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With the Super Bowl looming, three questions are buzzing around America: Who are you pulling for; who's singing at halftime; and where are you watching the game? And if you're hosting a party, you're also asking yourself: What am I going to feed these people?
So it's a good time to highlight a basic lesson of hosting: Nothing classes up a party — even one that's focused on watching football on TV — like good cheese.
And as I learned recently, nothing tastes better with cheese than beer. That's the word from Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster's Table, an influential book about how to make beer-food relationships work.
When I called Oliver to ask which cheeses and beers are simpatico, he was traveling around to support his more recent work: the encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Beer, which he edited. In what may be the most enviable book tour I've ever heard of, Oliver hosts "tasting dinners" for audiences at craft breweries and restaurants around the U.S.
Oliver's beer and cheese pairings have been honed by numerous competitions, in which he faces off with wine experts to see who can pick the best beverage to go with a variety of cheeses.
"I've done a lot of competitions against sommeliers," he says. "And I always win. In fact, there are a number of wine books that actually mention that beer is easier to pair with cheese than wine is. And I think it's undoubtedly true."
We started talking about why that might be. I asked Oliver whether beer's carbonation might help cleanse the palate after you've eaten a hunk of creamy cheese.
"That's definitely true," he says. "It's got a cutting power. I mean, it's a physical scrubbing action. I call it 'scrubbing bubbles' — you know, literally, lift some of that fat off your palate. Whereas, famously, cheese is quite mouth-coating, and often doesn't even allow you to taste the wine."
And then there are the essential ingredients. Beer can be made from a wide range of malted grains, hops, and yeast, along with other add-ins, such as fruits and spices. That's where it can pull ahead of wine, says Oliver, who is also the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.
"For example, if we want to take the malt and smoke it, we can make a smoked beer," Oliver says. "We can caramelize the malts; we can roast them like coffee beans, and make a beer that tastes like coffee, or chocolate. Or, you can make a beer that's 3 percent (alcohol), and slightly acidic, and is much lighter and delicate than any wine, and tastes completely different. Brewing is more like cooking; it can taste like almost anything."
By contrast, wine relies on a single ingredient — grapes, as either a single breed or a blend of several breeds — for its basic flavor profile. Other qualities are derived from how it's stored and aged — in oak barrels, for instance.
"That's not to say there's not a big difference between gewürztraminer and chardonnay," Oliver says. "But it's not as broad as the difference between IPA and stout."
Still, Oliver notes that an individual wine can be very complex. And he stresses that he's not trying to say you can't pair cheese with wine — just that it's not as easy as it looks.
"It's less about harmony than about contrast. Wine is very good at doing contrast. Beer is very good at doing harmony with food, including cheeses," Oliver says. "If you really do it well, with the beer, you can have the harmony and the contrast at the same time. And that's what gives some of those pairings a great lift."
Here's a guide to some of his favorites:
Or, if you prefer a quick short-hand list, here you are:
We used Oliver's suggestions to set up an informal taste test here at NPR — well, it was a photo shoot, and then people realized we had beer and cheese in the office, and things just kind of went that way.
Oliver didn't name specific brands for his pairings, so I took the opportunity to get together some of my favorite beers, and to try others for the first time.
People loved a pairing of taleggio and Mikkeller Nelson Sauvin Brut, a craft beer that includes subtle New Zealand hops along with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that imparts musty, grassy notes that are often referred to as "barnyard."
"Those funky, earthy flavors tend to be very nice with washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses, Taleggio, and cheeses like that," Oliver says.
Another favorite was the Stillwater Stateside Saison, along with Capriole's Sofia goat cheese.
"With fresh goat cheeses, as opposed to aged goat cheeses, saisons work very well," Oliver says. "They're bright; they're citrusy, they're super dry; they're slightly tangy."
The dry Stateside and delicate Sofia both drew raves as people went back and forth between the two. And the cheese got bonus points because it was made in Indiana, where the Super Bowl will be played.
If all this fancy-cheese talk sounds a little high-brow to you, think of it this way: Super Bowl XLVI will be an expensive spectacle, in which millionaires compete on a field enclosed by a stadium named for an oil company. The broadcast will include Madonna, in a halftime show that has ties to Cirque du Soleil.
So if you're hoping to preserve the grass-roots simplicity of football, my friend, not only has that horse left the barn — it's voguing its way down Main Street.
And if you're hosting a party, you must confront a few essential truths: Some of your guests only want to see the commercials and the halftime show; others are bored by the idea of a rematch of the 2008 game; still others, I recently learned, only want to see guys running around in tight pants.
Taken together, all this means that this is the year for your Super Bowl spread to really shine, for you to show that you've put some thought into your menu — even if it just gives people more reasons to eat good cheese and have a nice beer.
The best part is that cheese takes almost no preparation time. If your repertoire of culinary skills includes unwrapping a block and placing it on a plate next to some crackers, you're good to go.
If you'd like to round out your menu with foods specific to Indiana, Michele Kayal has written up how to do that, for our Kitchen Window recipe series.
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