A how-to on incorporating cheese into Oktoberfest celebrations.
Oktoberfest celebrations—those cheerful, colorful odes to German beer and culture—kick off all over the world in September. Attendees at one of these events, whether they go to an official celebration in Munich or a smaller gathering in their community, can expect to find a specific style of drink that can be found as soon as the weather starts to cool and leaves begin to fall. It’s known as Oktoberfest beer, and it’s a winner with cheeses of all kinds.
According to Christian DeBenedetti, author of “The Great American Ale Trail” and owner of Wolves and People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg, OR, Oktoberfest beer is generally thought to have sprung out of a tradition started by the Bavarian royal family. “The first so-called Oktoberfest beer was served for a royal wedding, and Oktoberfest became an ongoing fall tradition in which a bolder, somewhat spicier offering of traditionally lighter German beers would emerge for the season,” he says. These beers tend to be a touch nuttier, hoppier, higher in alcohol and darker in color than the pale blond lagers that are often associated with Germany.
DeBenedetti called Oktoberfest quaffers “bountiful beer for bountiful occasions” and says brewers tend to stay true to the style when making them. “There’s no one recipe for Oktoberfest beer, and there’s certainly a lot of variation around the world. People also use Oktoberfest styles of beer as an inspiration. But there’s a lot of reverence for beer tradition, so it’s definitely not a style that strays widely.”
That being said, the narrow range of Oktoberfest-style beers does include a few lighter choices as well as darker ones. That means there is an option for nearly every beer lover in this category.
Festival goers at an Oktoberfest celebration can expect to find hot pretzels, sausages and other traditional German foods—but cheese makes an outstanding pairing, as well. “Cheese is a staple food in Bavaria,” DeBenedetti points out. The key is to find cheeses that complement the beers well, and not end up with combinations that overwhelm either the drink or the dairy product.
The good news is that there are several great options for that. Steve Jones, national sales director for Spring Brook Farm in Burnett, WI, believes Oktoberfest beers are some of the best drinks to serve with cheese. Beer has three main components that add flavor: hops, yeast and malt. Bitter hops can be hard to match to other flavors. Beer yeast can be easier to work with because its esters complement some cheeses.
“Malt is my favorite of the flavor components to work with because it’s easy to understand,” he says. “With malt, you get those grainy notes. In my mind, they’re a perfect pairing for cheese because cheese is basically a grain-based product, as cows are eating grains before they make the milk. There’s also a malty sweetness to Oktoberfest beers, and that makes it really easy for pairing. You don’t get that in a lot of beers out there, especially in this modern world of IPAs and sours and such.”
What cheeses, specifically, should make it onto the menu along with common Oktoberfest and other fall beer? There are several options based on the specific characteristics of the drinks at hand.
Cheeses for Darker Beers
In Jones’s mind, the darker, more copper-colored Oktoberfest beers are the “slam-dunk category” when finding cheeses that are a perfect match. His ideal pairing is an English farmstead cheese such as Cheshire, cloth-bound cheddar and Wensleydale.
“Comté and other Alpine cheeses are also going to work well with those beers,” he adds. Serve them with bratwurst or other German-style sausages, a sliced apple or a juicy pickle. “Pickles are really nice because they don’t distract and that little acidic hit is a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of beer.”
Another option for darker Oktoberfest beers is washed rind cheeses. “Try something with a little stinky funk to them,” Jones says. For that category, he likes Spring Brook Farm’s Morbier-style cheese. Called Ashbrook, it is made with raw Jersey cow milk and has a distinctive layer of vegetable ash running through the middle. It is aged for three months to give that pleasing bit of stink. Or serve up Nimble, a firm, mild cheese made with both goat and cow milk from Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, located in Cedar Grove, NC. Appropriately enough, it is washed with a mixture of local beer and brine.
“My number one recommendation for Oktoberfest drinking is Gouda,” says Michele Molier, manager of in-person events and education at New York City’s Murray’s Cheese. “Gouda tends to be a very kettle corn-style cheese, where you get the saltiness of the popcorn but the caramely flavor of caramel corn.”
Gouda, she continues, is an example of what’s known as a contrasting pairing. “There’s bitterness in the beer, and there’s sweetness in the Gouda, so you get two opposite things that line up nicely on the palate.” Although there are people who like that bit of bitterness, for others, “that slight touch of Gouda sweetness smooths out the beer’s bite.”
Murray’s has two Goudas that Molier believes are good choices with Oktoberfest beer. Its Estate Gouda has a nice mix of nuttiness, grassiness and richness, with some wheat and malted barley flavors that complement the flavors in the brews. Honey Goat Gouda combines honey and goat milk. The result is a creamy cheese with a warming sweetness and aromas of fresh hay. Both cheeses are made in The Netherlands, so they bring an old world flavor to the old-world spirit of Oktoberfest.
The opposite of a contrasting pairing is a resonance pairing, where similar flavors are paired together. “That’s where I would recommend cheddars,” says Molier. “Unlike Gouda, cheddars are salty and acidic and earthy, and that matches up well to the earthy bitterness of an Oktoberfest beer. I would go with a cloth-bound wheel of English cheddar over a domestic cheddar. English cheddars retain a lot of their earthy qualities like grassiness and maltiness.” Montgomery’s Cheddar is rubbed with lard before it’s wrapped in cloth to help the fabric stick. That extra layer of fat helps the cheese stands up to the rich beer.
Molly Browne, CCP, ACS CCSE, education manager for the Madison, WI-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, agrees that the robust, umami flavor of aged cheddar is an ideal pairing with dark, spicy Oktoberfest beer (although she recommends adding a dollop of grainy mustard to the cheese to give it a little more kick).
For people whose thoughts turn to German-style beers with German-style cheeses rather than specifically Oktoberfest-style drinks in the fall, she has been a proponent of drinking Hefeweizen with brick cheese, the Wisconsin original that has been popularized by its use in Detroit-style pizza. It was invented by Swiss immigrant John Jossi, who worked at a Limburger plant after moving to the United States. “He knew Americans tended to have a more mild palate for cheese, so he wanted to make a less pungent version of Limburger,” Browne says. Sometimes referred to as the “married man’s Limburger,” the cheese has a lightly nutty and mild flavor with nice acidity. As it ripens, it takes on some of the pungency of its famously stinky cousin.
“To me, brick cheese pairs really beautifully with wheat beer,” says Browne. “Hefeweizen tends to be on the more floral side, and you can get some nice fruity nuance in those beers. That picks up on the more delicate notes that come through in brick.”
Browne is a proponent of the term “what grows together goes together.” Plus, she says, Germans have a very specific palate that is expressed in both their cheeses and beer. Keeping that in mind, she has a few thoughts on pairing beer and cheeses that have their origin in the European nation.
Butterkäse is perhaps the most ubiquitous cheese in Germany. It is a very mild, buttery, high fat content cheese that is quite creamy. It’s often called a table cheese because people will leave it sitting on the table, where it can easily be sliced, spread or used in cooking on a whim. Her recommendation is to enjoy it with Kölsch.
“Kölsch is very sessionable,” says Browne. “When you think about pairing, you want to consider the intensity of each item you’re pairing. You wouldn’t want to pair a really mild beer with a really pungent style of cheese.” Since Butterkäse and Kölsch are both quite mild, one won’t overwhelm the other.
In addition, the effervescence of Kölsch makes it perfect with this buttery cheese. “With a creamy, high fat content cheese, those bubbles are going to have a really nice palate cleansing effect. It’s going to refresh your palate and keep it ready for next bite,” Browne says. Americans who struggle to find the German version of butterkäse can look for ones made in Wisconsin.
Belgian ale is an ideal pairing for it is another well-known German cheese: Limburger. Belgian ales tend to have a bit of funk to them, which complements the famously stinky cheese nicely. Don’t be put off by the smell, Browne reminds those who are less familiar with Limburger. “The flavor can actually be really delicate mild and lean on the more meaty spectrum than the gross spectrum. Its bark is worse than its bite.” Common food pairings with Limburger, including summer sausage and onion jam, make sense for a fall or Oktoberfest spread.Browne has another less conventional recommendation, too. “Strawberry jam on the Limburger puts such a unique and interesting spin on that cheese. There’s just enough sweet and savory in the pairing that it surprises your palate in a good way.”