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Plain seared scallop: not bad. Seared scallop in a lemon brown butter sauce? Awesome. Tortilla chip: decent. Tortilla chip with fresh guacamole? Awesome. Any good dish: good. That dish with the right beer served alongside it? Much, much better.
The idea that a well-picked beer can improve whatever food you're serving has been driving a lot of my writing here recently: we've explored beer pairings to make for better barbecues and better Middle Eastern feasts, better Mexican meals and even amped up dessert courses.
But if you're like me, your meals are more often slapped together, thought up off the cuff, or inspired by a quick flip through your favorite cookbook. Meticulous planning doesn't always happen, especially on a weeknight. And if you're even more like me, there's no friggin' chance you're going to run to the bottle shop to get the perfect beer for that dinner you just thought up.
Don't think for a minute that means I'm left beerless and unsatisfied when it comes to supper sippin', though. My fridge is prepared for everything, and yours can be too.
With a well-picked sixer by your side, there's hardly a dish out there that can't be made better.
So here they are: the six beers you should always have in your fridge for killer pairings.
Gentle foods require gentle beers. In this hop-obsessed, booze-loving, sour-fanatical beer world we've built in the United States, gentle beers are increasingly tough to come by. Some call 'em boring, I call 'em perfect for a whole bunch of meals. Your fridge shouldn't be without 'em.
Belgian witbier and Bavarian hefeweizen are the beers I'm really talking about here—each with a soft wheaty sweetness underlying a coriander or clove-like spiciness and a range of citrusy and banana-like flavors from yeast or added spices.
Since they won't trample over subtle flavors, these beers are perfect for delicate vinaigrette-coated salads, some vegetable preparations, and many seafoods (from steamed mussels to sushi).
But the magic of these beers as versatile pairing machines lies in the fact that they can work with more powerful dishes too. These wheat beers can hang with spicy heat, sweetness, or acidity just as well as they can with plainer foods.
Where other beers would taste comparatively dry, bitter, or otherwise out of balance with fruit-based desserts, these wheat beers have the ability to match these dishes in sweetness while contributing layers of depth in the form of citrusy or banana-like aromatics and spice-like flavor.
While Thai food can force some beers out of balance with the heat of chili peppers, a dose sweetness, and acidity from lime juice, wheat beers embrace these flavors, absorbing their intensity and yielding an amazingly satisfying interaction of citrusy and bright flavor.
Mastering the art of making your own chicken tikka masala? Indian food is fair game for these beers: the bold spicing of these dishes will embrace the coriander and clove-like flavors of the beer while the wheaty sweetness helps to tame any spicy heat.
Having yourself a breakfast of maple-glazed ham and eggs? Ain't nothing wrong with a breakfast beer! You just have to call it brunch. Hefeweizen will match the sweetness of the ham and mimic the classic marriage of pork and clove. It's a refreshing part of this complete breakfast.
Witbiers to try: Hitachino Nest White Ale, St. Bernardus Wit, Logsdon Kili Wit*
Hefeweizens to try: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier, Sierra Nevada Kellerweis
Like wheat beers, traditional pilsners can handle dishes with a range of intensities. At 4 or 6% ABV, pilsners are all about the interplay of hop and malt flavor. If you can get a fresh one, your pilsner will be assertively bitter from a dose of earthy European hops, balanced by a white bread-like or honeyed maltiness.
Pilsner's earthy hoppiness helps it work with a whole range of similar flavors in vegetables like zucchini, asparagus, and beets. Work a little fatty cheese into your recipes to help soften the beer's bitterness, and you'll really have a pairing going.
Vegetable tempura is even better. The batter echoes the beer's malt, while the earthiness of pilsner's hops hooks into the vegetables while providing a current of bitter contrast to deep fried oily richness.
But there's more fun to be had once the fryer is hot and the pilsner's in hand. Fish 'n' chips and fried shrimp are both great places for this refreshing beer, again offering a bitter contrast to the sweetness of the seafood while matching the batter's bready flavor. Czech-style examples (like Pilsner Urquell) will work especially well, with a soft maltiness that will also match the delicate sweetness of shellfish and cod or haddock.
Pilsners to try: Pilsner Urquell, Trumer Pils, Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils
Wheat beers and pilsners are versatile, but they can't do it all. Saisons can pick up some of the slack. These are highly carbonated beers with an herbal, grassy, or earthy hop profile and a peppery and fruity aroma from an aggressive fermentation. They're great food beers.
Into bluefish, fresh anchovies, mackerel? There's nothing better than saison for fish that's a little more on the assertive side. The beer's scrubbing bubbliness cuts through mouth-coating oils or strong fishiness with ease, leaving you refreshed for your next bite. Bright citrus and peppery flavors offer great contrast in a way that a squeeze of lemon or a few twists of the pepper mill might. Herbaceous and earthy hops will forge a connection with the parsley, dill, or cilantro that might top your dish. I never even liked sardines until I had them grilled up and topped with lemon, parsley, and olive oil and served alongside a glass of Saison Dupont.
Bright, herb-heavy chicken dishes are brilliant with saison as well. Basil, tarragon, mint, and citrus of all varieties are flavors that will find parallels and connections in saison. Pesto-sauced pasta? No problem. Just about anything with chimichurri? Delicious.
Saisons to try: Saison Dupont, Boulevard Tank 7, Pretty Things Jack D'Or*
All the beers above are solid choices for your limited fridge real estate, but dark lagers are my pick for the best food-pairing beers on the planet.
Most dark lagers won't overwhelm your food with excessive bitterness, alcohol, or acidity. Instead, you'll find a focus on caramelly, toasty, bready and rich malt flavors. These flavors marry seamlessly with similar flavors created from the browning and caramelization that occurs when you're cooking. Is your dish described as "crispy," "roasted," or "browned?" Those are good signals that it'll work with dark lager of some kind. Making roasted chicken, crispy cauliflower, or slow-cooked pork shoulder? It's on.
Try amber-brown lagers like Märzen, Vienna, and dunkel with spicy Mexican and Cajun dishes or even tangy-hot Buffalo wings. The malty richness that defines these beers softens the spicy blow and keeps you reaching for your next bite.
Dark lagers are also spectacular with fried chicken, chili, pizza, burgers, and aged gouda, and they're mind-blowing with pork sausages served with sauerkraut and mustard. As I write this, I am alternating bites of chipotle enchiladas with sips of Ayinger's Altbairisch Dunkel. Life is good.
Richer, sweeter dark lagers like doppelbocks can handle dessert with ease. Chocolate or caramel-based desserts (or chocolate AND caramel based desserts!) and carrot cakes tie in beautifully to the beer's deep caramel flavors and buttery texture, and if your dessert follows a meal of pork loin or duck, you can stick with one beer all night and have amazing pairings from start to finish.
But dense doppelbocks aren't quite as versatile as dialed-back darker lagers like Märzen or dunkel. We've got limited space in this six-pack, and I'm going to give it to one of those. You pick.
Amber-brown lagers to try: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen, Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, Jack's Abby Copper Legend
Doppelbocks to try: Ayinger Celebrator, Weihenstephaner Korbinian, Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel
If you chose a Märzen, Vienna, or dunkel above, a dubbel can pick up some of those dishes that doppelbock would have covered, even though they're wildly different beers. While doppelbock is dense, caramelly, and bready, dubbel is lively, peppery, highly carbonated, and loaded with dark fruit-like flavors.
Roasted pork loin and rich braised duck are perfect with this Belgian specialty. The fruitiness of dubbel tastes custom-made for these dishes. Carbonation cuts through the richness, and the beer's raisiny, plum-like, and berry flavors work almost like the fruit-based sauces that are commonly served alongside these meats.
Dubbel's fizzy carbonation makes it an excellent partner for all sorts of dishes with a lot of fat or creaminess. Funky washed rind cheeses and merguez sausages overpower most beers, but not dubbel. Carbonation helps cleanse the palate of the mouth-coating richness of these foods, allowing the aromatic interplay of spices and beer flavor to really explode.
Dubbels to try: Rochefort 6, Chimay Première (Red), Ommegang Abbey Ale
Stout or Porter
That fruity flavor that makes dubbel so great with roasted or braised pork and duck makes them a bit strange with steaks and burgers or other umami-laden grillables like mushrooms. For these, I stick with a dry, roasty stout or porter that isn't crazy boozy. Look for beers in the 4% to 7% ABV range.
Stouts and porters are defined by a coffee-like malt flavor that comes from heavy roasting of the malts that give these beers their dark color. That roasting produces flavors that are very much like the charred flavors that develop when you throw a steak or hunk of ground beef on a ripping hot grill. See where I'm going with this? It's a natural flavor bridge, and the pairing works even better since the bitterness of these roasty beers offers a refreshing contrast to richness.
But stouts and porters aren't just for beef. I'll never forget a dish I once tried: grilled asparagus, aged ham, and bearnaise sauce. It was loaded with fat and umami, with an underlying char on the asparagus and a hint of smoky flavor in the ham that helped the dish pair perfectly with Deschutes' Obsidian Stout. The bearnaise kept the beer's bitterness from overwhelming the pairing, and allowed the umami and char to interact with the beer in a beautiful way.
Stouts and Porters to try: Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Sierra Nevada Stout, Nøgne-Ø Porter*, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Still have room in your fridge?
These are fun to have around, too.
The broad category of sour beers encompasses a huge range of colors, flavors, and strengths, but is unified by a common acidity that comes from bacterial fermentation. This acidity has the power to cut through richness, find common ground with citrus juices and vinegars, and brighten whatever you're eating. Also, sours are just fascinating to drink.
Delicate pale sours like Berliner weisse and gose are great with salads, mild fish dishes, and similarly acidic foods like ceviche and fruit-based desserts. Maltier sours like the Flanders sour ales, with their berry-like fruitiness, can work with duck, pork, lamb, and chicken dishes as well as berry-based desserts. There are tons of great pairing opportunities to be had in the tart 'n' funky world of sour beers, so hey—if you can afford to, keep these pricey beers in your fridge at all times. I'll be by for dinner.
Pale Ales and IPAs
Hold that comment trigger-finger. You're right: I've left a couple beer-geek staples off my list of essential beers to pair with your dinner.
Pale ales and IPAs can be great with food. Hoppy bitterness allows these beers to taste great with some richer foods that will soften the bitter blow. And it's not all just contrast—lightly caramelized or honey-like malt flavor and hoppy aromatics in pale ales and IPAs can work brilliantly by finding similarities in food.
Here's the thing: IPAs are constantly evolving and the name covers a whole lot of ground. The beers are universally hoppy, but they aren't necessarily very bitter. That hop flavor can be citrusy, tropical fruity, pine-like, oniony, or earthy. The recent trend is to make them very pale and dry, but they can also be amber-ish, and intensely caramelly and sweet. And that's not even including the worlds of black IPAs, white IPAs, and everything in between. When it comes to pairing with IPAs, it's better consider every beer individually. And that's an article for another day.
*Disclosure: these beers are distributed in the state of California by the author's employer.