You'll often find me quaffing beer, rather than wine, with my cheese. It hits several of my key pairing principles, and throws in some new ones for good measure:
1. Balance: Cheese is about fat, protein and salt. Beer introduces elements of sweetness (malt) and bitterness (hops), and it does so without red wine's tannin (dry pucker). From the get-go, you've got complementary qualities likely to bring balance to the pairing.
2. Texture: Really, this is an aspect of balance. Beer brings varying levels of carbonation, or, scrubbing bubbles that cut through and lighten the density of cheese (the other white meat).
3. Common Origins: Beer begins with grain and plants. (Good) cheese begins with plants and grain. A brewer approaches these grains and plants like a chef, putting together ingredients to compose a beer. A cheese maker takes the raw material of a ruminant which has processed plants and grain into milk, and works with that changing medium to compose a cheese.
I see a lot of parallels, and across the board find that while you can certainly have beer and cheese pairings where one element overpowers the other, you rarely have actively bad (like, want-to-spit-them-out) pairings.
My thanks to Eric Johnson, brewmaster at Wild Heaven Craft Beers, for his crash course on beer.
Cheese with Light Impact Beer
Cheese with Mid Impact Beer
Cheese with Hoppy Bear
Cheese with High Impact Beer
Pairing with spirits can be tricky because high alcohol levels often mow down even the most complex cheeses. Cocktails let you have your booze and drink it too, as secondary flavors can be layered in to soften burn and highlight qualities you want to pull out of the cheese.
First things first: sparkling wine is not just for New Year's Eve. Conventional wisdom says that sparkling wine (ideally Champagne, but equally so Cava, Cremant, or Prosecco for the more budget-minded) should be paired with triple crème cheeses. These Brie cousins are cream-enriched and lovingly likened to whipped butter that you're entitled to eat with your fingers. The idea here is that especially fatty and generally salty cheese is cut by the wine's effervescence, essentially scrubbing your palate clean for more cheese. That’s cool, and it works, but why limit yourself to one kind of cheese when you can enjoy more?
I don’t know why so many recipes call for cheddar for melting. I get that it’s widely available and it’s true that very young block cheddar melts tolerably. But for me, melting cheese is about gooey, ropey stretch and near liquidity. I want the other foods to be blanketed with a warm, rolling river of cheese that stays melty for as long as humanly possible. I don’t want a congealed mass or a trail of grease.
In general I look to washed curd cheeses like Havarti, Jack and Gouda for a mild melt and Alpine-style cheeses like “Swiss,” Gruyere, and Comte for intense nutty flavor and liquid lactic love.