Let’s get this out of the way: As dad to a tornado of a toddler, I have little time for life’s finer moments like, say, showering. Each day is a mad dash to bedtime, after which I grab my reward: dinner and a beer, not always in that order.
In my kid-free past, I took pride in pairings. Kölsch had a light touch with salads, IPAs combatted Thai curries’ heat, and chocolate cake was sweet on doppelbocks. After popping by my local bottle shop, I could transform dinner into a beer-matching bacchanal. That era is over. Most days, the menu is takeout pizza, tacos or Chinese food, and beer is what’s chilling in my refrigerator. Convenient consumption has led to pairings as harmonic as an elementary-school orchestra. I’ve coupled a coffee porter with General Tso’s chicken, as well as chorizo tacos with barleywine (it was a hard evening).
As a time-strapped beer geek—surely, many may sympathize—I wanted a fast fix for ill-fated pairings. Why not stock a single beer that can cut across a spectrum of courses and cuisines? I craved a go-to brew at ease with piquant quesadillas, pad thai, roasted chicken or a folded pizza slice, with enough character to keep me cranking through a six- pack. My mind settled on a dry, spicy and brisk-sipping saison.
“It’s dangerous to recommend it as a one-size-fits-all style,” says certified cicerone Mike Reis. He cites the farmhouse ale’s stylistic divergence, spanning from low-alcohol thirst-quenchers to Brettanomyces–spiked funk bombs.
“There are elements of intensity that can overpower more subtle dishes,” Reis says. Instead, he suggests malt-forward German Märzens or Vienna lagers. “These beers are moderate in strength, so you’re not going to risk overpowering more delicate flavors earlier on in the meal.” While he notes their affinity for sausages, roast pork and duck, “You’re not going to encounter as many blow-your-mind pairings,” Reis says. On the flip side, “you’re much less likely to have clashing flavors.”
“Beervangelist” Fred Bueltmann echoes Reis’ suggestion. “I find malt-forward beers with slight caramel notes to be ultimately versatile,” says New Holland Brewing’s food-and-beer guru, name-checking brown ales and bocks. “They evoke the flavor brought from the Maillard reaction so common in cooking and foods.” That means an affinity for bacon, crusty pretzels, browned onions, seared steak and scallops, and baked bread—even you, pizza.
What about my old pal, IPA? No go, says master cicerone and “Beerology” author Mirella Amato. With pairings, “the two things to watch out for are hops and alcohol,” she says. “When those elements are high, they can pose problems.” For a jack-of-all-trades ale, Amato emphasizes cuisine’s importance. She favors Italian food, which excels with complex, English-style pale ales and bitters. “The herbal notes from the hops mirror the kind of herbs I use, such as basil and oregano.”
The next time I baked pasta—a go-to for my wife and daughter— Firestone Walker’s DBA was sublime. When I smashed burgers in a cast- iron pan, Paulaner’s year-round Oktoberfest-Märzen was pitch-perfect. Those two beers immediately found a permanent fridge perch, at the ready to elevate everyday dinner. While there’s still a place in my life for a multicourse meal paired with many beers, I’ve come to appreciate the potent power of one.
Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of “The Complete Beer Course” and runs homebrew tours in New York City.