"If you are eating a mild cheese, you should have a beer with low taste intensity. If you go for a very strong cheese, you need to go for a very strong beer."
So says Nicolas Soenen, the beer ambassador for Duvel, a Belgian brewer, and our guide for a memorable beer and cheese pairing in the basement of Antwerp restaurant Grand Cafe De Rooden Hoed. Soenen believes a good pairing is "when the flavours are not fighting in your mouth".
Most importantly, a good pairing is when "you taste a little bit of both in the aftertaste and something new is created".
The first rule of such a tasting session is that the cheese should always be eaten first (and swallowed) as it leaves a coating of fat and creaminess in the mouth, which the beer then cuts through, explains Soenen.
We start with a light vanilla-flavoured goat's cheese from Normandy (all the cheeses are provided by the award-winning Van Tricht family who have a store outside Antwerp; kaasmeestervantricht.be) and a "caramel-flavoured" 5 per cent De Koninck beer, served typically in the bolleke, or bowl-shaped glass, and then wind our way up in intensity.
The final pairing is a pungent Le Vieux Berger Roquefort and a Duvel Tripel Hop. At 9.5 per cent, the beer packs a punch and is a good match with the cheese. "The bitterness of this beer suits the bitterness of the cheese," he says.
Beer and cheese, it turns out, are a classic and timeless combination. Bars in Belgium have long served little cubes of cheese with beer. Yet combining the two in creative and inventive ways is a new phenomenon, according to Soenen. It has come about in the past five years with the advent of a handful of zythology courses launched in Belgium that are designed to create "beer sommeliers".
"Most people still think of wine when they think of cheese and there is nothing wrong with that," says Soenen. "But they should know they can also pair it with beer."
The advantage beer has over wine is the carbonation. "It really opens up the palate and the taste buds."