When I heard about the cheese and beer tasting on April 24th at 6:30pm at Fromagination, I had to get more information. I mean, cheese, beer, it is a match made in heaven. When I saw that Lucy Saunders was leading the tasting, I really needed more information. I had heard of Ms. Saunders quite some time ago. Originally published in 1996, her first book, Cooking With Beer is a classic. Cited by no less an authority than Michael Jackson (the beer hunter, not the singer) in his Great Beer Guide, it provides more information about cooking with beer than anyone could possibly have guessed. For example, most traditional cookbooks that use beer in a recipe (stout soups, for example) suggest using old beer both to get rid of it and because it has typically gone flat, Lucy advises otherwise: "Flat, old beer usually tastes oxidized and not so pleasant as fresh beer. Try whisking your beer in a separate bowl to release some of that excess carbonation, and let it settle before measuring into your recipe."
So, for all of you baking and pastry chefs wondering what to do with that dual Middle English/English Literature degree, if you like beer maybe you can write about beer. "I have always loved the taste of beer, and collected recipes that went well with beer. When I was studying baking and pastry in the 1980s, I began writing freelance articles about craft beer and continue to do so now."
Ms. Saunders has also written Grilling with Beer and her newest book is The Best of American Beer and Food: Pairing and Cooking with Craft Beer.
Beer has been paired with other foods in recipes since, well, the beginning of beer and food. "It has been an ingredient in stews (carbonnade), fritters and batters in the Middle Ages, and even used as an ingredient in desserts." The German monks used beer as sustenance during their fasting. The link between beer and other foods is so inextricable that brewers use traditional foods in preparing their beers. "The pumpkin ales, hot pepper beers, chocolate beers, fruit beers, are all related by the use of culinary ingredients and creativity on the part of the brewers. Jeff Hamilton of the Sprecher Brewery, which is making the Mamma Mia Pizza Beer, particularly enjoys cooking Italian sausages in the beer, along with peppers and onions."
It seems strange that there is no compunction over using wine when cooking. We do it all the time – we add some chardonnay or Riesling to a chicken dish to add some sweetness, we add Merlot or Cabernet to that stew to add some body and depth of flavor. But, when it comes to adding beer, there is a gap in knowledge and some hesitance. Ms. Saunders more than capably fills that information gap: "maltier brews will contribute more browning to foods such as poultry that are normally lighter in color, and bottle conditioned beers are more effervescent, and are good in a batter or sauce where the texture will make a difference. I prefer to use a fresh beer in good condition - because I want the flavor of the beer in the final dish to be good - those old recipes that start with 'Take a half-can of flat beer' … all I can say is, 'eeuwww'. Homebrewers can turn less-than-perfect brews into vinegar and mustard salad dressings or spicy barbecue sauces, but that's about all I would recommend. Truly, it is best to cook with something that you would enjoy drinking!"
As for pairing beer with your food, thankfully there are not any general rules of thumb with beer like the age-old "red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat" tropism.
People should taste widely and sample lots of different styles of beer - upon first tasting a beer, let the flavors guide your palate to think of food pairings you might enjoy. In general, I think of a pairing as a complement, contrast or an entirely new combination of flavors. Every person has differing thresholds of sensitivity to specific flavors and so I encourage people to be open to trying new beers, new combinations with foods. The color of a beer is not a reliable cue, as there are strong, vinous and light gold Belgian-style ales that would overwhelm fish or poultry, and dark ales that taste mild and sweet, and would be a bland match to spice-rubbed grilled steak. So, the best pairings start with tastings.
Speaking of pairing beer with food …
Ms. Saunders was originally introduced to Madison's wonderous Fromagination by a third-party, Jeanne Carpenter the blogger extraordinaire behind Cheese Underground. The tasting on April 24th will be Ms. Saunders' third event: "It's been a fun mix of people - some are new to craft beer and tasting, and other attendees are very knowledgeable. It's a relaxed exchange, and very sociable."
The tasting itself will pair fruit ales with mixed-milk cheeses. Mixed-milk cheese? You know, cheeses that mix goat, or sheep and cow's milk.
is one of the state's leading gold-medal mixed-milk cheeses, aged in olive oil, and it will be paired with a gold-medal ale – the New Glarus Brewing Co. Wisconsin Belgian Red Cherry Ale. The Belgian Red is made in the style of a Belgian kriek and aged in wooden vats. The smoothness of the cheese and its aromatic aged notes go so well with the tart cherry taste.
The Carr Valley Cheese Co,'s Gran Canaria
Why mixed-milk cheeses and fruit ales? "I thought it would be fun to experiment, and I hadn't seen a class devoted to a tasting of just mixed-milk cheeses." As good a reason as any. Like the Gran Canaria/Belgian Red combination, to develop the lineup for the event, Ms. Saunders says: "I taste each of the cheeses individually and think of beers that might go with them. I then taste the cheeses on a separate occasion with the 8-9 different brews, and winnow the selection down to my favorite matches. I have taste memories of the beer I've sampled, so I can think of possible pairings at the outset. I like to feature Wisconsin breweries as much as possible, but for the April class, there will be some imports because of the popularity of Belgian lambics. Since more Wisconsin cheesemakers are experimenting with mixed-milks, we'll sample mostly the award-winning cheeses from Wisconsin."
It promises to be an awesome experience. "I hope class participants enjoy learning about the creativity of the cheesemakers and brewers we will be featuring, taste something new to them, or at least a few pairings that will be new to them, and get a few samples to enjoy at home, too." The mixed-cheese and fruit ale tasting is April 24th at 6:30pm at Fromagination. It costs a mere $30 per person and you can register in-person or give them a call – visit Fromagination online at www.fromagination.com
Ms. Saunders' newest book, The Best of American Beer and Food: Pairing and Cooking with Craft Beer, has an entire chapter dedicated to pairing cheese and beer. While signed copies of this book will be available for you to purchase at the tasting, she has some free advice:
Age, temperature, freshness, fat and saltiness all play a huge role in how well a pairing will work. One recommended pairing is that of a dry stout with blue cheese. But, I tried a stout with a very young blue cheese that turned metallic on the palate - not the result I'd anticipated at all. So, again, you have to taste what's in front of you, and have a selection of beers to pair. A cheese changes in flavor as it warms to room temperature, so be sure to try pairings at the proper temperature for best aromatics.