Cheese Pairing with American Barleywine
After the response to my first cheese pairing post, I’ve decided to turn it into a semi-regular series! As regular as I feel like filling a plate with cheese and have someone to share it with, that is.
This pairing exercise was inspired by finding a 19.2oz can of…..American barleywine?! I couldn’t stop laughing about a 10% beer in a giant can for some reason and it was the only beer from Rock Art Brewing I could find on my visit in Vermont so I brought two home with me. And as any good blind taster does, I had a few Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywines in my tasting fridge.
The Beer – American Barleywine
It’s my least favorite style. So let’s just get that out of the way. I find the sharply bitter hop charge to run headfirst into too-strong toffee and caramelized prune flavors of the malt causing more unrest than harmony on my palate. But, just because I don’t like it doesn’t make it any less of a style.
It is the most bitter style on the BJCP clocking in at 50 to 100 IBU. In classic examples, many of those IBUs come from the more dank and piney varieties of American hops. Bigfoot’s hops are Cascade, Centennial, Chinook fitting the bill perfectly. But as all things become more “juicy” in the beer world more modern barleywines are being made with citrus forward hops.
American Barleywines should fall between 8% and 12% according to the BJCP and both of these examples do, although, of course, brewers don’t have to stick to these guidelines. For example, The Bruery’s MASH has 13.3%, off the top of my head.
The BJCP 10-19 SRM puts American Barleywine squarely in the pale amber to amber brown range. This color usually comes from flavorful caramelized malts like crystals or cara-malts instead of malts that are used for color (like huskless varieties including carafe special). In darker examples malt gives toffee, pretzel, and sometimes figgy or prune-like flavors but lighter barleywines may have a shortbread biscuit or bread crust malt flavor. These powerful flavors from the malt should still play second fiddle to the hop bitterness (or else you’re getting into English Barleywine territory).
Overall both the Vermonster from Rock Art and the Bigfoot from Sierra Nevada fit very snugly within the BJCP guidelines. The Rock Art leans slightly more floral and caramelly while the Bigfoot is more piney and has an almost cinnamon stick-like malt character to me. All of the strong flavors in the beer means it needs an intense cheese pairing.
The Cheese Plate
This was one of my less crowded cheese plates for designing cheese pairings. It’s also a meat-free plate for my vegetarian friends.
Gorgonzola Blue Cheese – An Italian blue with plenty of sharp, pungent veins balanced by creamy fat with a crumbly texture. This cheese leans salty and buttery with a slightly tart finish.
VSOC 5 Year Aged Gouda – Like all gouda, this one is Dutch. It has a butterscotch and pecan flavor with plenty of my favorite crunchy salt crystals throughout from age. There is also a slight perfume floral note that reminded me of tree bark.
Onion Spread – This was an appetizer plate for pizza night! I used this three onion reduction as a “sauce” on one pizza, the recipe is below. It is sweet in the balance with some garlic sharpness as balance and seasoned with a touch of salt.
Dried Tart Montmorency Cherries – These are up there in my favorite Trader Joe’s products. They’re the same tart cherries used in many sour beers dried and unsweetened. They balance slightly sour but not enough to make your mouth pucker with plenty of juicy cherry flavor.
Pecans – Nutty but unsalted so slightly bland, a good tool for toning down other flavors.
Butter Crackers & Multigrain Crackers – One super buttery cracker that tastes rich and fatty. One cracker that tastes of walnut, wheat, and multigrain sandwich bread.
Cracker one is a helping of nutty flavors. Pieces of gouda, a tart cherry, and a pecan piled on top of the multigrain cracker come together for lots of nuttines and a little fat.
Why the Cheese Pairing Might Work
The cracker and pecan both emphasize the subtle nutty notes in the beers’ malt bills. The cherry adds a bit of balancing sweetness and acidity to the bitterness of the beers while the cheese’s powerful butterscotch flavor and salt matches the intensity of the beer.
Cracker number two is built on the rich buttery cracker. The creamy yet biting Gorgonzola over a healthy smear of sweet onion reduction with that snap of garlic flavor.
Why the Cheese Pairing Might Work
There is subtle sweetness in the beers’ grist hidden under all of that bitterness the onion accentuates that a bit. The biting garlic and hint of green-ness in the onion reduction transforms the American hop flavors into more of a grassy and woody expression, potentially tamping down some of the dankness. The heavy texture and fat of the Gorgonzola with the butter cracker should minimize the impact of the bitterness on the palate.
The Winning Cheese Pairing
Cracker number two is crowned the champion for this barleywine and cheese pairing, but it wasn’t a runaway victory like the tripel pairing. The butter cracker and the onion jam worked quite well as a complement enhancing some of the hop grassiness and sweet malt flavors but it was the acidity of the Gorgonzola that was the unexpected star of this pairing.
Adding that acidity brightened the experience of tasting both the onion and the beer. Suddenly there was more space between the flavors of the barleywine allowing the malt to feel more luxurious and caramel-y with the hop notes of sunny pine forest over top. The beer wasn’t too intense to obscure the funk of the cheese and the cheese wasn’t tart enough to overtake the most subtle resinous flavors in the beers. Applause to the butter cracker for keeping the beer from being too bitter or metallic when interacting with the tangy cheese.
How to Make Super Easy Onion Spread
- 2 tablespoons Olive Oil
- 3 Onions, roughly chopped (I used two yellow and one red)
- 2-5 Cloves Garlic, peeled
- Beer or Beef Stock (you can use vegetable stock too)
Heat olive oil over medium heat until the consistency thins. Add onions and garlic and turn heat to medium low.
Allow to soften for about 5 minutes, then add salt and turn heat to low.
Allow to sweat, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, onions should NOT brown. This is the perfect time to assemble the rest of your plate.
Add a few tablespoons to ½ cup of beer, stock, or really any liquid just to add moisture to the pot and keep onions from scorching. Sweat another 20 to 30 minutes until the liquid has mostly evaporated.
Transfer mixture to a blender or food process and pulse until the texture resembles a coarse apple sauce. Season with salt to taste.
Spread on anyyyyything!