Would You Like Some Cheese with That Beer?

Greg Engert, the only beer expert ever to be named Sommelier of the Year in 2010 by Food and Wine Magazine, first got his interest in fine craft beers from his father. After he studied abroad in Munich and Dublin, his taste for international brewing developed. Engert now works with chefs to pair foods with beers and strives to promote the seriousness of beer in a wine-centric world. He was at Central Market's Cooking School Saturday evening to teach a Beer, Cheese, and the Confluence of Flavor class.

Engert, a gregarious man with a lot to say, bedazzled, if not bewildered, his students with his infinite beer knowledge. Upon arrival, each class member received an 18-page packet denoting all the beers and cheeses to be tried that evening. A plate with eight cheeses was set on the table along with eight beer samples, each served in a wine glass conducive to swirling and smelling. "Friction and movement," said Engert, "causes heat, and this heat sends up the aroma." He also noted that temperature was an important part of aroma -- the lighter the beer, the more chilled it can be served, but as beers become more complex and thus richer on the palate, they should be served at warmer temperatures.

To Engert, a good beer has to taste amazing at the start, in the middle, and at the finish. But in the end, he said, it's all a matter of preference. He paired the eight beers and eight cheeses in a particular order but encouraged cross-tasting and flavor exploration. After all, food, like art, is often a matter of taste, and this down-to-earth attitude made him immediately likable.

According to Engert, beers are no longer classified by region (i.e. Belgian beers can now be made in the U.S.) because grains can be stored and shipped. Instead, Engert categorizes beers by type and/or taste.

TASTING #1 Category: Tart and funky Beer: Duchesse de Bourgogne Cheese: Taleggio

The Duchesse de Bourgogne, which tasted sweet, almost like champagne, is a Flemish red ale aged for 18 months in oak barrels. Tart and funky beers go well with wash rind cheeses, and the Italian Taleggio is a semi-soft, fatty cheese made of whole cow's milk.

TASTING #2 Category: Smoked Beer: Stone Smoked Porter Cheese: San Simon Smoked Cheddar

The smoked porter tasted rich, deep, and roasted, almost like coffee. In addition to pairing well with meat and chocolate, the smoked porter is naturally a match for smoked cheeses. The Spanish San Simon smoked cheddar is a semi-firm, cow's milk cheese smoked after production. Smoked cheese was long ago discovered when heat was used to keep away flies; nearby foods were caught in the incidental smoke and soaked up that woody flavor. Brewing used to be outlawed during the summer because heat increased the likelihood of infection. Thus in order to prepare for winter, grains were dried over the fire, and this was the birth of smoked beers.

TASTING #3 Category: Mildly fruity and spicy Beer: St. Arnold Weedwacker Cheese: Bucheron

A Houston brew similar to the Bavarian hefeweizen, The Weedwacker from St. Arnold is a sweeter, less bitter beer made fruity and spicy with top-fermenting yeast. Because Weedwacker is a more refreshing beer, it pairs well with a cheese that's only slightly funky, such as the Bucheron, an aged goat's milk cheese. The aging process gives the outside a soft, brie-like texture, while the inside is tangy and slightly drier. Bucheron is one of the first French cheeses to ever be imported to the U.S.

TASTING #4 Category: Intensely fruity and spicy Beer: Boulevard Sixth Glass Cheese: Humboldt Fog

The Sixth Glass is a full-bodied beer with a rich, caramel malty flavor. It is fruitier and spicier than the Weedwacker. It was paired with the American Humboldt Fog, a soft, ripened, goat's milk cheese.

TASTING #5 Category: Porter/Stout Beer: Anchor Porter Cheese: Petit Basque

The complex, bitter tastes of many porters and stouts make them exclusive pairs to high protein foods like roasted and pan-seared meats or oysters. The Anchor Porter's rich, dark flavors went well with the Petit Basque, a sheep's milk cheese. Sheep's milk, similar to that of goat, is fruity and tangy. It is saltier and nuttier, and not as mellow or clean-tasting as cow's milk.

TASTING #6 Category: Winter Ale Beer: Full Sail Wassail Cheese: Blue Stilton

When the Wassail is brewed, it's a sure sign of winter. The Wassail's caramel malty flavor pairs well with blue cheese, as would a barley wine due to their less bitter, slightly sweet tastes. The Stilton is an English blue-veined cheese known for its strong smell and taste. When paired together, the blue cheese drew forth the Wassail's malty sweetness.

TASTING #7 Category: Hops Beer: Real Ale Lost Gold IPA Cheese: New Zealand 4-year-old Cheddar

Hops are what brings, among other things, the bitterness to the beer. Back in the day, hops were used to make the beer last longer for exporting; thus, Indian Pale Ales (better known as IPAs) tend to be hoppier, therefore more bitter, than other beers. Engert noted that women experience bitterness more intensely than men, which explains why I'm into Belgian beers while my husband is into IPAs. Historically, women drank more wine while men imbibed more beer. As a general rule, the more bitter the beer, the more intense the cheese, and thus the Real Gold IPA was paired with a four-year-old aged cheddar, rich and flavorful.

TASTING #8 Category: Marzen Oktoberfest Beer: Rahr and Sons Oktoberfest Cheese: Appenzeller

Before the existence of refrigerators, brewing ended in March (Marzen) and began again in the fall. The Oktoberfest celebrates this tapping of the keg. The aptly named lager from Rahr and Sons is dark amber in color, medium in body, malty in finish. It was paired with the Appenzeller, a hard Swiss wash rind cheese made with cow's milk.

While Engert came up with these suggested beer and cheese parings, he reiterated that it will always come down to preference. Sweet things make already dry foods taste dryer; no cheese is completely dry, and no beer is completely dry, and so this similarity is what makes beer go well with cheese. Spicy foods can make alcohol taste like paint thinner, and so lighter beers are preferred for hot dishes. Bitterness and tannins can make things taste worse, so Engert suggests cooking with wine and not with beer. "Beer is for pairing," he said. "Wine is better for cooking because it's sugar-based."

So why all this sudden attention to beer? Effervescence is the trend now -- you'll see a lot more beer and champagne served at restaurants as accompaniments to dishes in lieu of typical wine. Beer is also rising in popularity because cuisine is changing. Diners want flavor first and foremost, and beers have flavors that further accentuate the flavors of the table. This is in part due to the commonality beer has with food: it's grain-based while wine is fruit-based.

Greg Engert imparted so much knowledge during the two-hour class that by the end, we were stunned question-less. After a few minutes of silence, we did manage to ask Engert what his favorite beer of all time was , and he immediately dismissed the question, saying he doesn't have one of those. His impartiality reflects his all-around enthusiasm for beer, making him not just another one of those hipster beer snobs in spite of his skinny jeans and shaggy hair. With enthusiasts like Greg Engert in this world, beer may finally get the respect it deserves as a serious dinner-table beverage, like wine.

Want to learn more about food and cuisine than you'd ever bargained for? Check out the Central Market Cooking School's class schedule and book a class today.

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