Beer Effortlessly Subs for Wine in Janet Fletcher’s "Cheese & Beer"

Say this about Janet Fletcher, the lady knows her cheese.  In addition to writing a weekly column on cheese for the San Francisco Chronicle, she’s authored numerous books on cheese including the “The Cheese Course”, “The Cheese Tasting Party Kit” and “Cheese & Wine”.  The Napa-based food writer has earned three James Beard Awards and the IACP Bert Green Award, and  now ventures into new territory with her latest book, “Cheese & Beer”.  Sure, she knows plenty about cheese.   But does she know beer?

I’d say she does.  Judging from her book, it appears she’s enjoyed many fine brews when her wine friends aren’t looking.  Or maybe they drink more beer up in Napa than we think.  Either way, her book is a very complete, well researched guide to pairing any beer with good cheese.  It’s clear from the pages that cheese is her main passion, given so much detail she shares on different cheeses and the cheese making process.  But that shouldn’t detract from all the good advice she gives on virtually every available style of beer and how to pair them with cheese.   I also like the fact she gives equal attention to sessional beers styles such as Bitters as she does to the stronger (and arguably wine-like) Belgian Ale or Barley Wine styles.   Writing about beer effortlessly, with a very matter of fact treatment, her writing is a refreshing contrast to other works that treat beer as the “new wine” or as some hot new thing.     There’s an enjoyment of beer that’s palpable from each page.

One of Ed Anderson’s fine images from
“Beer & Cheese”.

The book is organized by various beer styles.  Each style is introduced in Fletcher’s own words, followed by a discussion on pairing each style with cheese, and concluding with Fletcher’s cheese pairing recommendations.  A useful cheese pairing table can be found at the end.  As a cheese ignoramus, I found this to be a useful guide to navigate through the sometimes baffling world of cheese.

Photographer Ed Anderson delivers vibrant photos throughout the book, bringing the subject matter alive.

“Cheese & Beer” is now hitting the bookstore shelves, and Janet Fletcher is embarking on a book signing tour.    I suspect this book will resonate more with wine lovers looking for an entry point to explore great beer, than with beer drinkers looking for a way to discover fine cheese.  But craft beer aficionados looking to further their appreciation of beer will find no better book.

(Andrews McMeel Publishing provided a copy of “Cheese & Beer” for this review.)



The Session 51.5: It’s An Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Battle Royale

For this special Session, Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame has asked us to try the beer and cheese pairings selections from the great Session beer and cheese pair-off and pick a winner.

Now it gets intense. After giving it their best shot, some great beers have fallen by the wayside. Only the surviving champions remain to fight this epic battle. A lifetime of drinking beer and eating cheese has prepared me for this very moment, so stand back because I’m about to announce the Ramblings of a Beer Runner Session Beer and Cheese Pairing Intergalactic Champions!

Well, sort of. I cannot possibly buy all the beers selected in the Session’s first rounds. Even if I could find and purchase all the beer listed for all three cheeses, my wife Linda and I didn’t think it was a wise career move to call in sick two weeks straight working our way through all the cheese pairings, and then gleefully posting the results on the Internet for everyone, including our bosses, to see. We tried to pair up with some of our friends to help us out with the final decision, but unfortunately our schedules didn’t match so well, and those plans fell through. So Linda and I soldiered on, focusing on the aged cheddar cheese pairings, since we thought these were the most intriguing variety of beers selected by Session participants. So with our leftover slab of 3-Year Aged Wisconsin Cheddar cheese, and yes, I know this isn’t the “official” Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese for The Session, we picked three beers selected by other bloggers to rumble with the beer we picked in The Session’s first round. After an evening drinking beer and eating cheese, we picked our winner . So without further ado, here is the line-up for The Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Battle Royale.

The Combatants

Speakeasy Brewing’s Payback Porter
The tall, dark, mysterious stranger hiding in the shadows was Jay Brooks’s pick. Would his shady underworld connections strike fear in the hearts of his opponents, giving him the edge?

Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
This precocious IPA from the rustic bucolic wine town of Paso Robles, CA was the choice of Sean at Beer Search Party. Union Jack might play well in the sticks, but how would this country boy do when it got to the big city?

Paulaner Hefeweizen
The Thirsty Pilgram declared this beer a cheese slut. Could she overcome her much stronger flavored competitors through crafty seduction and allure to take victory back to the beer fatherland of Munich?

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
Our champion we picked in the first round, fresh off its victory over a furious Bear Republic Racer 5. This big bad strong brew from the East Coast was primed and ready for fresh blood to take the title!

Let’s get ready to rumble!

The first thing Linda and I noticed is that Paulaner Hefeweizen goes with cheese the way a wheat cracker goes with cheese. Sure it works, but it just isn’t all that exciting. Its banana fruit esters likely blend well with many cheeses, but they weren’t working all that well with the cheddar. Linda and I appreciated the pairing, but found it a bit underwhelming. As this point, I am tempted to try and write a clever and witty sentence combining the words “my wife and I” and “cheese slut” but common sense tells me this isn’t a good idea. So instead I’ll just declare Paulaner Hefeweizen will have to shack up somewhere else!

Next up was Speakeasy’s Payback Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and Payback Porter is one of my favorite porters, so I was quite curious how it would pair with cheddar. One sip of all those intense, roasty coffee flavors reminded me why I like this beer so much. Problem was, all those great strong flavors overwhelmed the cheese, and clashed with its tanginess. As much as we appreciated the great beer, the pairing just didn’t work for us. Payback Porter gets whacked!

So it came down to Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Firestone Walker’s Union Jack. Two muscular IPA’s going mano a mano in a hop fueled death match! We liked both pairings and it was really close, with both of going back and forth about which one we preferred. In the end, it was the sweet malty goodness of the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA that was its undoing. The pairing seemed a little heavy, the cheese feeling a little flabby in the mouth. On the other hand, the bright, intensely floral hops of the Union Jack coupled with its light malt character really blended well certain elements of the cheese, but each maintained its own unique character. Each seemed to do its own riff on a common flavor theme like an experienced jazz duo. Union Jack takes the title!

We learned a lot from this little exercise. The little nuances and characters of each beer is really enhanced when paired with cheese, and we often chose a beer over one we normally like better, the lesser beer creating a better flavor experience when mingling with the cheese in our mouths. For all the IPA’s we tried, the flavor profile of the hops made a huge difference on how the beer paired, and sometimes, the flavors clashed badly. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a slightly different tasting cheese resulting in a completely different set of pairing results.

But most important, we learned that when it comes to beer and cheese pairings in the relaxed and open spirited beer community, where culinary elitism is rare, just have fun with it.

The Session #51: Stumbling Through the Session Beer and Cheese Pair-Off

For this month’s Session, Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame has asked us to find our best beer pairings for three different cheeses in the great Session beer and cheese pair-off.

Asking my opinion about beer and cheese pairings is like asking a blind man about sculpture. I just don’t have the senses and faculties to describe the complete artistic experience, only bits and pieces of it. Beer has never really interested me for its culinary value. Instead, it’s the history, economics, geography, and sociology surrounding beer drives me to write about it, not to mention I like to drink it. But of course, plenty of people write authoritatively on stuff like history or economics despite barely understanding those subjects, so I probably shouldn’t hesitate to write about beer and cheese pairings, even while hardly knowing what the hell I’m doing. And this Session seems to embody the egalitarian nature of beer, where everyone can contribute and there’s none of the negative elitism that seems to surround other beverages, most notably wine. (Which I also like to drink.)

So here goes. And I’ve enlisted my wife Linda to help with these pairings who often provides helpful advice when my thoughts go astray. In fact, she often advises me on all sorts of subjects, whether or not I’ve actually asked her for help. So what I did was pick two similar beers to pair with each cheese. I read a little about what the “experts” had to say about what beers pair well with the cheeses Jay selected for the Session. Then I picked a couple beers in the recommended style, and then Linda and I spent three evenings trying each cheese with their respective beer pairings, picking the winning beer in a head to head comparison. Here’s the results.

Maytag Blue: Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn vs. Lagunitas Gnarleywine

The general wisdom seemed to be that blue cheese pairs well with barleywines. So it seemed obvious to pair Maytag Blue Cheese with Anchor Brewing’s Old Foghorn. After all, if there was no Maytag family, there would be no Fritz Maytag, and if there was no Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing would likely be out of business decades ago. And it fairly safe to say if there was no Fritz Maytag to rescue Anchor Brewing, there probably wouldn’t be Lagunitas Brewing either.

I couldn’t taste much of a difference between the two pairings until Linda noticed the Gnarleywine being sweeter, contrasted better with the tang of the blue cheese. Then I began to notice that the more intense tasting Lagunitas barleywine held up better to intense flavors of the Maytag Blue than the Old Foghorn, where both the beer and the cheese just tasted flatter by comparison. So I had to admit my wife had a good point. I just hope that doesn’t go to her head.

The verdict: Lagunitas Gnarleywine

Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA vs. Bear Republic Racer 5

I went to at least five high end grocery stores looking for Widmer One Year Aged Wisconsin Chedder and came up empty, so finally settled for something from my neighborhood grocery store cheese section labelled “Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar”. Choosing two beers to pair with an aged Wisconsin cheddar was even a bigger challenge. It only seemed logical to pair a Wisconsin cheese with beer from Wisconsin, but it is not easy to find Wisconsin beers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since the Green Bay Packers won this year’s Super Bowl, I contemplated some sort of football pairing, but really couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Then I figured since Wisconsin is in the center of the United States, it would only be logical to test how cheese from the center of the country would pair from beer on the East and West Coasts. And least logical to me.

Since a few great beer culinary minds suggested IPA’s go well with cheddar cheese, I picked an IPA from each coast. While the IPA is a hoppy beer style, East Coast IPA’s tend to be more balanced, with the malt contributing to the flavor and the beer having a more rounded bitterness, while IPA’s brewed on the West Coast tend to be unbalanced, with less malt and more hops with intense floral and citrus flavors. And thus over time, IPA’s from the East Coast and West Coast gained reputations for their distinctive styles. It’s a lot like East Coast and West Coast rap music, except no brewers have gotten shot over it.

Speaking of rap, Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione is known to grab the mike and bust a few rhymes. And yes, his awkward raps on beer, which take unfunkiness to stratospheric levels are amusing when taken in extremely small doses. Thankfully, he’s a lot better at brewing, and Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is one our favorites, a great example of the East Coast style with rich, slightly sweet maltiness balancing plenty of smooth bitterness. Challenging from the West Coast is Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, brewed with whisper of malt that’s no match for all its piney, grapefruity hoppy goodness. So who wins?

We both found the sweetness of the Dogfish Head IPA contrasted well with the tang of the cheddar cheese, and while the cheese also blended well with the beer’s rich, smooth character. One the other hand, the intense hop character of the Racer 5 clashed against the cheddar’s tanginess, the resulting conbination not working particularly well. The East Coast and bad rap prevails!

The Verdict: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

Cypress Grove Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese: Anderson Valley Brewing Brother David’s Tripel vs. 21st Amendment Monk’s Blood

I suppose Humbolt County should be known for its towering redwoods, breath taking coastal vistas, and vibrant artisan community. But mostly, it’s known as a place that grows some pretty good dope. So it seemed natural to pair cheese from this region with a beer from a place also known for good dope, Mendocino County, and a beer from where a lot of dope is consumed, San Francisco. And since fruity Belgian Ales are often recommended beers to pair with goat cheese, Brother David’s Tripel from Anderson Valley Brewing and 21st Amendment’s Monk’s Blood figured to be good choices.

At first, I found the Brother David’s Tripel to be the better pairing, as its aromatic crispness really seemed to intensify with the goat cheese. But while Linda preferred the Brother David’s Triple over the Monk’s Blood straight up as a beer, so found the Tripel overwhelming the cheese, while the fruitier Monk’s Blood matched the cheese’s intensity, and created the classic fruit and cheese combination. She declared the Monk’s Blood to be the better pairing. And you know, after further consideration, my wife was right. Admitting that in writing can be dangerous.

The Verdict: 21st Amendment’s Monk’s Blood

Even though I barely knew what I was doing, this was a lot of fun. I might even stick around for Session 51.5.