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Beer and cheese: A match made in hops heaven

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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.

Norgrove said one of his hallmark matches is Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese from Point Reyes Station, with his Racer 5 IPA — a hoppy yet balanced ale that’s one of California’s most awarded (and widely distributed). Red Hawk is pleasantly pungent when it’s young and develops a stronger, more barnyard-like aroma and flavor as it ages. The bitterness of Racer 5’s fruity hops cuts through the cheese’s creamy texture and complements its earthiness.

Norgrove also appreciates Sonoma-produced Laura Chenel fresh goat cheese with his Hop Shovel IPA, and Humboldt County’s Cypress Grove Purple Haze goat cheese — seasoned with lavender and fennel pollen — with Fogbelt’s Del Norte IPA.

Cheese and beer go so beautifully together that Sheana Doughty at Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales collaborated with Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa to create Death & Taxes, a slightly gooey pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese whose rind is regularly washed with Hunt’s Death & Taxes black lager. The beer, made from roasted dark malts, adds a hint of chocolate to the creamy, buttery and pleasantly funky cheese, bridging the two in a complementary way.

When it comes to contrasts, Jill Giacomini Basch, co-owner of Giacomini Ranch in Point Reyes Station and her family’s Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., offers a seemingly jarring yet ultimately satisfying beer pairing.

Her Toma is a semi-hard cheese made from Giacomini cow’s milk, which has a grassy tang that comes from the pastureland and feed the Holstein enjoy from their lofty view above Tomales Bay.

“Toma caters to a broad palate, with its buttery, clean, pure taste,” Giacomini Basch said. “It’s an amazing match with Lagunitas Hop Stoopid Ale, with the buttery notes of the cheese contrasting the bitterness of the beer.”

As Hop Stoopid’s name suggests, it’s a potent, lupulin-palooza hop bomb with a malty sweetness, and it turns Toma from wallflower to rock star. Conversely, Giacomini Basch’s Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Original Blue is pungently assertive and salty, and she recommends stouts and porters with some residual sweetness and chocolate notes for this flagship cheese.

Santa Rosa’s Barrel Brothers makes Dark Sarcasm, a malty porter loaded with chocolate, mocha and vanilla personality, which tames the wild side of veiny blue cheeses. So, too, does 101 North Brewing’s Naughty Aud Russian Imperial Stout, inky black and with caramel, molasses and chocolate accents.

Other local beer-and-cheese pals include the St. Florian’s Brewery California Common from Windsor, a dark, top-fermented ale using lager yeast, with Vella Dry Jack, a Sonoma institution. The sour beers from Russian River Brewing Co. (including Consecration and Sanctification) complement Bellwether Farms Crescenza, a soft-ripened, mild cheese that takes on a tangy citrus note as it ages.

Moonlight Brewing’s Hunt said his crew “especially likes blue cheese with sour beers, bringing out the funk. Funkier cheeses with sour, funkier beers.”

And what about Sonoma’s legendary, tiny- production, triple IPA from Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger? Don’t even think about pairing it; just sip and contemplate this wondrous beverage.

Healdsburg resident Linda Murphy writers about wine for Sonoma and Decanter magazines. She is also the author, with Jancis Robinson, of the book “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine producers of the USA.” Reach her at linda@lindamurphywine.com.