Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to disparage the longstanding relationship that cheese and wine have enjoyed over the past gazillion years. That’s a lot of history. I’m not going to suggest that beer and cheese are far more natural and effective companions, when compared to wine and cheese. No, no—I’m not saying that here. That discussion may have to wait for culture’s second issue.
For now I’d just like to point out that the parallels between domestic craft beer and the continued emergence of American artisan cheese are quite staggering. Both exemplify the creative spirit of the American culinary scene. Both are proof of Americans’ ability to take the best of traditional European farmstead products and make them their own.
And in no particular style of beer is the creativity of American craft brewers more evident than in barley wine. Sure, this is a somewhat adventurous style of beer to discuss within culture’s inaugural pages, but c’mon—it’s winter, and the time is ripe to enjoy snifters of beer and wedges of potent blue or cheddar cheese next to the fire. It should be noted that most craft brewers tend to release their barley wines just once a year, though you can usually find the previous season’s offerings that have been aging on the store shelf for months.
In short, a barley wine is a top-fermented ale—meaning yeast sits atop the beer, eating up sugars in the malted barley and turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Look for deep amber hues; lots of sweetness and residual sugars; flavors of toffee, sherry, and dark fruit; and serious levels of alcohol (between 8.5 and 14 percent alcohol by volume).
Barley wines have been brewed in Europe since the early 1700s. Today’s domestic craft brewers have taken the style and, for lack of a better word, Americanized the barley wine. The hearty use of hops has become the calling card of American craft brewers. The hopheads that run breweries such as Three Floyds and Stone have certainly left their stamp on American barley wine, using hop bitterness to combat the prominent fruit and sweetness of their barley wines.
But enough about beer as it stands alone. As is the case with any cheese and beverage pairing, we’re always looking for a beer that will both complement and contrast with the cheese (and vice versa) in interesting and often mind-blowing ways. This is where barley wine poses challenging roadblocks—and huge payoffs. Here are a few of my most cherished American barley wines and their best domestic cheese counterparts.
Three Floyds Behemoth Barley Wine with Rogue River Blue
Perhaps one of the most hopped-up of all the American barley wines, Behemoth melds the grapefruit and citrus of hops with the traditional sherry and malty sweetness of traditional barley wines. Expect the caramel in this beer to nicely complement the sherry sweetness of Rogue River Blue, as wheels are wrapped in brandy-soaked grape leaves. Meanwhile, the prominent hop addition will cut through the cheese’s crystallized amino acids and slightly granular mouth feel.
Brooklyn Brewery Monster Ale Barley Wine-Style with Jasper Hill Farms Bayley Hazen Blue
Brewmaster Garrett Oliver’s nod to the great English brewers is arguably one of the more traditional barley wines made in the U.S. today. The 2007 version I sampled had lost a good deal of its aromatic hop characteristics, leaving more of the traditional sweetness, resulting from the use of three mashes of heirloom British malts. Because of the more traditional nature of this beer, it makes sense to pair it with an American cheesemaker’s adaptation of the classic English Stilton. The buttery, chocolate-like texture of Mateo Kehler’s Bayley Hazen Blue dances with the sherry and warming alcohol of the Monster, then leaves the palate with some of those fantastic earthy, woodsy notes.
Stone Brewing Co. Old Guardian Barley Wine with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
While the California brewing brethren have always been known to take advantage of the beautiful hop varieties indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, Stone decided to stick with traditional English hops (East Kent Golding and First Gold) for its 2008 version of Old Guardian. The earthiness of English hops presents itself rather strongly in the young barley wine, but that can be a great thing when paired with a traditionally made clothbound cheddar, such as the Cabot Clothbound. The cheese’s biting, horseradish notes and earthiness play very nicely with the beer’s soothing fruitiness and spicy English hops.