Jay Brooks has set the challenge for this month's Session, based around the theme of beer and cheese. There's a rather convoluted and specific set of instructions on his announcement post here, but if enough people do it right the results will make very interesting reading. However, given my location there's no question of me being able to toe the line, so instead you'll have to settle for a solo run by me on some Irish cheese and Scottish beer, chosen more-or-less randomly and thrown together to see if anything clicks. Let's meet the participants...
Williams Gold is a blonde ale, the colour of shining bullion. I get light bubblegum and golden syrup from the aroma and the carbonation is relatively soft: definitely unlagerlike. A mild sweetness is the dominant flavour characteristic, with hints of lychee, though the finish is a little watery. Simple fare.
Joker IPA is almost the same colour, leaning a little more towards amber but not much. It's a sessionable sort of IPA at just 5% ABV and a little parsimonious with the hops. A strange aroma: sugary artificial fruit, like Tizer or Irn Bru. This is subdued in the flavour, coming across more like orange boiled sweets plus some earthy notes as well. I liked it; it's interesting.
Williams Red is last of the three. No aroma at all here, and a gentle flavour of caramel with a light lavender complexity underneath. Again, a solid, well-made but quite quietly-spoken beer. I felt a bit guilty about what I was about to put them through...
My first cheese choice was Wexford Cheddar. Cheddar is a lot like pilsner: a category that tends to get used as a catch-all for all manner of bland and unpleasant crap, but when you meet a good one, properly made and sufficiently matured, you know about it. Wexford is definitely a proper cheddar: slightly sharp at first, then rich and creamy.
Next, some Mature Ardrahan, a semi-soft cheese with more than a hint of gym sock in its pungent aroma. The taste is quite busy, with lots of nuttiness and butter, though that aroma never goes away until you're finished. It's an end-to-end cheese experience.
And then there's Bellingham Blue, a cheese with the texture of wet sand, tasting supremely earthy backed up by lots of mouldy funk. Definitely from a place next to the bass amps in the cheese orchestra. It's one to nibble.
With the line-up beginning to look a bit one-sided I set to, and here's what went with what.
The Gold was no match at all for the cheddar, disappearing under the cheddar cheesiness with barely a murmur. The Red threw out some interesting sweet flavours to contrast with the sourness, but again the cheddar flavours just shouted the beer down. The Red's fizz did a great job of clearing my palate afterwards, however. The big winner was the IPA, doing that sweet-and-sour thing with gusto: a delicious blend of soda-pop sugariness (the sort you might find in a quince jelly) and bitter-yet-creamy cheese notes. Magic.
Oddly the Gold wasn't drowned by the Ardrahan. I found the two flavour profiles kept to their respective corners and I got the best of both simultaneously. I guess that's a win. The same can't be said for the IPA: becoming the first of the beers to triumph over the cheese flavour altogether, and that's not a good thing with something as complex as Ardrahan. The reverse happens with the Red: the cream and butter flavours just wreck the beer. It seems that this cheese is a tough one to get the measure of: I think it merits further beer-related investigations. Something with serious hops would be interesting.
And lastly the Bellingham Blue. We have another non-engagement with the Red: the two elements are totally immiscible. It actually balances quite well with the Gold, however, which takes some of the funky edge off and makes this extreme cheese more readily palatable. The IPA has a very interesting effect, neutralising the gritty earth flavours and leaving behind lots and lots of blue mould. If you want your blue cheese tasting very blue indeed, this is how to take it.
So, not a whole lot by way of amazing discoveries there. I think perhaps the choice of beer had a lot to do with that so, as a bonus round, I decided to throw in something strong and dark to find out what happens, so I grabbed a bottle of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout from the stash.
With the cheddar this was the first full-on clash of the day: the bitterness of the beer does not sit at all well with the sharpness of the cheese. It's a similar story with the blue: a double dose of acridity and the chocolate subtlety of the beer just disappears. A last-minute goal came from the Ardrahan, as the stout brings out all the creaminess in the cheese and combines it with its roasted and strong alcoholic flavours, producing a gorgeous kind of Irish coffee effect.
And after all that, what are the patterns, lessons, principles and rules to be learned of beer and cheese matching? I have no idea. Everything was a surprise to me: the stuff that worked and the stuff that didn't. The worlds of beer and cheese are both so infinitely varied and nuanced that I'd say it's very hard to put down definitive markers, to the point where I say: don't bother trying. An array of cheeses on one side, and basket of beers on the other, and just let them at each other any which way.