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Pair cheeses with beer, whiskey or wine for your holiday party

December 21, 2015

Cheese paired with alcohol, whether beer, whiskey, or wine, is a match made in heaven.

When alcohol and cheese meet, feel a chemistry and fall in love, it is a marriage made in heaven. And that’s what you want at your holiday party when you pair cheese with beer, whiskey or wine.

"The main thing is that you want a cohesive flavor from the cheese and the beer," says Alix Wiggins of Wheel & Wedge, a premier source of American-made cheeses in Pittsburgh. "You don’t want one to overpower the other."

Wes Shank of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh’s Strip District echoes a similar thought and says whiskey and cheese should be complementary and not screaming at each other. "Think of whiskey as a rye or corn bread. If cheese goes well with a rye bread, it means that the cheese would be perfect with a rye whiskey," he says.

Deb Mortillaro of Dreadnought Wines in Lawrenceville doesn’t favor following rules when pairing cheese and wine, but does advise to match the intensity. "The more intense the cheese is, the more intense the wine should be," she says. "Also, start with a light and finish with a fortified wine."

When it comes to tasting the cheese and the booze, do what the pros do. Smell the beer, whiskey or wine and get a nose for it. Then take a sip of the drink and get a sense of it. Take a bite of the cheese and then take a sip of the drink again. If the flavors linger and meld wonderfully, it’s a winning pair.

Neither the drink nor cheese should be served ice cold. Cheese should be taken out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving. Whiskey needs to be served at room temperature, and beer needs to be poured and allowed to sit for some time to bring out its flavors. Often white wines are served too cold and reds too warm, says Rob McCaughey of Palate Partners in Lawrenceville. So whites need to be taken out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving, while reds need to be put into the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving.

It could be daunting to choose from a wide variety of cheeses. Jen Lawton, a cheese coordinator at East End Food Co-op and a certified cheese professional by the American Cheese Society, says de-stress by first setting a theme. It could be done by picking cheeses from a certain region or going with a particular style such as those with interesting rinds. "From there you can play with mixing milks (goat, sheep, cow) or textures (hard, soft, spreadable) or appearances," Lawton says.

Also, don’t overcrowd the cheese plate. Stick to three or five varieties.

Goat cheeses rolled in edible ash, which acts as a preservative and adds a mineral note, and blue cheeses covered with leaves such as grape, oak and chestnut will add oomph to a cheese plate. A saison or light rye whiskey will pair well with the ash-ripened cheese, while there’s nothing like a white port for the blue.

You could add a cheese that looks pretty like a young goat Gouda with a colorful yellow or red wax rind. Pair it with a beer with that has a little maltiness such as a bock, Wiggins says, to complement the tang of the goat’s milk. A mature Gouda with a black-wax covering will go well with a full-bodied, lightly oaked white like a California chardonnay, McCaughey says.

With harmonious pairings like them, you can be assured of merriment at your holiday party.

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BEER AND CHEESE

There’s a natural marriage between cheese and a beverage made from fermented barley, hops, water and yeast. Cows live on grains, and so it’s only logical that the two flavors are complementary.

— The manchego-style Roth Kase Gran Queso, which dons a cinnamon-rubbed rind, would go well with pumpkin beers and Christmas ales that have cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, says Alix Wiggins of Wheel & Wedge.

— Pit funk against funk by serving the semi-soft, beer-washed Bamboozle, which is aged for 70 days, with a farmhouse ale, light Belgian or saison.

— Porters and stouts pair nicely with blue cheese as the sweet molasses from the beer complements the saltiness of the blue.

— Jasper Hills Landaff, a semi-firm tomme (made from skimmed milk) that has cheddar characteristics and buttermilk notes balances the dry bitterness of hoppy beers, mainly IPAs.

— The roastiness of a stout or porter can cut through the buttery texture of a double cream Fromager D’ Affinois. The plain cheese also can be paired with a lambic or another fruity beer.

— Beer’s carbonation also helps to keep the cheese flavors distinct and cuts through their fat. So the high carbonation level of a hefeweizen or a wheat beer would do exactly that to a fresh chevre.

WHISKEY AND CHEESE

Another natural partner for a hunk of cheese is whiskey, which also comes from grains, says Wes Shank of Wigle Whiskey. They are aged in a similar way and cured in caves. So even though whiskey has a high alcohol content and is in-your-face bold, it has the characteristics to create a foil for cheese.

Whiskey also shares nuances with wine and beer. Sniff and swirl whiskey in a glass, much like wine, and watch the "legs" drip down. If the legs are thick, the whiskey has a heavier mouthfeel; when the drip is thin and fast-moving, it is more delicate. Whiskey has beer notes as well, whether it’s dark and complex or fruity with a hint of sweetness.

— With its earthiness, Wigle’s flagship Monongahela Rye Whiskey complements the funky power of the Fat Cat, which has a grassy finish. Also, the distinctive black pepper spice in the drink melds well with the washed-rind creamy cheese.

— An aged sheep feta that is not salty but very smooth does wonders with Wigle’s Maple Wood Wheat Whiskey. It highlights the soft maple notes that the whiskey has acquired after being aged in maple wood for several months.

— Apple and blue cheese go on a roller-coaster ride when Wigle Walkabout Apple Whiskey is paired with Birchrun Blue. Sweet apple notes shine through the spicy characteristics of the whiskey and the slightly peppery creaminess of the blue.

— Wigle’s Pennsylvania Bourbon and Old Gold Gouda are loud when paired, but the caramel and vanilla characters of the whiskey made with an earthy corn give a wonderful background to the firm, tangy and aged cheese.

WINE AND CHEESE

This is the quintessential match with a universal appeal.

Variety is the name of the game, and so arrange a plate with aged and younger; soft and hard; and rind and rindless cheeses. Uncork wines with higher acid and lower acid; high alcohol and low alcohol; and full-bodied and light. But don’t pull out everything at the same time at the party, says Deb Mortillaro of Dreadnought Wines. "Staggering them is key."

Mortillaro says there is no need to fear the great whites when it comes to cheese. "Whites are not only OK with cheese, but they are better than their red counterparts," she says because sometimes the tannins in the reds clash with the cheese.

— Pair regionally by opening a Pares Balta Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain, and complement it with a light and relatively neutral Spanish Pata Cabra.

— A long aging process gives the Park Provolone Sharp an extra kick to uncork the creaminess in the De Wetshof Limestone Chardonnay, a unwooded white.

— Aged Calabreso Pecorino has a meanness to it. But it meets its match in the intense Pares Balta Mas Elena, which is meaty and has nuances of licorice and spices. The red is elegant, but it knows how to stand up to the sheep cheese.

— Bold and blue with a dense veining, the chestnut leaf-wrapped Valdeon draws out the nuances of flowers and fruit in the Ferreira White Lagrima Porto.

 

 


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