Quest for perfect union

Great Kiwi Beer Festival
Great Kiwi Beer Festival

On Saturday afternoon I'll be presenting a beer and cheese tasting at the Great Kiwi Beer Festival in Christchurch's Hagley Park.

My love of pairing beer with cheese goes back to my former life in England, when I used to enjoy going out for weekend lunches at country pubs. Lunch usually consisted of a ploughman's lunch washed down with a couple of pints of real ale - a match made in heaven.

Most English bitters have caramel malt flavours which echo similar flavours in many of the country's hard and semi-hard cheeses. Darker English bitters and mild ales tend to be a shade sweeter, often with nutty malt flavours, and these are brilliant when paired with crumblier, more acidic English cheeses such as cheshire and lancashire.

Meanwhile the tart, earthy bitterness of English hops and the gentle carbonation of traditional cask-conditioned ales work together to cleanse the palate of any lingering fattiness from the cheese.

A pint of English ale is also a perfect match for that other traditional component of a ploughman's lunch, the pickled onion. As any wine lover will know, food that's been pickled in vinegar is a nightmare to match with wine. Beer, however, can handle the task admirably.

But there's more to pairing cheese with beer than a ploughman's lunch with a pint of English bitter and I'm hoping to prove that on Saturday. Although the tasting is restricted to just 45 minutes I'll be cramming in four types of cheese matched with four different beer styles.

My choice of cheeses was confirmed during the New Year holidays when I visited Banks Peninsula with friends from Christchurch. I have long admired the aged cheddar from cheesemakers Barrys Bay, but had never previously had time to visit the company's factory and shop a few minutes' drive from Akaroa.

Barrys Bay is worth the stop. We called in on a busy day and although the factory was closed it was visible through a large window to the rear of the shop. Despite being busy the shop staff were friendly, welcoming and patient, and they knew their cheeses.

When Barrys Bay produced its first cheddar in 1895 it was one of nine small, family-owned dairy co-operatives dotted around Banks Peninsula. Now, more than a century later, the company is the sole producer on the peninsula and continues to handcraft its cheeses the traditional way, using milk from grass-fed, Banks Peninsula friesian cows.

While tasting some of the cheeses I mentioned my passion for beer and cheese matching to one of the staff and suggested we might work together at the upcoming festival. The idea was welcomed and we've since agreed on four cheeses to be sampled on Saturday.

Having tried the cheeses, I've now picked four beers to go with them. Saturday's tasting will, however, be the first time I've tried them together. As they're all craft products which change from batch to batch, my fingers are firmly crossed.

The first pairing, Barrys Bay aged maasdam with Emerson's Pilsner, could go either way. With its comparative lack of malt character and hop accent, the Pilsner lager style can be difficult to match with cheeses, but I'm quietly optimistic. Maasdam is a holey, rubbery-textured cheese that's stylistically similar to an emmental and I'm hoping its sweet fruity (pineapple?) character will find harmony with the passionfruit and citrusy Riwaka hop notes in the Emerson's Pilsner.

If it works it should be a sensational pairing; if it doesn't, I'll be moving swiftly on.

I'm more confident about the second match; Barrys Bay cheshire with Emerson's Bull's Head Troopers Stout. Brewed to commemorate the opening of the new military gallery at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum and Don Mackay's book The Troopers' Tale: The History of the Otago Mounted Rifles, the beer was modelled on an early-1900s recipe and features rolled oats and a range of dark malts.

There's also a family link: Dunedin brewer Richard Emerson's great grandfather, Albert Emerson, served in South Africa as a mounted rifleman in 1902 and as an infantryman during the next war. He was one of a handful of soldiers to be awarded the prestigious Meritorious Service Medal, not once, but twice.

Even though I haven't yet tasted the beer it sounds a cracker. "A jet black stout, with subtle hints of chocolate and roast malt aroma . . . smooth fruity, chocolate flavours and a clean finish", claims the brewery website. I'll be looking for nutty, roasty flavours and a smooth texture to balance the tart sharpness of the splendid crumbly white cheshire cheese.

The third pairing will see the classic Barrys Bay Wainui special mature cheddar served with Emerson's Bird Dog IPA. Matching the sharp, earthy flavours of this traditional rinded cheddar with a pale ale ought to be a doddle, but once again I've taken a risk with the beer. Made with a cocktail of fruity American and New Zealand hops, Bird Dog is a robust New World IPA and far bigger in hop aroma and flavour than most English IPAs, so I'm hoping it won't overwhelm the cheese.

The final pairing should be a dead cert. Beer experts usually pair blue cheese with a barley wine - traditionally the strongest ale made by an English brewery, but I'm going to try a variation on the theme. Instead of serving Barrys Bay Peninsula Blue with a strong English ale style I'm going to pit it against a weighty, malt accented German-style lager.

Chestnut coloured, with plenty of bready and caramelised malt and raisin-like dark fruit notes and balanced by a lingering hop dryness, Dale's Doppelbock should stand up to and cut through the rich creaminess and sharp bite of the blue cheese. I'm hopeful it'll be a marriage made in heaven.

Barrys Bay cheeses are widely distributed but if you have trouble tracking down the aged specialties I've mentioned, call the factory on 03 304 5809 or ordering them online at Finding the beers should require nothing more than a visit to your local specialist retailer.


The Marlborough Express