There is a reason why brewpubs load their menus with nachos, pizza, fried mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers and poutine. It’s pretty simple: Beer goes with cheese.
While a wealth of agricultural riches have placed the North Bay at the epicenter of world-class winemaking, brewing and cheesemaking, it’s only relatively recently that the region’s ales and lagers are recognized for their affinities with cheese. The wine-and-cheese party isn’t going anywhere, yet fans of fermented foods are increasingly embracing the pairing of beer with fromage, finding it a more versatile partner than most wines.
Paul Hawley is both a professional winemaker (Hawley Family Vineyard in Healdsburg) and brewer (Fogbelt Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa), and is firmly in the beer-is-a-better-mate camp when it comes to cheese.
“Pairing beer and cheese is much easier than with wine,” Hawley explained. “Beer and cheese have a lot more complementary flavors: toasty, bready, grassy, caramel and spice. It’s often difficult to predict cheese matching with wine, given the range of styles and regional differences among wines, even those made from the same grape.”
Wine’s primary aromas and flavors are of fruit and oak. Beer and cheese, on the other hand, are more closely connected because the flavors of fermented grains and fermented milk are complementary. It’s a natural process that bonds beer and cheese tightly together.
Janet Fletcher, a Napa food journalist and cheese expert, has had her share of wine-and-cheese pairings, as she’s married to a winemaker. But in the early 2000s, she began exploring the affinities of brews with cheese, and discovered that beer can be an extremely versatile companion.
As Fletcher wrote in her book, “Cheese & Beer” (Andrews McMeel, 2017, $19.99 paperback), “Success (in cheese and beer pairing) largely rides on contrasts and complements. The most pleasing matches arise from juxtaposing opposites (contrast) or conjuring echoes (complement).
“Imagine a luscious triple-cream cheese with a highly effervescent pilsner; that’s contrast at work. Or consider the overlapping aromas in a malty porter and a nutty (cheese), a match that clicks because of the complementary scents.”
With fall at hand and winter looming, robust Sonoma County IPAs, ales, porters and stouts are the go-to brews to drink through early spring with any number of regionally produced cheeses.
One of Hawley’s favorite matches is Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery’s aged goat cheddar with Fogbelt’s Redwood Hill Wet Hop IPA, which he produces with business partner Remi Martin. “Our beer features fresh-picked (wet) hops grown at Redwood Hill in Sebastopol, and it pairs wonderfully with the nutty and intense flavor of the cheddar,” Hawley said.
Another hoppy marriage for him is a 12-month-aged cheddar from Wm. Cofield Cheesemakers in Sebastopol, with assertive IPAs. Keith Adams and Rob Hunter, proprietors of Wm. Cofield, specialize in British-style cheeses, and Hawley enjoys their Big McK cheddar with his own IPAs, and in a generous gesture to the competition, mentioned Bear Republic Brewing’s Hop Shovel IPA as another option for the Big McK.
“The cheese is fruity, tangy and full-flavored enough to stand up to the bitterness and hop intensity of a West Coast IPA,” Hawley said.
Bear Republic brewmaster/co-owner Richard “Ricardo” Norgrove has honed his beer-with-cheese expertise for more than two decades. His family opened the Healdsburg “Bear” in 1995, and a sister pub in Rohnert Park in 2017.