Beer and Cheese Harmonize and Contrast
The story of beer and cheese is another testament to the wisdom of ancient people and their discoveries of food. No one knows when beer was discovered, but as with cheese, evidence of beer making is found in ancient Egypt, right around the same time people were figuring out all the things a person could do with grain.
At the same time they were making cheese and wine, they were making bread, cereal, and beer, and though no one can say these ancient brewmasters, chefs, and cheese makers were purposely looking for foods and beverages that complemented each other, they certainly had a knack for finding them.
Pairing cheese and beer is a balancing act. Balance high-fat cheese with high-alcohol beer, and low-fat cheese with low-alcohol beer. Balance salty cheese with nutty beer, and pungent cheese with hoppy beer. Sweet cheeses balance delightfully with acidic beer, and fruity cheeses often go well with fruity beers.
Fast-forward to isolated farmhouses in Europe and America, where people grew acres upon acres of grain and kept cows for milk, butter, and cheese, and you'll find several centuries of people dedicated to perfecting the subtle and complex flavors and properties of brews and cheese alike.
From them, the world's gained harmonious combinations of nutty, roasted, and sweet beers that round out and finish nutty, buttery, and sweet cheese flavors. Effervescent, dry, and fruity beers balance a triple-cream cheese just right. And washed-rind cheeses? The strident ones chock-full of pungency? Line them up with a hoppy stout to accentuate the hidden tones of fruit. With a little information on what makes beer sweet, bitter, acidic, effervescent, and alcoholic, you'll easily find your way to enjoying cheese and beer with all the gusto of your wise ancestors.
Beer is made up of four ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. The mineral content, acidity, and alkaline properties of water all contribute to a beer's flavor. Barley, corn, rice, wheat and rye are the principal grains used, and each imparts different flavors. There are many different varieties of hops, and again, different growing conditions impart different degrees of flavor. And though specific strains of yeast are used for beer (brewer's yeast), each tastes different, affects the tastes of the other ingredients differently, and when wild yeast is used, you get a little wildness in the brew.
Is it really the water that makes a beer unique?
Beer is 90 percent water, and in different places water has different flavor profiles. For example, brewmasters generally avoid highly chlorinated water or water with distinct metallic tones, and when they find a source of clean, sweet water, the kind that doesn't introduce unwanted tastes, they use it.
What Makes Beer Sweet
The sweetness in beer comes from the grain. Whether the grain used is barley, corn, rice, wheat, or rye, the grain is all crushed, mashed, or processed to release the carbohydrates and convert them into sugars.
Barley is the most common grain used to make beer, and most barley is malted before being mashed. Malting involves steeping barley kernels in water until they sprout, then drying them. During malting, sugars and starches begin to differentiate from the whole grain. The following types of unmalted and malted barley are used to make different types of beer:
Roasted barley is unmalted barley roasted at high temperatures. It tastes a little like bitter coffee.
Malted barley is barley grain sprouted in water and then dried.
Black malt (also called Black Patent) is roasted malted barley, and is primarily used in small amounts to produce dark, almost black beer colors.
Chocolate malt (no, it's not really chocolate) is malted barley roasted less time than black malt. It is lighter in color (dark brown), aromatic, and sweeter than black malt.
Crystal malt (or caramel malt) is malted barley dried in two stages that cause the sugar to crystallize. Later, during fermentation, these sugar crystals remain intact. Therefore, small additions of crystal malt add caramel, toffee, and almost baked-cookie tones to beer.
By itself, barley produces dense, almost heavy beers. That's why brew-masters often look to other grains when making lighter beers, or beers with special flavor components such as fruit flavors or particular flavors of spice.
Other grains are most frequently used in small amounts and added to unmalted or malted barley to contribute lightness and introduce other flavors:
Corn, by itself, is basically a neutral beer flavor, but it acts to lighten other flavors and the body of beer. It can contribute to a smooth beer finish.
Rice is often used by commercial breweries because it is neutral in flavor, ferments cleanly, and also contributes to a beer's lightness.
Wheat is used in malted and unmalted forms, and both will contribute bread flavors. Wheat also acts to lighten beer.
Rye contributes dryness and crispness to beer, so it tones down the sweetness of barley.
Lots of other grains are used from time to time, and each imparts the essence of its flavors and properties. Heavy, gelatinous grains will make beer heavier and more viscous, and lighter grains will do the opposite.
Bitter Balances Sweet
Have you ever tasted a bland apple? The kind you eat because you should be eating an apple? How about a really tasty, crunchy apple? Chances are the apples you really like are sweet and tangy all at the same time. That's because the tang balances the sweetness, and the two work in tandem to open your taste buds and satisfy them. So it is with hops and grain. By itself, fermented grain would be almost sickeningly sweet, but when paired with the bitterness of hops, a little bit of magic takes place. Hops add just the amount of bitterness needed to tame the grain, and they help keep beer from spoiling.
There are hundreds of different varieties of hops, and each thrives in different soils, climates, and terrain. For example, Mt. Hood hops, grown in Washington, make excellent lagers with full, good flavors. Mittelfrueh hops, grown in different parts of the United States and Germany, are herbal, spicy, and earthy in flavor, and are often used to give German lagers their unique tastes.
Fermentation and Flavor
If you were looking for all the historical connections between cheese, wine, bread, and beer, you wouldn't fail to come across the work of Louis Pasteur again. The same Frenchman who discovered pasteurization, the process of heating wine and milk to kill bacteria, also discovered the properties of yeast that cause fermentation. Coming slightly before Pasteur was Emil Hansen, a Danish man who identified and isolated yeasts that worked best for fermenting beer.
Up until that time, uncovered kegs of wort were set out to ferment, and were often stirred with the same wooden paddle that had stirred unfermented beer for hundreds of years. Most likely, yeast strains beneficial to fermenting grew on the paddles, and unbeknownst to the brewmaster, magically hastened the process. Even without magic paddles, however, yeast naturally forms on fruit- or grain-based liquid, and is responsible for fermenting your juice when it's been left out too long. Yeast converts sugar to alcohol, introduces carbon dioxide that carbonates beer, and adds a whole range of flavor. For today's beer making, three types of yeast prevail: ale, lager, and wild yeast.
Ale yeast ferments in relatively warm temperatures (55–75°F), and is used to make ale beer.
Lager yeast ferments at cooler temperatures (32–55°F), and usually produces a smoother beer. The need to keep lager yeast cool requires refrigerated vats and more complex procedures than are needed for ales.
Wild yeast ferments at any temperature and forms on the surface of uncovered kegs. Commercial brewmasters in Belgium make Lambic beer with wild yeasts that usually produce very complex fruit flavors.
Once the mixture of barley, corn, rice, wheat, rye, or a combination of some of these ingredients is mixed with hops, it is called a wort.
The particular properties of fermented wort are an ideal base for all sorts of flavors, allowing brewmasters and home brewers all sorts of room to experiment. Here are some of the other flavors you'll often find in beer:
Sugars: Sugars of all types can be added at various stages. To add sweetness and lighten beer, corn sugar is added, and to get toffee and buttery sweetness, molasses is good.
Honey: Honey will contribute the flavors of its origins. A robust honey, such as sage honey, will contribute sweet and savory hints of sage. Clover and alfalfa honeys, which aren't strong in floral or herbal tones, contribute mostly sweetness.
Fruits: Peaches, mangoes, cherries, you name it; all sorts of fruits contribute their unique flavors to beer.
Vegetables: You might find flavors from chili peppers, peas, parsnips, or pumpkins in the occasional beer.
Also look for herbs and spices: cinnamon, coriander, ginger, heather, juniper berries, Kaffir lime leaf, licorice, orange peel, spruce tips, yarrow, cardamom, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and peppercorns can all flavor beer. You're sure to find others as well. Really, there are few limits to the flavors you'll find in beer. And yes, on occasion, you'll find chocolate- or coffee-flavored beer too.