For Jim Engelbart, a hunk of smoked Gouda plus a glass of Burning Skye Scottish Style Ale equals snack-time bliss.
With its creamy texture and smoky, buttery flavor, the cheese pairs perfectly with the slightly sweet, malty, subtly smoky beer, said Engelbart, operations and production manager of Lincoln's Empyrean Brewing Co.
An increasingly popular combination, beer and cheese is getting more attention as people move beyond the traditional matchup of wine and cheese. As sales of craft beers continue to grow, along with the prevalence of beer dinners and tasting events, so too has interest in pairing beer with cheese.
KENT SIEVERS / THE WORLD-HERALD
The delicious duo is the focus of beer-and-cheese pairings held at local craft breweries, bars, supermarkets, liquor retailers and restaurants. Nebraska Brewing Company, a craft brewery and restaurant in Papillion, teamed with Dundee's French Bulldog last month for a tasting event featuring a selection of cheeses and house-cured meats.
Kim Kavulak, who owns and operates Nebraska Brewing Company with her husband, Paul, said pairing beer and food was considered more of a novelty up until a couple years ago. As cooking with beer becomes more widespread, people are giving more thought to pairing beer with all kinds of food, including cheese. She expects the trend to continue as more craft breweries and brew pubs pop up.
One of her favorite beer-cheese pairings is mascarpone with her brewery's Infinite Wit. The mild fruity/citrus character of the beer brings out the creamy sweetness in the cheese.
Engelbart offers several reasons why cheese and beer make a great combo. They complement each other so well, he said, because they share some of the same aromas, flavors (nutty, floral, tangy, fruity, earthy) and other characteristics.
Though pairings often work best when both beer and cheese share a similar taste, flavor or aroma, they can still prove pleasant even when the two contrast. The malty sweetness of some beers, for example, makes a nice counterpoint to sharp, salty cheeses.
“You really can't find a flavor of cheese that doesn't go with beer,” he said.
Another bonus is beer's ability to cleanse the palette. The rich, fatty, creamy quality of many cheeses often coat the tongue, which is why beer's carbonation is welcome.
“The scrubbing bubbles in beer break down those oils and fats,” Engelbart said.
Other experts, including Jason Payne of Lucky Bucket Brewing Co., say part of the enjoyment of pairing beer with cheese is the complexity of brews. Unlike wine, which showcases a single ingredient (grapes), beer can feature a variety of malted grains, hops, yeast, fruit, herbs, spices and other add-ins for a wider range of flavor profiles and aromas — roasty, smoky, caramelly, grassy, chocolatey, citrusy, etc.
“The range in flavors in craft beers is more diverse than in wine,” said Payne, the LaVista brewery's founder and president. “It gives people more options in flavor combinations.”
As beer festivals, beer dinners and tasting events that partner the drink with everything from ice cream to chocolate attract more participants, more people will embrace the idea of pairing beer with food, said Payne. Many Omaha-area restaurant chefs, he added, like to incorporate craft beer into their dishes as one way of highlighting locally sourced ingredients.
At Kavulak's brew pub, handcrafted beer shows up in several menu items, including onion rings, chicken strips and beer cheese soup.
For her, part of the appeal of pairing beer and cheese is that there are no hard and fast rules. She recommends experimenting with different combinations to see what suits your taste buds.
And she encourages people to have an open mind and consider pairings they think they might not like. When combined with beer, many cheeses take on new flavors. Bleu cheese, for example, is something Kavulak has never enjoyed — until she tried it with India pale ale.
“When you pair the beer with the bleu cheese,” she said, “it takes that normal, pungent, smack-you-in-the-face bleu cheese and it makes it almost sweet.”