Pairing Series #2 – Cheddar
After exploring Goat Cheese and various pairings in my first series entry, I wanted to get a little more specific for the next round. I find that a real Cheddar cheese offers some challenges in finding a pairing strong enough to complement it. The level of acidity coupled with the intensity of flavor that results from the cheddaring process creates a profile that can be a bit overwhelming for your average beer or wine. My pairing of choice for cheddar is usually an IPA of some sort. The bitter and citrusy notes from the hops in the beer provides a great counter to this cheese that really elevates the two. So with that in mind, my friend Lenn and I took a different approach this go around. Four distinct cheddars with four different styles of IPA…and one surprising pairing that I will get to later…
Prairie Breeze – This block cheddar is nice and dry with a nice level of acidity, a nutty finish, and is aged approximately 6 months. This cheese is the only pasteurized cheese of the group, so my thought was to provide a contrast to the others on the board. This cheese is one of the mainstays at Lucy’s Whey when it comes to the daily Panini sandwich offerings so it is very flavorful and approachable.
What worked? – We ate this cheese with all 4 beers and although nothing clashed, nothing really stood out as a “great pairing”. I would say that the best of the bunch was the Belvedere Big IPA from Rock Art Brewery. The two together brought out the fruity notes from the cascade hops which lengthened the finish.
What didn’t? – Smuttynose IPA is one of my favorite standalone beers. By itself, I think it is fantastic. With this cheese, the bitterness of the hops came through to where it destroyed any balance between the two. Beer and cheese very rarely (in my opinion) causes a clash on the palate, but this came close.
Grafton Village Cloth-bound – This cheese has a very strong barnyard funk to where it tasted as if I were chewing on the cud for the cows. The finish reminded us of cigars in a strange way that perpetuated an earthy complexity to the overall taste and mouthfeel. Think grass, somewhat dirty, in solid cheese form. That is what this was tasting like for us.
What Worked? – The Captain Lawrence Reserve Imperial IPA was a great combination as the super hoppy beer was able to balance the earthiness of the cheese. The drier area close to the rind was particularly pungent to where I thought it would clash with all of the choices, but the Captain matched up beautifully.
What didn’t? – Again, the Smuttynose pairing brought out the bitter notes from the hops and the grassy “barnyard” flavors of the cheese that hurt the flavor profile and quality of both components. It had the absolute opposite effect of what a good pairing should bring out.
Montgomery’s Cheddar – This cheese is considered by many to be the finest Cheddar cheese made in the world today. In light of my recent post on Keen’s Cheddar, and having the opportunity to taste this again, I think I might need to have a side-by-side comparison. The horseradish aroma and nutty, almost beefy, flavor easily made this the cheese of the day.
What worked? – Smuttynose finally came through. I am still not sure if it was the cheese elevating what it was paired with, but it softened the bitter edges of the beer, creating a nice balance. The IPA’s were fine with this, but the cheese was the true standout here. I was more interested in having the cheese by itself rather than tasting a variety of combinations.
What didn’t? – Nothing really clashed here to be honest.
Shelburne Farms Cloth-Bound – This particular batch of cheddar must have been made with summer milk. When cows are fed on flowers and chlorophyll-enriched grass, and beta carotene from other forage during the summer months, it changes the color and flavors of the cheese as a result. The paste of the Shelburne was a deep and rich gold. This cheddar has a wonderful sweet and nutty quality to it and was the only cheddar of the four that had a nice development of amino acid crystallization throughout. The moist texture coated the tongue to provide a long and buttery finish that lasted.
What worked? – All of the beers paired really well. We sampled one dry-hopped beer from Rock Art called the Extreme ESB that went particularly well. The slight bitterness of the beer balanced by the creamy sweetness of the cheese really elevated both elements. I returned to this pairing a few times…you know…just to make sure…
What didn’t? – Again, nothing clashed here.
Surprise – In addition to the beer, we also had an open bottle of Sancerre. Sauvingnon Blanc is not what one would think of as a classic pairing with Cheddar, but it was warm out, and there were a few other cheeses on the board (9 to be exact), so there was room to experiment a bit. The Sancerre with the Shelburne Farms cheddar was really nice… The cheese brought out a citrusy note out of the dry white that was really interesting! It was so unexpected that I tried it with the other cheddars. None of the other cheeses matched up quite as well, but it didn’t create a clash like I would have anticipated.
So what can we take from this? Cheddar and IPA is a generally good pairing and good starting point in combining two distinct flavor profiles. The slightly bitter hops with the earthy notes from a strong cheddar are able to stand on their own when combined. I have to admit that there wasn’t one pairing that really excelled or stood out. I was a bit disappointed with that as I thought there was more room for success by narrowing in on a specific cheese and beverage style. Nothing made us sit back and say with a smile, “That works…” There is obviously more to explore here (and don’t worry…I will…) so I am not sure that this could be considered definitive by any means. I can take away that this general pairing “works” with some varying degree of success.