Trouble brewing as beer moves in on cheese

After wrestling for a spot on the gourmet drink list, beer is trying to push deeper into wine territory: right by the cheese platter.

“Some cheeses are considered to be jewels. And for now wine is a more prestigious partner,” says Leonardo Di Vincenzo, owner of Birra del Borgo, a young Italian artisanal brewery that has recently begun exporting to the U.S. But once they try beer with cheese, he says, “People are struck by how easily the two go together.”

A beer-and-cheese pairing class at the Slow Food association’s Cheese 2009 festival, which took place in Bra, Italy, last week.

The combination has long been a staple in Belgian cuisine, but in recent years, the pairing of beer and cheese has gained legitimacy even in wine-obsessed Italy — where beer is hardly the default drink to accompany fine dining. Similarly, in New York, at gourmet beer spots such as the Beer Table, serving cheese with a $10 brew no longer raises eyebrows.

For brewers, teaming up with cheese is part of a campaign to show that beer is as sophisticated as Bordeaux, not just a tipple associated with student parties and sports bars. The idea is to “bring it up at the same level as wine,” says Marc Stroobandt, a master beer sommelier and consultant at U.K.-based F&B Partnership, a company that trains restaurateurs on the best way to pair beer with food. Mr. Stroobandt says he sees “a lot of interest in experimenting” with pairing beer and cheese across Europe and in the U.S.

Slow Food, for one, is putting its clout behind the beer-and-cheese combo. At the nonprofit group’s Cheese 2009 — a biannual international fair held last week in Piedmont, the northern Italian region that shares a border with another cheese superpower, France — cheese lovers and producers from around the world tasted dozens of varieties, with beer helping wash down the food in addition to the usual wine.

Alberto Farinasso, events coordinator for the fair, says Slow Food is eager to give more attention to artisanal brews, and has elevated beer’s role from bit player to supporting actor. In previous editions of the fair, beer was present, but wine was recognized as the default partner for cheese tasting.

This time, the fair’s program and the crowds around the beer stands made it clear that beer no longer plays second fiddle to wine. Of 37 “taste workshops,” six were dedicated to pairing beer with cheeses. On Monday, the last day of the fair, one section dedicated to artisanal beers had to shut down because it had run out of beer to sell.

“It is a very valid union, both in terms of sensory experience and in terms of stories it can narrate,” says Mr. Farinasso.

At the fair, Parmigiano Reggiano, known in Italy as the “king of cheeses,” was paired with Italian artisanal beers. In other workshops, American and Italian microbrews accompanied U.S. cheeses such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin and Rogue River Blue from Oregon. At another session, 39 people sat for more than an hour, tasting five raw-milk cheeses from central Italy paired with four unpasteurized Italian beers, guided by the cheese and beer producers.

Mr. Di Vincenzo, who led two of the beer workshops, says pairing beer and cheese is a no-brainer — “like bread and cheese. Beer is a bit like liquid bread.”

“The bitter note of hops gives a skimming strength that allows to cleanse the mouth from the fat” in cheeses, allowing for a better savoring of the flavors, he says.

Part of the appeal comes from the fact that beer and cheese are part of a common farm cycle. In the 19th century, Belgian monks would brew beer, feeding their cows the leftover barley husks. The cows’ milk yielded cheese that the monks — many of them vegetarians — liked to munch while enjoying their beers.

“You will often hear the argument that cows don’t eat grapes,” says Justin Philips, owner of New York’s Beer Table, a gourmet beer bar in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Mr. Philips, who has been serving beer and cheese since opening the bar a year and a half ago, says palates have warmed quickly to the pairing, such as his proposed meeting of Swiss cheese with Swiss Rebetez beer.

“A year ago, it was a new experience for everybody we presented it to,” Mr. Philips says. “Now just one in 10 are surprised.”

But beer fans still have a long way to go if they want to convince the public that suds are a worthy partner for cheese, especially in France.

“Have you ever seen anyone drink beer in Bordeaux?” asks Emeric Sauty de Chalon, president of 1855, France’s largest online wine shop. Mr. Sauty de Chalon agrees that the most flavorful cheeses have a flavor that is too strong for some red wines, but doesn’t think beer and cheese is necessarily the right alternative.

“With some lower quality cheese, why not?” he says. “But with the most high-quality cheeses from Italy or from France I really would not recommend it. Try something else.”

Mr. Stroobandt, though, thinks consumers just need a little hand-holding. “So far, wine people have been so much better at education and marketing,” he says. “They give people the confidence to try new things, telling them this is how you taste it and appreciate it.”