The Beer and Cheese Tasting: Some Archeology

In July, 2015, I looked at the pairing of Ontario cheeses and beer at the Monforte cafe in Stratford, ON.

In the last week of April, 2016 a series of posts highlighted the alliance of beer and cheese in the far north of France. I examined beer with French monastic cheese, with Vieux-Lille, Vieux Boulogne, and Maroilles, Mimolette, and Boulette d’Avesnes. 

I also considered the Welsh rabbit dish in America, here and here.

In all these instances except the first which is effectively a “tasting”:

a) beer is eaten with cheese as such;

b) beer and cheese are ingredients in a recipe; or

c) beer is used to wash (cure) a cheese in processing.

Cheese and beer as ingredients usually means the cheese is melted, or simply that beer is infused in cheese (no cooking). Hence, the “porter”-flavoured cheddar of Ireland, a tasty thing to eat although how traditional it is, is hard to say. Cheese, certainly the hard types, was not traditionally made in Ireland despite the reputation of Irish milk and cream. Cheese-making has taken root in the last 20 years or so.

The idea of cheese and beer in these latter ways is obviously quite old. The “ploughman’s lunch” of England is a snack of beer and cheese. The name itself may be quite recent as Martyn Cornell suggested a few years ago, but beer and cheese as a pairing in England must go back to misty times. Celery used to be eaten with it, maybe still is. Pickles in the English sense, as well.

Wine and cheese together have similar applications and no doubt as venerable a history, at least where both are staples, which takes in a large part of Europe certainly.

But as I discussed earlier this month, the concept of a wine and cheese tasting – a stand-alone, social event to assess the offerings and rate the combinations, if only informally – is something new.

This is a party, or reception. Wine and cheese are served and nothing else except crackers and bread usually, and perhaps some fruit.

From pairings on the dinner table, from the snack or informal meal, and from the idea of toasted cheese, “bucks”, and similar dishes, there sprung the wine-and-cheese tasting, a long-lived progeny.

The two 1930s New York wine-and-cheese events I discussed recently, held by the Wine and Food Society, featured sherry and port among the wines served. In Anglo-American cuisine, fortified wines, the sweet ones anyway, were served at the meal’s end. The example of port with Stilton is trite. Clearly, early wine-and-cheese parties borrowed from, or built on this tradition, hence sherry and port at the seminal 1930s events.

Today, dry wines are more typically served at the wine-and-cheese. This is probably new, as dry wines traditionally were served with main courses in British and “Continental” (French-influenced) dining, although the French were also said to eat cheese at the end of a meal to “finish the wine”. That probably played into dry wines becoming dominant at the wine-and-cheese.

Anyway, the American notion, now established everywhere, that a glass of dry wine can stand as an aperitif, surely is a spin-off of the wine-and-cheese.

Wine-and-cheese as a form of socializing has British roots as well in the same gestational period, 1930s-1950s, which deserve exploration.

What of a stand-alone beer-and-cheese tasting, when did that start? We think probably after 1975 as the craft brewing renaissance gathered speed.

And there are precedents which seem quite parallel to the wine area. Some Edwardian dinners paired cheese with beer, not just at the end of the meal. Just ahead of WW I, in the East Oregonian, a suggested Christmas menu was advertised by a wine and liquor dealer. Different drinks were shown for a lengthy list of courses. One can presume few dinners inspired by the ad included every course, readers probably adapted the suggestions for their own needs.

Beer is advised with a cheese “entree” (no wine), and no fewer than six brands are suggested, all American lagers.

The German-American table was pairing cheese with specific beers by 1900, as I discussed here, where Pabst Blue Ribbon accompanied hand kase and rye bread. The kase is a strong, soft cheese still consumed in Germany, a rather local taste but one that migrated to America with the emigrants.

Perhaps the earliest beer-and-cheese, i.e., as a separate, organized event, was the landmark 1944 A Tasting of Beers, Ales and Stout with Complementary Foods“.* It was held by, once again, the Wine and Food Society of New York, a tasting I recreated in a local restaurant a couple of years ago.

Numerous interesting cheeses were served at this event including a brandy-flavoured blue cheese, Swiss cheese, and various American types. They weren’t paired individually with specific beers, but were available for tasting at the participant’s will with the beer of his or her choosing.

The 1944 event was not limited to cheese, but all the dishes were cold – it wasn’t a dinner – and cheese was an important part. In essence, a tasting was held very similar to the modern beer and cheese tasting.

As well, the German Alps Festival, held annually at Hunter Mountain, NY since 1972, included a “beer and cheese tasting” at its 1977 event, see here. This was just at the dawning of the craft beer era. No doubt a similar idea had been around for some time. I seem to recall having one or two such tastings at my place in the mid-1970s, in fact. Perhaps CAMRA in England did something similar at one of its early festivals. 

The 20th century wine-and-cheese party/reception/mixer probably stimulated the beer version, but both are the outgrowth of earlier ways to consume two comestible products long seen as “flavormates”, to borrrow the term used in an early 1950s supermarket ad touting beer and cheese together. The alcohol needs a sop, first and foremost, and cheese provides admirably for it. Apart from that, is there a palate synergy between beer and cheese, and wine and cheese? Maybe. Anyway, tasting events for both are staples of the gastronomic scene everywhere.

Note: The poster of the Portland Beer and Cheese Fest shown above depicts last year’s event. This year’s will be held June 17, 2017, see all details here.

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*In fact, a similar tasting was held by the same Society in 1942, but I consider the ’42 and ’44 events of a piece.