Steve Jones is one of the cheese world’s wise men, proprietor of Cheese Bar and Chizu in Portland, Oregon, and a cheesemonger everybody respects. He has been telling me for years that he is going to write a book, and now he has done it, with co-author Adam Lindsley. Cheese Beer Wine Cider: A Field Guide to 75 Perfect Pairings(W. W. Norton) takes us on a tasting journey that upends some conventional wisdom. You might be surprised to learn which beverage he would choose for cheese if he could have only one.
Early in the book, you share your three main pairing strategies: look for complements, contrasts and regional matchups. Personally, I struggle with that third one, especially in the U.S. where winemakers, brewers and cheesemakers make so many different styles. Why would Sonoma County cheeses have any special synergy with the dozens of wines made nearby?
It happens much more often with European cheese; you need those hundreds of years of tradition. Maybe this is an oversimplified answer, but the grapes grow in the same soil as the grass the cows are eating, and some of that minerality is going to show through in both products. The microcultures in the air… These things have been made side by side for hundreds of years, so you have to imagine that there’s intermingling on a molecular level.
How close do they have to be?
I feel like it has to be pretty darn close, within 10 to 20 kilometers probably. But we’re in agreement: Of the three principles, regionality is the least effective. I like pushing people into trying things from the same place. My cheese case is set up geographically. It’s a fun way to take a trip around the world.
The one pairing you wish every reader would try?
I really like Gruner Veltliner with Tilsiter. They belong together. It’s one of those regional moments of magic, when “what grows together goes together.”
Any big surprises on this tasting journey?
The super curveball of the entire book was Kirkham’s Lancashire. It’s a fairly mild cheese and we could not get it to pair with anything. We tried 25 to 30 times and had almost given up when we tried it with rauchbier (smoked beer), where you would least expect success.
What was your methodology?
First, I wrote down the 75 cheeses I wanted to include—stylistically and geographically as broad a list as I could. Then I separated them into three teams (beer/wine/cider). I tried to make the teams even—they all have washed rinds, bloomy rinds and about the same number of blue cheeses. When we sat down for tasting, we would have five to seven cheeses and up to seven beverages. Adam and I would write notes independently and then read our notes to each other. We were trying hard not to influence each other.
People say, “That must be fun!” but it’s really challenging. Toward the end, I was pulling my hair out. But that’s when we found some of the better pairings. We had to push out of our comfort zone, like with the Lancashire. A rauchbier with that simple, tangy cheese? It was almost dumb luck.
What cheese styles gave you have the hardest time?
Sheep cheese. Sheep cheese with beer was the toughest specifically. Quite often, beer latches onto that lanolin note and accentuates it. With sheep cheese, red wine is where I’m going more often than not. Mountain cheeses were the easiest. Their nutty qualities go really nicely with fruity flavors.
It’s not that hard to find a good pairing for a single cheese. But what’s your strategy for a board with multiple cheeses?
Go with a theme, if you can. Keep things regional, for example. But if somebody said, “We’re going to have five cheeses; bring a beverage,” I’d walk in with cider. That combination of fruit, effervescence, acid…it’s got all the secrets. Wine-wise, I would go with sparkling wine; that effervescence works in your favor. Malty beers are the easiest type to pair. Probably my favorite pairing in the book would be Rochefort 6 with Comté. People are pretty wowed by that.
Best cheese for IPAs?
That’s definitely the toughest beer style. We went with aged Cheddar. And Rogue Smoky Blue is a ringer with hoppy beers.
Really pungent blues throw me. What do you serve with Cabrales?
I can’t stand that cheese. It’s my answer to “What cheese do you think you should like but you don’t?” I would put a sweet sherry against it, but that would be my only attempt.
Based on your research, any pairing myths you can bust for us?
The myth that wine is the best beverage with cheese. Some of my favorite pairings are wine with cheese, but it’s not the singular best beverage with cheese. With wine, you have the highest highs and the lowest lows. But if you give wine, beer and cider a level playing field, I think cider is going to win, day in and day out.
Photos: David L. Reamer
Cheese Class: Great Buys at the Cheese Counter
Tuesday, May 7
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Get the most for your money with this evening’s well-priced selections, all astonishingly good values. Imported and domestic, these beauties will impress you with their price-quality ratio. Because we’re saving on the cheese, we’ll splurge a bit on the wine.