I stumbled onto the mysterious synergy of good beer and artisanal meat and cheese by accident. I was in Seattle for a week a few winters ago and had a cold night to myself. All I wanted was to grab a strong beer, some snacks and go back to my Air BnB to watch a movie and wind down my day. I found a Scottish Wee Heavy at a market near Pike Place with some prosciutto and Beecher’s Flagship Cheese. Despite the simplicity of the meal, it was nothing short of a revelation. The deep complexity of the malt and the restrained carbonation in the beer played off the sweetness, the salt and the fattiness of the meat, which in turn played well with the robust, nutty-salty-creaminess of the cheese. I don’t recall whether I watched a movie or not, but I distinctly remember hearing a choir of angels sing across Elliot Bay.
I now regularly hunt for the perfect synergy of craft beer, artisanal cheese and cold cuts. While expert knowledge is not necessary, a willingness to explore is. The goal is to discover perfect pairings and bring people along for the ride. Here’s how to do it in five steps.
5 Steps to Your Winter Beer, Cheese & Charcuterie Pairing
Step 1: Pick Your Pairings
This article is about beer, meat and cheese. However, one could conjure many themes that would also be killer. I have done a Spanish beer pairing with tapas and paella, as well as wine vs. beer with cheese as the mediator, and both were awesome. Other interesting theme ideas could be fondue and Bohemian lagers or a Thunderdome style pairing match, where two beers enter … one beer leaves! Get creative, get interactive and have fun.
Step 2: Announce Your Pairing Party
Send invitations and reminders to a manageable sized group for the space and budget.
Step 3: Prep for Your Pairing Party
Plan on using good glassware. If in doubt, use white wine glasses for the beer. Ideally, there is a new glass for each beer, but a quick rinse of cold water in between beers will work. Plan on 4 oz of beer and 1 – 2 oz of meat and cheese per person for each course. Have some neutral, unflavored crackers available as palate cleansers. Crackers with a touch of sea salt may actually help accentuate flavors. Guests will also need plenty of water to drink and cleanse their palates.
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Step 4: Set Up Your Pairing Party
Set places with a water glass, napkin, knife, fork, beer glass, pen, dump buckets in reach of guests and use the tasting notes sheet as a placemat. Some light, groovy music and dim lighting will create the environment.
Next, prep each plate with the meat and cheese. Save time and put it all on the same plate in a circle where the courses follow the plate clockwise. A simple way to make the food look good is to fold, roll or bunch the meat. Cut the cheese into chunks if dry, or triangles if creamy, for simple and sexy plating. Lean the cheese on the meat so the pairing is clear.
Serve the first beer when everyone is ready to begin to keep that beer fresh and bubbly. Also, be mindful of beer serving temperatures. An over-simplified rule of thumb is, lighter beers should be close to refrigerator temps and the darker the beer gets, the closer to a chilly room temp it should be.
Step 5: Enjoy It
Let the culinary exploration begin. I put the following pairings together with a little help from my cheese monger and charcutier friends. Our goal? To delight guests with the experience, but to also educate on the nuances of cheese, of meat, of beer and especially how they interact together. Follow each course and discuss the impact of the pairings and how the flavors complement and contrast each other. Notice the textures and how the beer cleanses the palate.
Tasting sheets are valuable for jotting notes and epiphanies. Some people go so far as assigning a numerical system, from -2 for “the pairing stinks” to 0 for “not bad” to +2 for “I hear the angels.” The point is to track the experience to cultivate mindfulness and to repeat it another day. You can find tasting sheets and more resources on our Tasting Tools page.
5 Pairing Courses to Try
First Course: Kolsch with Spanish Goat Cheese & Spanish Chorizo
Light malt, fruity esters and carbonation from the Kolsch play well with the creaminess of the cheese and the spicy fat from the meat.
Try: Colorado Kölsch from Steamworks Brewing in Durango, CO
Second Course: Pale Ale with Aged Cheddar & Capicola
The sharp, tangy-sweet flavor of the cheese and the briny and smoky fat from the meat find a sweet spot with the pale ale beer’s balance between malt and hops.
Try: B. Right On Pale Ale from Ocean Beach Brewery in San Diego, CA
Third Course: IPA with a Natural Rind Buffalo Cheese & Mortadella
The smooth textured meat with nutty pistachios combined with the cheese, which is similar to mozzarella but with more character, provide a solid platform to let the IPA‘s earthy, tropical and citrus flavors bring its own slice of heaven.
Try: Strata IPA from Worthy Brewing in Bend, OR
Fourth Course: Imperial IPA with Gouda & Salame Ungherese
Your salame has a second name, it’s Ungherese. Known in the deli as “smoked bologna,” this meat is all grown up and is getting fresh with the Gouda. An imperial IPA has the impact this couple needs along with hop character and alcohol to spice things up.
Try: 120 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head in Milton, DE
Fifth Course: Cream Stout with Italian Buffalo Cheese & Pastrami
Savory, sweet and spicy, the pastrami matches the creamy, earthy funk from the cheese. A cream stout is all we need to make things right in the world again.
Try: Moozie from Brink Brewing in Cincinnati, OH
Dessert: Belgian-style quad with young Manchego (aged 6 months or less) with fruit and nut meats (dried papaya, Turkish apricots, brown figs, sour cherries and salted pistachios)
A delightful variation on dessert, the light briny-nuttiness of the cheese and the diverse flavors from the fruit and nuts love a good Belgian-style quad.
Try: The Sixth Glass from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, MO
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Winter Beer Pairing Finale
As the courses finish, it is nice to surprise guests with a finishing touch. It could be a final, surprise course of dessert and more beer or a simple plate of dried fruits such as slices of papaya, Turkish apricots, dried cherries, figs and nuts like pistachios or Marcona Almonds. Check in with guests to ask about favorites, surprises and take home experiences. Lastly, make sure everyone gets home safely to repeat this winter beer and cheese and charcuterie pairing experience again another day.
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