While walking to meet up with Nisha for lunch today, I was thinking about how food & drink go together. This is what most people are usually thinking about, right? Inspired by recent planning for a trip to Trappist Belgium, I was specifically thinking about cheese and beer. I’d in fact say that beer is a dramatically better pairing for cheese than wine is, all the time.
Implicit, of course, is the assumption that we’re talking about decent beer (“American style light lagers,” e.g. Bud, Miller Lite, are only useful if you’ll be plucking a ping pong ball from your cup before each drink). Light styles like (good) lagers and pilsners wouldn’t be my first pick, though I’m sure they too could be good with the right cheese (sharp cheddar maybe?). Mostly I’m thinking I’m sweeter, hoppier, bigger beers: dubbels, tripels, stouts.
But the beers that most clearly ask for cheese, in our opinion (Nisha and I talk about this... a lot), are traditional geuzes, the sour, spontaneously-fermented style made by brewers like Cantillon, who we visited in Brussels. They’re so sour that they need something to alternate with that can fight back at them, which could be anything from an equally pungent blue cheese to a creamy soft cheese (the fat will give the lambic something to fight through, other than the lining of your mouth).
Until a few years ago, I never really thought about these things. I could claim relative normalcy, but I'm sure I was just weird about other stuff instead. Sometimes I’d go to a restaurant and ask for a recommendation, but aside from a few great experiences it’s been tough to find great advice without asking highly specific questions. In other words, you kinda have to know yourself and start to figure these things out on your own. One of the influences that changed how I think about eating was a book by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. He traveled and learned about great beer long before it became an organized geeky sub-culture, and for years he’s been making the case for food and beer pairings. Although I remember loving the book, I don’t really remember the specific recommendations any more, just the take home message that I should be thinking about these things if I want to have truly enjoyable meals.
So what makes for a good pairing? That’s probably more personal than many food writers suggest, but for me it’s when food and drink have some tension, when they share certain ideas but emphasize them differently. They don’t erase each other, but they each give your mouth new things to focus on, so that the last bite can still be as exciting as the first. It's not quite unison but a far more enjoyable harmony. This preference definitely reflects my predilection for lots of variety in my food, tapas or tasting menus whenever possible. It’s not the only way to pair things, but it’s what we try to do when we sit down for a meal. I’ve even tried, with only occasional success, to make our own flavored drinks, like rhubarb soda (delicious) or strawberry shrub (disastrous). Worst case scenario, thinking about pairings is a fantastic excuse to make good wine, beer, or cocktails a part of more meals. Who am I to argue with that?