Sud Savant: Fort Collins – Z Lager & Food Pairing

Once upon a time, a very nice lady named Wendy sent me some vouchers for free cheese after I wrote about Cabot cheeses when they attended a beer festival I attended last summer. I was stoked to get them (since I always enjoy Cabot cheeses) and couldn’t wait to pair them with some great craft beer.

But wait I would…It took me a while to finally USE the coupons and another long while to actually partake of the cheese itself. The wait is over. I’ve been fascinated with beer/food pairings ever since I heard of the idea. Wines are often limited in this arrangement by their acidity (at least this is the argument given by beer-food pairers). Not to say that wines can’t compliment a food. On the contrary, they can and have for centuries. However, as we all know, craft beer is truly coming into it’s own, especially the last 20 years or so. Its flavors are far from finite, its smells are sundry, and its mouthfeels are many. It simply appears that beer would be able to pair better with foods given its range of forms and styles. Today, I get to find out by doing my first food-beer pairing. I elected to go with a complimentary pairing today and chose a food & beer that would be similar in taste and “compliment” each other. Other options are a “contrasting” pairing where the items contrast, but in an interesting albeit dissonant way. One can also choose to pair a strong beer with a milder food or vice versa. There are also camps that endorse a “stong beer, strong food” correlation (and vice versa). The best part is, there is no best way to do it. It’s taste! It’s flavor! No one can tell you that you’re wrong. What works for someone else might pair terribly for you. It’s all an adventure! Now go out there and get tasting! Let’s pour.

For the purposes of today’s review, I’ll score the beer as I usually do and then try to speak somewhat intelligently about how it pairs with the food.

Aroma 10/12: Being a rauchbier smoke is, of course, very prominent in the nose. This beer manages to do it without the smoke being overwhelming or giving the sensation of covering up an inferior brew. The smoke is far from campfire smoke, but falls just short of that sweet liquid smoke/mesquite tone. A bready malt as well as a lighter caramel lie just underneath the smoke and the bread is the easier of the two to detect.

Appearance 2/3: The beer looks very nice. It’s as clear as a summer afternoon and pours the color of a bright orange liqueur. The head is ivory in shade, but small even with an aggressive pour though its longevity was a bit surprising in length given the lack of size. It even left a little lace.

Flavor 17/20: It seems right off that there are a lot of malts that aren’t lending a ton of flavor on their own, but then again this is a lager and not an ale. They are biscuity light at first and the caramel appears even lighter and fainter than in the aroma. Thankfully, the backbone comes in strong with the tastes of a great, classic lager and a nice amber: a light, dull sweetness, a mild bitter, and a refreshing amount of carbonation. The smoke surprisingly takes a backseat to the lager flavors and instead rides along as a compliment to the amber notes (especially those mild bitters). The smoke is much more present in the finish! Still far from overwhelming, it is allowed more of a voice as it traverses the back of the tongue and leaves a dry finish. It’s smokiness blends nicely with a hint of spice and a stonger amber sweetness. The aftertaste is a nice bitter (especially for a lager) and wisps of the smoke.

Mouthfeel 5/5: This feels like a lager should. It has a good level of carbonation that remains throughout the bottle and foams just enough in the mouth to lend a refreshing nature, but not so much as to come off creamy. The body is medium and feels substantial for the style.

Overall Impression 8/10: I’m conflicted. Part of me wants the bigger flavors that I find in my ales, even though I know that this is a lager and should have lighter and more subtle notes. I also appreciate very much that this beer did not try and hide a lesser quality product behind an overdone smoke flavor and/or aroma. In fact, this beer showed its lager roots loud and proud! It’s a damn good lager that happens to have some smoke in it. They just chose to have that smoke featured mostly in the aroma and in an exhale after swallowing.

Total 42/50: I really enjoyed the fact that this is a substantial lager masquerading as a rauchbier. Not only does the smoke never come close to acting as a gimmick, but it also barely interferes with a delicious lager – instead choosing to enhance the overall experience of the beer instead of showcasing a single feature. Does this make it complex? No. Does this beer go down surprisingly quick? Yes. Would I buy another sixer? Sure thing.

FCB Z Lager & Cabot Smokey Bacon Cheddar: Knowing already that the beer is more substantial in body and bitter than I originally anticipated, I can hope that the creaminess of the cheese will accentuate those characteristics even more.

The cheese on its own starts out with a typical cheddar body. Not crumbly like a 6-year cheddar, but not creamy like cheaper cheddar (and at almost $7 for the 8 oz brick, it better not!). Suitably creamy in the mouth and mostly cheddar flavors, but with the bacon’s saltiness sneaking around the palate. The real bacon flavor comes when chewing the cheese/bacon with the back teeth and the cheese starts to fall away. Then the bacon takes over in full swing and ends this cheese on a salty, smokey meat-filled note.

To be completely honest, this is an experiment for me. Do I drink the beer first and then eat the cheese? Vice versa? Hold the beer in my mouth, and then eat? I’ll test out some different options and get back to you. Right now, I’m going to try and not overthink it and just eat like I (or anybody else) would eat.

When tasting them together the smoke in the beer’s aroma is definitely stronger than the bacon in the cheese. It takes over at first, along with the lager flavors. After trying some different tasting methods, I have found one that works well: cheese, few chews, sip of beer, continue chewing. The cheddar starts out lightly crumbly and creamy plus nice cheddar flavors, with a bit of sharpness to it despite not being indicated on the packaging. A sip of the beer adds an amber sweetness and the smoke. However, continuing to chew allows the smoke and bitter of the rauchbier to transition beautifully to the salty bacon goodness inside the cheese. I couldn’t have planned a better transition if I tried.

How else better to wrap this up than to state the obvious? “Smokey beers go with smokey bacon cheeses.” Not the most complex pairing in the world, but definitely involves some of my favorites: a good lager, bacon, smoke, and a nice cheddar. That’s a darn good afternoon kids. I’d even try either of these foods with steak, pulled pork, baked beans, and definitely a burger. This combo receives my official endorsement and my strong recommendation to try it. I wouldn’t even wait til summer. This type of deliciousness knows no season.

Two last thoughts.
1. Thanks for reading!
2. It’s a bit of a new style/format of review. Let me know what you think. I’m more than receptive to feedback.

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!