of Cheez Doodles. Not that long ago, "American" cheese generally meant Kraft Singles, and our beer options tended to be watery and mass-produced.

But recently, a slew of local restaurants have been hopping on the beer-and-food bandwagon. In Burlington, the Daily Planet offers regular beer-pairing dinners. A recent one began with a trio of cheeses matched with Belgian-style "Brooklyn Local 1" from New York's Brooklyn Brewery. American Flatbread, across the street from the Vermont Pub & Brewery, also hosts events that couple cheese and beer. Other restaurants around the state are getting in on the action.

The trend is owing to the craft-brewery movement, which blossomed during the 1980s and is now the fastest-growing segment of the beer market, and the more recent explosion of artisan cheesemakers. In fact, Vermont boasts more craft brewers and artisan cheese makers per capita than any other state. And our dairies aren't just numerous; they're churning out award-winning cheeses. In 2007, when the American Cheese Society held its annual conference and competition at the Sheraton in Burlington, Green Mountain cheeses took home more than 40 awards.

That's a lot of choice curds to pair with the suds — as attendees of last year's conference discovered at a beer-and-cheese-pairing seminar. There Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and one of the world's foremost experts on pairing beer and food, stated in no uncertain terms that beer and cheese go better together than wine and cheese, a sentiment he echoes in his book The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food. (See accompanying interview.) In a section on the "principles of matching beer with food," Oliver opines, "The dirty little secret of the wine world is that most wine, especially red wine, is a very poor match for cheese." Beer, on the other hand, "can do a lot better — it can find such harmony with cheese that you won't know where the beer ends and the cheese begins."

The supposed harmony of beer and cheese comes from the common origin of both these fermented products: grain. Fans of the pairing claim that, because of this similar heritage, attentive tasters can discover many compatible flavors in beer and cheese: Think nutty, caramelized, toasty, and even chocolate, fruity and floral. When it comes to tasting, beer's carbonation is another plus. The fizzy quality isn't just refreshing; it helps to cleanse the palate between bites of Brie, Chèvre or Gouda.

And, while wine experts might disagree, beer advocates believe their beverage of choice simply gives eaters more options. Shawn Hill, 28, former Brewmaster at the Shed and Trout River, attributes the vast variety of available beers to the global trade in their ingredients: "American brewers are making literally hundreds of different styles now," he explains. "You can use yeast from Belgium, sugar from the Islands, spices from India and a recipe from Russia. The combinations are infinite, and you can end up with such a complex flavor profile." This diversity, Hill thinks, drives the beer-and-cheese pairing trend: "It's beginning to saturate the mainstream; I think it's all a matter of time."

D. J. D'Amico agrees; he's a UVM grad student and avid home brewer who worked with Oliver to create the pairings for the seminar. While the explosion of quality beers is exciting, D'Amico guesses it could make the pairing amateur feel overwhelmed. When D'Amico is planning a tasting for folks who aren't sensory experts, he aims to keep things simple by matching the "aspect of cheese that's most obvious and [the] aspect of beer that's the most obvious," he says. For example, a nutty, mountain-style cheese like Gruyère goes well with a similarly nutty beer: an amber ale, perhaps. D'Amico also suggests that novice tasters try lots of different things and "take obsessive notes about what you like and what works for you."

The folks at the Vermont Pub & Brewery's tasting do just that. Using "flavor wheels" that list handy vocabulary for describing beer and cheese, they determine that the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar has hints of caramel and pineapple, as well as an acidic tang. It's balanced by a rich porter from McNeill's Brewery, which introduces coffee and chocolate notes to the ensemble.

Another pairing that draws raves is the Vermont Pub & Brewery's exotic Blue Nile — infused with essences of blue lotus flowers, rose petals, ginseng and yarrow — and Jasper Hill's distinctive Winnemere. The runny cheese, which is funky and saline, also has a pleasant, woody flavor imparted by a spruce bark wrapper. Another link between the two fermented foodstuffs is the fact that the Winnemere's rind is washed in one of Shawn Hill's beers.

Most of the cheeses and some of the beers featured at the tasting can be found at locally owned stores, such as the Cheese Outlet/Fresh Market, Healthy Living and City Market, which have been steadily expanding their brewski selections. Unfortunately, D'Amico believes, the average local restaurant isn't so beer savvy.

Why don't more restaurants tout a selection of brews the way they do the vino? "I'm not a restaurant economist, but I don't think it has to do with price. I think a lot of it has to do with image . . . [Beer has] always been seen as the working man's drink. Offering a really expensive wine . . . brings a sense of class to a restaurant."

By failing to offer unusual craft brews to patrons who want something more refined than Bud Lite or Michelob, D'Amico thinks, restaurants create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drinkers who are acquainted with headier blends often opt for wine when they can't find them, making the market for high-quality beer look smaller than it actually is. D'Amico mentions that American Flatbread's Burlington Hearth is a notable local exception, as is Mr. Pickwick's at Ye Olde England Inne in Stowe, which has a special "beer cellar" and a full-time cellar master to manage its stash of more than 150 hoppy and malty quaffs.

D'Amico does his best to combat the oeno-centric mentality, one resto at a time. When he's out on the town at a place with minimal offerings, he explains, "I often say, 'It would be really nice if you expanded your beer list.'" He hopes that, if other hop heads follow suit, Vermonters will get the chance to practice their beer-and-cheese matching skills at a host of local eateries. Until that happens, guided pairings, classes offered by the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and plenty of home sampling are the best ways to plug into the power of this dynamic duo.