Recipes: A Whole New Ball Game

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Take a break from wine as beer steps up to the plate for a cheese-tasting party.

Although Liz Payne, the proprietor of The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop, located in downtown Stratford, Ont., knew beer and cheese were a match made in heaven, when she first started offering pairing classes five years ago, she felt uneasy about the venture. North America’s premier theatre destination is flush with vino enthusiasts, after all.

“I was surprised when the classes started filling up. Although some of the participants were skeptical when they came in, afterward I often heard things like, ‘Beer and cheese? Wow. Who knew?’”

Although Payne offers both beer and cheese as well as wine and cheese classes, she finds that wine can be more intimidating. “Beer is just so down-to-earth the classes are more laid-back.”

Payne’s sentiments come as no surprise to Mirella Amato, Canada’s only certified Master Cicerone, which is a specialist in the selection, storage and serving of beer.

“I’ve never met a cheese expert who doesn’t think cheese is easier to pair with beer than wine. Beyond the fact that they are both farmhouse products, beer has two strengths. One, its carbonation helps scrub oils from the tongue, prevents cheese from coating the mouth and helps to cleanse the palate. And, two, because cheese is often salty and calls for frequent sips, beer’s low alcohol content allows you to wash down cheese without worrying about if you’re going to be able to stand up.”

The secret is out. Cheese, wine’s long-time faithful companion, has been playing around with a new lover – beer. The pairing raises a few brows here in Canada. Why would one of our national treasures – Quebec’s Laliberté, a creamy soft cheese with a bloomy rind, or P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar – be drawn to the likes of a brewski, a.k.a. Suddy Buddy?

“Beer and cheese are known to have a natural affinity,” says Philip Belanger who, as jury chairman of the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix Awards, nibbled his way through a whopping 268 entries this year. “Both start with grass – wheat and barley in the case of beer, and actual grass, which the cows consume, in the case of cheese.”

This may explain the popularity of the traditional ploughman’s lunch and football’s favourite combo of pizza and beer, but considering that beer and cheese have both been made in Canada since the 1600s, why is it only now the duo has become a tasting trend?

Specialists in both fields, says Afrim Pristine, maître fromager and the owner of Toronto’s Cheese Boutique, are focusing on quality craftsmanship and ingredients. “Cheese and beer are part of the Canadian DNA – most of us grew up loving the stuff. But never before has there been such an awareness of the diversity and quality of Canadian cheese and beer. The quality continues to rise – it’s an evolution of both palate and product.”

Blame on it on decades of homogeneous beer, says Amato. The global director of beer knowledge for Anheuser-Busch InBev and author of Beerology: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Beer … Even More, points out that post-the First World War, in terms of beer variety, our nation suffered a drought. “In the years following Prohibition, the few surviving breweries in Canada struggled and, in order to grow, many mergers and acquisitions took place. Products were streamlined and as a result, for decades, our beer landscape was flat.”

Indeed, boomers who came of legal drinking age in the ’60s and ’70s – or occasionally pilfered a pint from their dad’s stash – will remember the days when Canadian beers were all the same. “What you drank was undoubtedly a lager or ale, golden in colour with an alcohol content of about 4.5 per cent and a delicate flavour with no bitter finish.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when microbreweries and brew pubs began popping up in Canada did we recover some of our lost beers.

Today, there are hundreds of producers operating across the nation – British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec boast the biggest craft beer scenes – and so happily, we can raise a glass of everything from pilsner, porter and pale ale to malt, bock and stout. Specialty beers – typically limited-time offerings brewed in small batches and featuring seasonal ingredients such as raspberries or extra hops – abound.

“Craft beer and imports have created a revival of styles, flavours and variety from golden to pitch black, under three per cent to more than 14 per cent, crisp and refreshing to sweet and rich,” notes Amato.

To cheese experts, the rise of craft beer has been a welcome one. Pristine says that the state of beer in Canada today is finally catching up to that of cheese. Not surprisingly then, experts in both fields are collaborating, while a few are creating all-in-one experiences. “I’m working with select cheese makers to come up with specialty cheeses that are cured or washed with beer. So far, we’ve created three such products.”

With the hop harvest winding down and Oktoberfest festivities gearing up, the craft beer scene is in full swing, so it’s the perfect time to host a beer and cheese tasting party. For the tasting itself, we’re going with four types of cheeses paired with four styles of beer.

(See Philip Belanger’s pairing suggestions on the next page for general descriptions of each, along with his tasting notes to explain the pairings.)

To set a mood of merriment, kick off the party by reminding guests that the first Oktoberfest was held to celebrate the 1810 marriage of Bavarian Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. You’ve gathered everyone together to fete a more recent love story: the long-awaited union of Canada’s sweetheart to the boy next door … who has finally grown up.

NEXT: What You’ll Need

What You’ll Need

– For the tasting: 4 types of cheeses, 1 ounce per guest, and
4 types of beer, 4 ounces per guest (for styles of each, see Philip Belanger’s suggested pairings)

– More of the above so guests can mix and match after the tasting

– 1 small plate per guest

– 4 tasting glasses (brandy snifter style, wine-tasting glasses, anything balloon shaped) per guest

– basket of mild, plain crackers on which to taste soft cheese and to offer as a palate cleanser between pairings

– 4 cheese knives for slicing

– large cutting board for cheeses

– fondue pot, small crockpot or earthenware bowl for hot dip and platter for accompaniments


Set-Up and Ambience

– Remove cheese from fridge about half an hour or so before actual tasting but keep the beer chilled

– Set out cheese on board large enough to make cutting easy
– Decor-wise, go super simple – think farmhouse style! Avoid
the fancy, pretentious tableware you might have used for that “other” pairing

– Create a playlist of Canadian jam bands such as Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip

– Set out cheeseboard and line up 4 tasting glasses per guest. Taste cheese first and then take a sip of the accompanying beer to wash it down. Share Belanger’s notes, encouraging conversation as you move through each of his recommended pairings. Did Belanger
get it right? How does the beer
and cheese influence each other?

– After the tasting, invite guests to pour a glass of their favourite brew and sample it with all of the cheeses

– Later in the evening, serve up the beer and cheese dip


Oktoberfest Beer & Cheese Dip

By Executive Chef Jason Bangerter, Langdon Hall

Make 2½ cups

1 tsp            butter

1 clove
garlic, grated

4 oz
Belgian-style saison (farmhouse ale)

4 oz             Riesling

5 oz             Emmental cheese, grated

5 oz             Gruyère cheese, grated

Splash of kirsch, a colourless fruit brandy, usually cherry, of German origin (optional)

3 tbsp         cornstarch slurry
(add just enough beer to make thin paste)

Pinch baking power

Place butter in pot over medium heat. Add the garlic to scent the pot. Add beer and Riesling and bring to a simmer. Add half of each cheese and stir until melted. Add remaining cheese and kirsch, if using. Add slurry and mix until smooth and silky. Finish with a pinch of baking powder. Serve warm with poached wurst, boiled fingerling potatoes, simmered cabbage, pieces of baguette
and warm pretzels.

NEXT: Philip Belanger’s Pairing Recommendations

Philip Belanger’s Pairing Recommendations

Type of Cheese: Soft cheese with a bloomy rind, i.e., Brie Laliberté

Grand Prix Winning Pick: Fromagerie du Presbytère, Que.

Type of Beer: a sweet pale ale

Why You’ll Love It: Cheese’s creamy flavour with mushroom, earthy notes balance beautifully with sweet pale ale with a light body and added fruity flavours

Type of Cheese: Old cheddar aged 1 to 3 years

Grand Prix Winning Pick: Avonleas Clothbound Cheddar, Cows Creamery, P.E.I.

Type of Beer: a strong IPA or a stout

Why You’ll Love It: Concentrated flavours of older cheddars require bold beers. Nutty and fruity flavour of cheddar pairs well with hops and roasted malt


Type of Cheese: Aged gouda

Grand Prix Winning Pick: Gouda Aged, Sylvan Star Cheese Ltd, Alta.

Type of Beer: stout

Why You’ll Love It: Assertive cheese with caramel flavours goes well with a dark stout with a rich espresso taste, and deep colour from black to chocolate with barley and malts


Type of Cheese: Swiss-type

Grand Prix Winning Pick: Louis d’Or, Fromagerie du Presbytère, Que.

Type of Beer: a bock, dark lager or traditional German Oktoberfest beer

Why You’ll Love It: Floral, sweet flavour of cheese is brought out by strong beer with robust malt character, dark amber to brown in hue