On Valentine’s Day, Say Cheese (and Beer)!

Not too long ago, I had to face a harsh reality: lactose no longer tolerates me.

I Love Cheese Board_0

And not the other way round, either. I’ve got nothing against the disaccharide sugar component of a glass of milk. We were BFFLs, in fact. Milk helped sweeten a lot of unpleasant and otherwise bland foodstuffs, like oatmeal. And I always cried when I spilled a glassful. But something changed between us over time, something deep down inside, and for whatever reason we just don’t get along anymore.

Our break-up was not without casualties — butter, for one, which I eventually realized I could live without, and ice cream, which has been a more difficult separation. Overall, I have managed to get by pretty well without Holstein harvest. Soy milk now serves as my morning cereal surrogate, for instance, and there are plenty of non-dairy coffee creamers to satisfy any craving.

And then there’s cheese. Sigh. I really hated having to pull this staple from my diet. (Aside from the aforementioned oatmeal, I could put cheese on anything.) A few of the older, hardened ones, such as Cheddar and Swiss, seem to have little affinity with lactose and, thankfully, have remained neutral parties. It’s the soft and flavorful cheeses, the ones that are virtually inseparable from their creamy dispositions and have clearly chosen sides, that I miss most — Brie and Camembert, especially, and bleu, to name a few. And don’t even get me started about eating a bagel without cream cheese. Oy!

Fortunately, I discovered I could switch to goat cheese as a soft and supple substitute (here’s why). Reluctant to try it at first — I mean, have you seen how goats live? — the goat’s milk-based variety has become my soft cheese of choice.

Luckily, too, beer has no lactose in it. (Even milk stout, despite its confusing name, is dairy-free.) So I have been able to resume consuming my favorite before-dinner combination — microbrews and cheese.

I know, wine is what you’re supposed to serve with cheese, right? Wrong. Think about it: If I offered you a hunk of, say, chevre cheese, all herbally and aromatic, would you wash it down with a jug of Welch’s? Of course not. Even water would be a better choice. And I’d bet you’d prefer to eat that cheese on a wheat or rye cracker, or even a slice of yeasty bread, right? Chevre can be a little dry and bitter, so you might want to add something moist and sweet, too, like a drizzle of honey. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

That’s because I just described the basic ingredients in a glass of beer — water, grains, yeast, and sugar — plus a little fizzy lift to cleanse your palate and prepare you for the next nibble. Now do you see what I mean? Wine may be the usual drinking buddy for a chunk of cheese, but beer is its soul mate.

And if you really want to see my zymology-fromology theory in action, try combining craft beer with craft, or artisanal, cheese. I’m talking about a mix of ingredients that produce a host of complex flavors and aromas. For example, if you hanker for a sharp, crumbly English farmhouse Cheddar, I recommend a brisk, bitter-ish, British beverage, such as Samuel Smith’s India Ale. The dry, hoppy fruitiness in the beer harmonizes with the acidity in the cheese, while the ale’s sweet maltiness melds with the creamy, nutty flavors. (Here’s a great site for finding other pairing ideas.)

The beer-and-cheese two-step really takes off with the soft varietals, however, which brings me back to my predicament: What do you do if your partner just won’t do it for you anymore? Well, if like me you’re a beer drinker who occasionally craves a silky, ripe, rind-bound cheese and are relegated to goat-only status, then I’ll let you in on a little secret. Have a hunk of Humbolt Fog, an award-winning aged goat cheese from California-based Cypress Grove.

Humboldt Fog is the billy-goatest of goat cheeses, grizzled and rough on the outside, with two delicate cakes separated by a layer of ash on the inside. And it’s the ash that gives the cheese its fey, grayish appearance and distinctive earthy tanginess, like a mix between Gorgonzola and Brie. As with most goat cheeses, this one benefits from being in the company of something sweet and zesty, like a Belgian-style ale. But as Garrett Oliver suggests in his beer-mating Bible, The Brewmaster’s Table (where I discovered this remarkable combo), the proper coupling for this American original is an American-made beer.

And since we at Scribbleskiff like a challenge, we recently followed his advice and picked three Yanks with Belgian mannerisms to pair with a wedge of Humboldt Fog. It was a humbling experience, to say the least:

  • Merry Monks, Weyerbacher Brewing Co. This bottle-conditioned Abby ale, brewed in Easton, Pa., has a complex mix of flavors, both fruity and bready, that enhanced the creaminess in the cheese and teased out its subtle saltiness.
  • Triple, Stoudt’s Brewing Co. As a Belgian triple, this is a big, full-bodied beer with lots of malty sweetness, a hazy orange hue, and brisk carbonation that both coddled and tamed the tangy cheese.
  • Hennepin, Brewery Ommegang. Mr. Oliver avers (and I concur) that this golden saison, brewed in Cooperstown, N.Y., has the right mix of citrusy herbal flavors and aromas — such as orange peel to coriander — to make it Humboldt’s humble servant.

Of course, there are plenty of other goat’s milk cheeses that provide a similar experience, such as the snowy Liberty’s Cream, appropriately named Blue Logs, or even simple Goat Brie. And there are many options for excellent Belgian-style beers handcrafted by Americans, such as New Belgium and Allagash. (Start your search here.)

And if you are looking for an opportunity to test the strength of this alliance, search no further than the upcoming Valentine’s Day weekend. In fact, according to research reported by at least one Internet site, cheese, especially the highly aromatic kinds, can be a powerful aphrodisiac. More potent than chocolate, if you can believe it. Even better, the sex of your partner will determine your selection: Men, not surprising, like to eat cheese that’s strong and spicy, while and women like it soft and sweet.

So, instead of a cheesy gift, like a Whitman’s Sampler and red wine, give your paramour something unique, like a few microbrews and a rousing assortment of  cheeses. Then, dim the lights and do a little “blind tasting” as part of your evening’s romantic activities.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you ever tried pairing Humboldt Fog and a Belgian-style ale? Is there another beer-and-cheese combo that you adore? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

Originally posted on February 9, 2010.


  1. Chip,
    Have you heard of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Beers? They’re kinda down by you? They were mentioned in Scientific American for brewing a beer from a 9000 yr recipe and other spectacularly strange stuff. I just heard of it, and with my vacation coming up, I won’t be checking it out until after St Patty’s.
    I miss you all very much.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *