A learned palate is just that: learned, not innate. I used to know nothing about food other than it tasted good or bad to me. “I really like this,” “Ooh, this is nice.” Stuff like that. Knowing how to explain what you’re experiencing takes practice and learning from the pros.
The other day an Advanced Cicerone I follow on Instagram posted about not passing her Master Cicerone test, and determined to change her study strategy to: “more hands on learning, more practice tests, less reading.” (It was @pintsandpanels btw). I needed to hear this. My study strategy has been mostly reading, and while reading the material is fundamental for learning, there’s no substitute for tasting beer, playing with pairings, and coming up with the words yourself.
I’d been saving Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine in the fridge knowing I wanted to give it full attention at some point, plus a cheese pairing. I’d also been re-reading Garrett’s Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table and the paragraph describing his Brooklyn Brown Ale and potential pairings echoed in my taste buds, more than anything I’ve recently read. So I went to my local cheesemonger and asked for the oldest, crumbliest blue, and a tangy, fruity cheddar.
The scene: 1) Brooklyn Brown Ale with a vintage cheddar (Somerdale’s) and 2) Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine with Point Reyes Bay Blue. Served on mason jar lids because I don’t have small plates?! Here goes my best Garrett Oliver impression:
- The mild chocolate nuttiness of the brown ale brings out the smooth nuttiness of the cheese. Sweet caramel malt contrasts with the tangy, crystallized cheddar. Carbonation cuts and washes away mouth-coating fat. Hop bitterness lingers with stanky, milky, umami in the finish. This was a win.
- Intensity matches intensity. The bitingly brash, resiny hoppiness of the barleywine is subdued by the buttery texture — it’s almost as if the cheese is washing down the beer. Extreme hop bitterness is rivaled by the intensely earthy mold flavor of the blue cheese. Pockets of powdery spiciness match the herbal hop character. The warming alcohol sweetness seems to clash a little with the flaky creamy cheese on this one — I’m thinking I should have gone with a younger, gooier blue for this pairing.
If this is studying, I want to be a student for the rest of my life. I’ve been saving an Orval in my fridge for a full-on Brett assessment plus pairing of some sort. On to the next one!