As a rule, cheese is never out of season. While certain styles or small-batch specialties might not be available year round, you can always find some kind of dairy deliciousness at any time of year.
After all, cheese is preserved milk, by definition.
But fall – when you dig your sweater collection out of storage after the summer fun has ended, and head back to work or school – seems to be the time when cheese naturally gravitates towards the spotlight.
Cheeses from springtime, or the year before, are at a deliciously aged stage during this season, with savory, toasty, and caramelized flavors coming to the fore.
Seasonal fruit like apples and pears are crisp, sweet-tart, and juicy, just begging to be eaten alongside a sharp and pungent aged cheddar.
We subconsciously look forward to fattening up for winter, and lush, bloomy rind cheeses made with grassy, bright summer milk are happy to oblige.
And brewers are busting out their seasonal fall beers, too, like fresh-hopped pale ales, made when hops are harvested in late summer to early fall.
Pumpkin beers, that polarizing variety, are unveiled to delight (or bedevil) beer drinkers for the rest of the year. And Oktoberfests, a style of malt-forward, full-bodied lager, are released to coincide with the annual national celebration of beer in Germany, where the variety originated.
The coppery color, malty flavor, and richer mouthfeel of Oktoberfest brews radiates with that crisp and toasty autumn feeling. This style is also known as a Märzen, since it was traditionally brewed at the end of Germany’s legal brewing season in March.
Brewing beer during the warm months presented a food safety challenge, so brewing traditionally took place during the fall and winter. The beer was kept cool (not cold – perhaps the origin of the German tradition of room-temperature beer?) in caves throughout the summer, and the kegs were finally kicked during a big party at the end of the barley harvest in the fall, when temperatures dropped and brewing season could begin again.
You’ll want to make the most of cooler fall weather, rich and aged cheeses, and this harvest festival in a beer bottle when Oktoberfest 2016 rolls around in mid-September (September 17 through October 3, to be exact).
Celebrating the season with cheese pairings is the perfect way to ease into the cooler weather and shorter days ahead.
With this in mind, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to pairing beers and cheeses, with a specific focus on wheels that make the perfect pair with bold, malt-forward Oktoberfest styles.
But first, a few ground rules for pairing cheese and beer:
Grasses to Grasses
Part of the reason that pairing cheese and beer is so appealing is that it’s hard to create a pairing that tastes, er… not good.
With wine and cheese, the rewards are high, but so are the risks of combining two elements that really don’t play well together. But beer and cheese – well, they’re both really just grasses, “processed” in different ways.
Cereal grains like barley and rye are part of the grass family, and pasture-raised cows eat a wide variety of grasses, occasionally supplemented with some of those same plants in their seed form (i.e. grain).
Even conventionally raised cows that are fed corn are technically eating a grass – just not the green part.
The dairy bit of this process is pretty familiar:
Cows eat grass and grain, and process them into milk. With the addition of culture, rennet, salt, and time, this becomes cheese.
To make beer, farmers must grow and harvest grain, and then it must be turned into malt before a brewer can ferment it into tasty, fizzy alcohol.
Two different paths taken in this way result in two different products – but when they’re reunited in the end, it tastes so, so good.
Meet Your Malt
Since we’re talking about Oktoberfest brews, which really highlight malt – the main ingredient in beer after water.
Let’s start with a mini-lesson on malt.
After sourcing top-quality grain that must be grown, harvested, tested, and stored according to exacting specifications, maltsters add moisture and warmth to sprout the harvested grain, converting its starch into sugar.
Via a process called kilning, they then use heat to halt the conversion of starch into sugar, to trap and preserve that enzymatic activity. The malt is then cleaned of the rootlets that developed during the sprouting phase, and this renders it shelf-stable until it’s needed – packed with diastatic potential that helps to convert starch into sugar, a key step in the fermentation process.
Malt has a deliciously bready, toasty flavor, and it’s the main ingredient in any beer recipe – you just might not taste it at the forefront of a brew that’s heavy in another ingredient like hops, for example.
Barley’s not the only thing that can be malted either – grains like wheat, rye, and sorghum (gluten free!) can be malted and used to enhance a recipe, or create a different flavor profile.
Deeper flavors can also be elicited by kilning the malt at a higher temperature, creating the potential for a gradient of malt colors and flavors from pale to coffee-hued, each one playing a different role in promoting fermentation and developing flavor – and color – in a recipe.
That deep red tone that’s characteristic of Oktoberfest beers is a product of the particular malt used in the recipe.
With these pairings, we want to highlight the traditional characteristics of an Oktoberfest lager – an aroma of caramel, full body, toasty and rich malt flavor, with a bit of bitterness from hops.
While one of the common traits of an Oktoberfest beer is that it’s easy to drink and pairs well with food in general, we do need to proceed thoughtfully when selecting potential partners for our star beer.
Despite the bit above about how beer and cheese are twin ferments separated at birth, it is possible to create non-ideal pairings. Here’s my top tip for avoiding this:
Steer clear of delicate, bloomy rind goat cheeses, for example, when looking for a mate for your Oktoberfest brew of choice. Anything really mildly or subtly flavored could easily be drowned out by the flavor of the beer, so think about more pungent, savory, nutty, and rich cheeses for this pairing instead.
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask your local cheesemonger for a recommendation!
And now, for the cheeses…
This is the cheese that I grew up eating – in the form of a store-brand brick from the supermarket.
Now, I know where to find a better cheddar, and that’s what you should do, too.
At the very least, seek out a block of Cabot Seriously Sharp, which combines savory, tangy, and sweet notes to make a great partner for malt-forward beers. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s very budget-friendly.
Beyond that, look to your favorite long-aged domestic, Irish, or English cheddars to make a match with Oktoberfests. Consider taking a page out of my book and serving the beer and cheese with stoned wheat crackers (or some homemade rosemary parmesan crackers) and your favorite cornichons or garlic dill pickles – one of my favorite snack combinations.
Lovers of blue cheeses, you’re in luck: big-hearted Oktoberfest lagers can stand up to cheeses inoculated with Penicillium roqueforti just fine.
I tend to shy away from your runnier, sucker-punch pungent blues in favor of those with sweet, meaty, or toasty notes – think Stilton-style rather than something like Gorgonzola, which might clash, or Cambozola, which could be overpowered by the beer.
In Philadelphia, where I live, the local go-to is Birchrun Blue, a regional classic made by Birchrun Hills Farm’s Sue Miller that will please blue-lovers and convert new ones.
Along with the beer and cheese, consider serving a generous dollop of spicy, dark buckwheat honey and some candied pecans. And know that you can keep stocking blues all season long: they also pair very well with heavily spiced pumpkin beers.
3. Bloomy Rinds
While a snowy-white pyramid of Valençay is a beautiful thing, it’s not the bloomy that we’re looking for this time around.
But richer, fattier, soft-ripened cheeses made with cow’s or even sheep’s milk have a high enough fat content to avoid being washed away untasted by the beer – this way, you can taste how the grassy, savory, and/or mushroomy notes play off of the toasty notes of the brew.
If your Oktoberfest is on the hoppier side, choose your bloomy rind carefully. Any quality brie will do. Brie val de Soane is particularly fine variety.
In my region, Valley Milkhouse Creamery’s Thistle would be an ideal candidate. A half-pound round made with a combination of Jersey and Ayreshire breed milk that packs the most flavor into a Brie-style cheese that I’ve tasted this side of the Atlantic. Serve with pear butter and sourdough flatbreads.
While my ideal Gouda for pairing with malt-forward beer would be aged for at least a year – or two – even a variety that’s on the softer side has the richness of texture and flavor development that allows it to to play nice with an Oktoberfest.
Of course, I do caution against most smoked Goudas in general, just because I find that the flavor is so often artificial. But if you’ve got one in mind that you love, go for it.
To do this right in the gouda department, get yourself a wedge of Beemster XO. It’s aged for 26 months, and so full of tyramines and caramel notes that it’s like eating an incredible wedge of slightly savory toffee.
Or, go with the judges at the 2016 American Cheese Society Competition who awarded second place in the Best in Show category to St. Malachi Reserve, made by The Farm at Doe Run (it also took top honors in its category).
Located in Chester County, just west of Philadelphia, the cheesemakers were originally hoping to make a Fontina style that turned out like a very toasty Gouda; when they aged it past 9 months, the cheese developed a pineapple-y, caramel-y sweetness as well as even more lip-smacking savoriness.
It’s not as intense as the super-aged Beemster, but it is one of my favorite cheeses. If you can get your hands on a wedge, find a really special Oktoberfest to go with it. Serve with toasted almonds and slices of Honeycrisp apple, and make it a meal.
Last but not least, these big, brawny wheels – typically made with cow’s milk – make a great match with rich, toasty-tasting brews.
Don’t be fooled, however: sourcing an appropriate Alpine is a little more complicated than grabbing your go-to Swiss. For a milder, nuttier selection, go for true Emmenthaler; for something a little bolder, choose a Gruyere – the more aged, the better.
Aged, washed rinds like Appenzeller (typically washed in hard apple cider, although I’ve seen varieties washed in everything from pear cider to wine or even coffee) can pack in delicious fruity notes, too. Think large-format wheels, natural rinds, and firm texture.
Now that you’re armed with an arsenal of potentially perfect pairings, it’s time to grab your stein and your meat and cheese board, and celebrate the harvest. Prost!
What will you serve to round out your Oktoberfest spread? Let us know in the comments!
Photo credits: Shutterstock and various cheese manufacturers and/or distributors.
About Alex Jones
Alex Jones is a local food consultant and writer based in Philadelphia. Evangelizing about local food is second nature to Alex, whether she’s working an artisan cheesemaker’s farmers market stand or developing growth strategies for her favorite small-scale artisans. Her favorite areas to work in currently are the artisan cheese and pastured meat supply chains. When she’s not working, Alex spends her time managing her usually-overstuffed fridge, growing vegetables, foraging for fruits around the city, playing tuba in a disco cover band, and hanging out with her partner Dr Thunder, Philadelphia’s karaoke superhero, and their two cats, Georgia and Li’l Mama. Alex’s favorite food is some kind of cheese on some kind of bread.