Images and Text by KRIZETTE CHU
I’ve barely (or really, not at all) learned the intricacies of wine and cheese pairing when I got an invite to learn beer and cheese pairing from Chef Mark Todd, world famous ‘The Cheese Dude’ who’s traveled all over to educate people about the wonders of dairy and cheese.
This time, he flew to Boracay to talk about the decades-old practice of pairing cheese with beer. Yes, beer— that simple, straightforward drink that we usually pair with pizza, chicharon, nuts, kare-kare, lechon, siopao, convenience store chow, whatever’s on the fridge, is suddenly getting an upgrade.
Where wine is intimidating, beer is fun. Where wine is uppity, beer is for the hoi polloi. Where wine is fancy, beer is, well, beer.
And now they want to complicate things by doing beer and cheese pairings?
“Beer and cheese pairings are commonplace all over the world,” Chef Mark booms. “And it’s about time this beer-loving country gets to enjoy the wonders of beer and cheese, and the flavors this combination bring!”
The Cheese Dude is a consultant for the California Milk Advisory Board. The CMAB is an industry-based agency under the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and they want to know that the world’s best cheese are from California. It’s the board’s job to ensure that the dairy and dairy products made in the state and distributed and sold all over the US and the rest of the world consume are top notch.
Mark says, “California is the king of mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella goes on pizza, and the most important thing for a pizza is that it cooks exactly the same every day, 365 days a year, so that it cooks just right in summer and winter, it doesn’t boil off, it doesn’t burn. It’s exactly consistent. California is one of the most consistent, even climates on the planet. So the cows have the same diet every day, 365 days a year. The cows get the same exercise, the same water, the same everything. The milk is extremely consistent. So in the Central Valley, the biggest part of California, the milk may not be as the highest quality as some small regions, but it is amazingly consistent. And it’s very good quality milk that makes perfect mozzarella. Now where I live on the coast, that’s where the artisans of specialty cheeses come from.”
California is so big. It has four distinctly different regions of raising dairy cows. Each region has its strengths. The north coast gets more rain than all the rest of California, and so it is green six to nine months in a year. Up toward Oregon, it’s green 11 months of a year. You go down Los Angeles, it’s green for a couple of months. Depending on which part of this vast state you check, there would be a different terroir, habitat, and micro climates.
California gets six hay harvests in a year—which means there’s always hay to be had for cows, making for some of the cleanest, most premium milk on the planet.
The cheese from California has dislodged Italy’s and France’s—they produce more than 3,000 kinds now. One of the most popular Brie cheeses come from the oldest cheese factory in the US, which started in 1865. Situated 60 kilometers north of San Francisco, the famous cheesemaker started in the 1900s with a simple model: It would make cheese in the morning, load them up on a wagon, then travel all night long to get to the ferry that would take it across the bay. There, workers would eat their cheese and drink their beers while working, giving birth to a pairing that would one day capture the palates and the hearts of true gourmands and cheese lovers.
BUT HOW HARD IS IT EXACTLY TO PAIR BEER AND CHEESE?
Cheese in itself is intimidating, and while beer is pretty ordinary for this beer-loving country, a new batch of home brewers creating their beers in their garage—as well as the foreign beers flooding the market—have made the previously straightforward drink just a little more complicated.
And when you put the two together, it almost sounds as daunting as wine and cheese pairing.
But don’t fret—it’s as simple, really, as letting your taste buds guide you. Unlike the more restrictive vinos, beers are pretty much democratic and allow you to play with the flavors you prefer.
“When you’re doing pairings, there’s complimentary and contrasting. Complimentary means you play with the same flavor profiles. So if you took like a Moscato, the Aussie wine, kind of a light, very light bubbling kind of sweet floral wine, and paired that with Mascarpone and some butter cookies, that’s a complimentary pairing. You’ve got sweet going with sweet going with sweet. If you go blue cheese and port, you have a strong contrast. Strong, salty, earthy, going with sweet, and intense. That’s a contrasting pairing. Most pairings in the world are contrasts.”
Here are a few notes from The Cheese Dude to get you started on your cheese pairing journey:
1. Lighter beers will go with a wider variety of cheese. The light beers will absorb most of the cheese’s flavors.
2. If you’re going for ciders—super dry cider, sweet cider—contrast them with salty cheese.
3. Not a huge fan of beers? Cheese is so versatile you can even do tea pairings—white, black, strong, or oolong. Fruit juices can be used as pairing beverage. Almost anything that has a decent flavor, and not too much of an acid flavor, can be used as a pairing beverage.
4. I’ve had very little luck with straight hard liquors. If you’re talking about Scotch, the only cheese that can stand up to it is cheddar. So in general, hard liquors are so high alcohol, they just numb your taste buds. Everything you taste is alcohol.
5. This is how you know if it’s good cheese. Stick it in your mouth. That’s how you know. I’ve had cheese. I’ve had cheap cheese. It was great. I’ve got expensive cheese. It was crappy. The money really doesn’t matter. It depends on how it’s cut fresh. Look at the cheese if it’s cut and wrapped already, and if it’s brown and crusty around the edges, it’s probably been sitting there a while if it’s dried out. If it’s just colored, it’s probably not going to be that good.
6. A nice fresh piece of ricotta that was made this morning has more great milk flavor to it. Freshy done cheese is better than old, tired cut, you know, dried out stuff. As I said, the aromas and cheese go away in seconds. So the longer it’s been sitting cut, the worse it’s going to be. I have no idea why human beings buy grated Parmesan. Basically, you’ve got shredded paper by the time it gets to you. It has no flavor at all. When you go to a really decent Italian restaurant, what do they do, they bring a chunk of Parmigiano to your table and grate it onto your food. And literally the second it takes to fall from the grater to your table, you’ve lost about 20 percent of the flavor already. In that much time, it evaporates almost instantly. So that’s why the best cheese is freshly cut and freshly grated.
7. Go to a deli on a Tuesday afternoon and say, I’m having a party this weekend. And I want to serve blue cheeses. Can I taste? How many blue cheeses do you have? Oh, you have seven I’d like to taste them all, please. And they’ll give you a little taste of every one of them. And then you can taste them right next to each other, so you can learn the difference on someone else’s money. And they will love that you do this. They would be happy to teach you on a not busy day. Don’t go on Friday at four, you know. This gives them a break and let them show what they know. Let them show their passion. And if they ain’t got any passion, find another store. Because anybody that’s in cheese is not in it for the money. You’re in it for the passion of the product. So that’s how I learned about cheese. That’s how I tell people everywhere around the world. How you learn about cheese is by going into a service deli where they will sample with you and say I’ve never had this cheese, what does it taste like? Because who’s going to spend, you know, R500 for a piece of cheese that they’ve never tasted. They have no idea what it’s going to be like.
8. This is how you develop your taste buds: If you taste all five blue cheeses, you’ll know the difference in the blue cheeses. This one is strong. This one is mild. This one’s creamy. This one’s crumbly. You’ll learn what they are. Once you develop those taste buds, you know what you like. And what I as an expert likes makes no difference. Because what I like is not going to be what you like. And it’s not important to like what I like. It’s important to find out what you like.
Most people when they start with wines, they don’t start with $500-abottle Cabernets. You start with some light fruity white wine. And then eventually you build your taste buds up to stronger and stronger flavors. Same thing with cheese. Same thing with chili peppers. Nobody starts out eating Habanero peppers. No five-year-old says oh, I’ve never had a chili before. Let me have that Habanero.
9. Richer cheeses can handle a stronger beer and a higher alcohol percentage. They go well with heavier beer types like lagers, brown ales, and stouts.
10. Want a fail safe pairing? Fruity beers go well with cheese. (So bring out your San Mig Apple, and your guests will think you’re a genius.)