Style Wise: a guide to pairing American craft beer & cheese
Discover the wide range of American craft beer styles
Much as is the case with the American artisan cheese movement, domestic craft brewers are taking some cues from historical styles of European brewing. Nearly every craft brewery, for instance, has a version of pale ale in its quiver. But it’s what Americans have done to that style—dating back to 1800s England—that has put the United States at the center of the modern-day brewing universe.
In the following pages you’ll find a synopsis of the beer styles that are at the forefront of the craft beer community. Inevitably, there are wonderful styles, beers, and breweries that don’t fit this concise context—and in all honesty, that’s something to be celebrated. We’re happy to live in a world where there aren’t enough pages to cover all that American beer has to offer.
Note: Alcohol by volume (ABV) is a standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in an alcoholic beverage.
American Pale Ale
The original calling card of early American beer revivalists, the pale ale showcases something that Americans hadn’t experienced from 1930 to the 1980s: a prominent hop profile. And that profile comes to us in the form of West-Coast–grown hop varietals such as Chinook, Columbus, and Cascade, all of which provide a far different flavor compared to the old-world hops of Germany, the Czech Republic, and England.
Tasting Notes: Look for U.S. pale ales to hit your nostrils hard with aromas of pine and grapefruit. From there you’ll find that most have a malt backbone with just enough caramel and toasty flavors to balance out the hoppy bitterness and drying finish. ABV: 4.5–6.2%
Examples: Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Two Brothers Bitter End Pale Ale.
Cheese Pairings: American pale ales tend to have enough malt characteristics (bready, biscuity, caramelly) to work really nicely with the bite of aged and clothbound cheddars. Look to Cabot Clothbound, Beecher’s Flagship Reserve, and Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar.
The term “India pale ale” (or IPA) refers to ye olde times when brewers found that hop served as a natural preservative in beer, which came in handy during long voyages over the high seas to, say, India. Today the IPA is a chance for American craft brewers to showcase their favorite West Coast hops.
Tasting Notes: Those piney, citrusy aromas are front and center after just one whiff of most American IPAs. Look for similar flavors and a relatively strong bitterness up front. There’s plenty of malt flavor here as well, but it serves to balance the hop profile. ABV: 5.5–7.5%
Cheese Pairings: Given the robust flavors and aromas of this style, you’ll need a cheese that packs a pretty big punch. Big, salty, tangy blues are a perfect match. Look to anything from Rogue Creamery, as well as Shepherd’s Way Big Woods Blue and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Ewe’s Blue.
American Imperial IPA
The phrase “less is more” hasn’t quite made it into the American craft beer vernacular, and this is no more evident than with the big, bold style that is an imperial IPA (or double IPA, as some brewers call it). By adding the term “imperial” to an IPA label, brewers are telling drinkers to ready themselves for an all-out assault on the palate, with hoppy bitterness leading the charge.
Tasting Notes: An intense citrus aroma leads the way to a downright aggressive hop bitterness, but there are complex malt flavors backing it all up. And since more hop in a beer generally leads to more malt, there are going to be high levels of warming alcohol as well. ABV: 7.5–10%
Cheese Pairings: While this style can certainly stand up to just about any blue, it’s also perfectly suited to match even the most potent washed-rind cheeses. Look to Consider Bardwell Dorset or Marin French Schloss.
American Wheat Ale
Wheat beer has long been the “gateway beer” for those beginning their foray into craft brewing. Most brewers have forgone the classic German hefeweizen style for beers with more clean flavors and a stronger hop aroma. The typical 30-to-70 ratio of malted wheat to malted barley gives most wheat beers a bright and crisp flavor that even the most hardened macro-beer drinker will find approachable.
Tasting Notes: Some mild fruitiness and tangy hop on the nose gives way to creaminess, robust carbonation, and a dry, spicy finish. Wheat beers spiced with coriander or orange peel, or beers with that classic banana and clove combination, don’t really fall into the classic American wheat category, but they are delicious all the same. ABV: 3–5.5%
Cheese Pairings: Wheat beer and fresh cheeses (namely fresh goat’s milk cheeses) are a match made in heaven. The bright flavors of both beer and cheese are perfect for one another. Look to Capriole Fresh Chèvre and Hidden Springs Driftless Natural.
Guinness this is not! Americans brew big, strong, robust stouts that meld together roasted malt characteristics with an American hop profile. The result is an amalgamation of coffee, chocolate, pine, caramel, and warming alcohol. Imperial stouts have also popped up, and, unsurprisingly, they represent even more big malt sweetness and hop bitterness.
Tasting Notes: American stouts are oftentimes inky black with a light brown head of carbonation. Flavors are a blend of caramel, espresso, and baker’s chocolate, with a nice dry finish. Imperial stouts can begin to gain dark fruit and portlike flavors as well. ABV: 5–7%; 8%+ for imperials
Cheese Pairings: Based on the “strong beers with strong cheeses” mantra, you can find dynamite pairings between stouts and blues. But aged Goudas with roasty, caramelly flavors and a hint of salt are perfect for American stouts too. Look to Holland’s Family Marieke Gouda, Beemster X-O-, and Vintage 3-Year Gouda.
American Barleywine Ale
An oldie but a goodie when it comes to English brewing. Craft brewers have done this historical style justice yet completely Americanized it. This is a beer with a crazy malt content to begin with—hence “barley” wine—but many American brewers have added an equally crazy hop profile. The result is a magical combination of grapefruit juice and sherry. This is one beer that, when sitting at room temperature, will totally blow your beer-lovin’ mind.
Tasting Notes: Expect a hoppy nose mixing with a serious malty sweetness that hits the palate—depending on aging—with flavors of ripe fruit, caramel, and warming alcohol. More traditional American interpretations will have an earthy, English hop profile that allows bready and earthy aromas and flavors. ABV: 7–12%
Cheese Pairings: Blues, blues, blues. On a cold winter night, pour an American barleywine into a snifter, grab a nice wedge of salty blue, and get ready for a palate paradigm shift. Look to Rogue River Blue for pairing with more Americanized barleywines and Cambozola Black Label for more English-style examples.
American Amber Ale
One of the first styles to gain prominence during the craft beer revolution of the mid-1990s, amber ale serves as an agreeable yet interesting option for the craft beer convert. Beverage store shelves were inundated with this style ten years ago, but today the more worthy ambers have come to the fore.
Tasting Notes: Amber ale is a malt-forward style. It can display a subtle hop aroma, but it maintains a focus on the caramel and sweet maltiness that make this style so agreeable to beer drinkers fearful of hoppy bitterness. While hops may be prominent toward the finish, expect the malt sweetness to linger on the palate as well. ABV: 4.5–6.2%
Examples: Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, Bell’s Amber Ale.
Cheese Pairings: Ambers are kind of utility beers when it comes to pairings, so you can’t go wrong with a hard cheese that exhibits some similar sweet characteristics. Look to Vella Dry Monterey Jack or Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold.
American Brown Ale
While brown ale is one of the original English session beers (meaning a beer with lower alcohol levels meant for repeated consumption), the American versions tend to up the ante of both malt and hop content. The result is a superbly food- and cheese-friendly beer that must have some toasty malt flavors, but with varying degrees of American hop qualities. Delicious, yes. A session beer? Probably not.
Tasting Notes: In hoppier versions, expect grapefruit aromas on top of toffee and toasty notes. Flavors tend to exhibit prominent caramel sweetness and can even lead toward hints of chocolate and roasted nuts. The finish can be medium dry with some noticeable bitterness. ABV: 4.3–6.2%
Examples: Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale, Brooklyn Brown Ale.
Cheese Pairings: The caramel notes in the beer are ideal for pairing with nutty Alpine cheeses—either with or without those pungent beefy characteristics. The sweetness of each complements the other nicely, and the mild hop profile cleanses the palate of any lingering dairy. Look to Roth’s Private Reserve by Roth Käse or Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise.
American Vienna Lager
Another of the original American craft beer styles, the Vienna lager (or amber lager, as it’s often called) originally served as a stepping-stone from the classic pilsner styles that Americans were comfortable with. This style gave brewers some leeway to play with caramel malts and West Coast hops, while still maintaining those comforting, clean lager characteristics.
Tasting Notes: Vienna lagers exhibit soft malt sweetness and a blend of American and German/Czech hops in their aroma. Toasty malt flavors will be present, and you may even notice some mild fruitiness resulting from a higher-than-normal lager fermentation temperature. The hop profile can be a blend of American and European varietals. ABV: 4.5–5.5%
Cheese Pairings: A versatile pairing beer for sure, but the palate-cleansing qualities are best utilized for firm cheeses with buttery textures. Look to Hook’s aged cheddars (the ten-year is a nice match).
Perhaps no other style has been as bastardized by American industrial brewing as the pilsner. But the yellow, fizzy stuff in a can is certainly no pilsner. The classic pilsner—which has been expertly replicated by many American craft brewers—displays some of the cleanest malt character of any beer. And depending on the subcategory of pilsner (German or Bohemian), you’ll notice varying degrees of spicy European hops.
Tasting Notes: You’ll find herbal and spiced aromas of European hops on the nose, with clean, grainy malt aromas as well. Hop bitterness is present in both subcategories, but the German style will have far more lingering hop bitterness than its Bohemian counterpart, which displays more sweetness. ABV: 4.2–5.4%
Cheese Pairings: Be careful not to overwhelm the delicacy of this beer style. Try ripe bloomy-rind cheeses with earthy flavors for ideal pairing opportunities. The spicy, floral hops in a pilsner play nicely with a Camembert’s mushroomy notes, while the crisp maltiness and carbonation of the beer clean the creamy, buttery paste. Look to Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam and MouCo Camembert.
American Belgian-Style Ales
This is clearly a huge umbrella category that contains everything from a boozy tripel to a spicy saison. American craft brewers have done well to pay homage to the classic Belgian styles and breweries. There was a time not long ago when an American brewer wouldn’t have dreamed of brewing a year-round Belgian-style beer, but today’s craft beer fans have become smitten with such styles, and they’re excited to see their local craft brewery flex their Brussels muscles.
Tasting Notes: There’s a huge range, but with most Belgian styles you can expect fruity esters resulting from Belgian yeast strains that ferment at higher temperatures. Spicy hop aroma and flavors, relatively high levels of carbonation, and soft malt characteristics are also evident. ABV: varies widely, from 4.5–11%
Cheese Pairings: With a wide range of styles for pairings, Belgian beers can cover a lot of ground. Spicy saisons with a little funk cut through gooey bloomy-rind cheeses. Tripels have enough alcohol and fruity notes to work with potent washed-rind cheeses. The world is your oyster here, but Redwood Hill Camellia can match a bright effervescent Saison and Twig Farm Washed Rind Wheel goes with a tripel or Belgian strong ale.
Written by Andy Jenkins