In terms of alcohol, Trader Joe’s might be best known for its two-buck-chuck, but there’s a surprising array of beer also in stock. I was eager to discover if any of these bargain-basement beers were undiscovered sleeper hits, so I picked up a few styles.
Trader Joe’s 2010 Vintage Ale ($4 for a 750ml bottle)
The Vintage Ale is yet another peculiar Trader Joe’s fixture. It’s the only beer I’ve seen that has a vintage printed on the label and an explicit recommendation to age it. According to the guy at the checkout, many people buy the stuff and age it, even for decades. I haven’t heard anyone else espouse the benefits of aging beer, unless it’s cask-aged beer like Certified Evil (and then, only in the casks). I figured that this beer must be something unique.
I managed to age it only for a few weeks until my thirst overpowered my patience.
The beer is sweet and dark, with distinct coffee undertones and a very round pleasant aftertaste. It’s also distinctly alcoholic and has a burn that’s nearly masked by the sweet chocolatey taste. It has a frothy, creamy head which reminds me of Old Rasputin and other dark ale heavy-hitters.
It was just a tad too sweet for my taste, but I expect most people will really like this beer. As far as aging it, I have no idea what would happen. The 2010 run is already out of stock, so I’ll have to pick up next year’s vintage and try it.
Name Tag Lager ($3 for a six-pack)
It’s no surprise that a beer called “Name Tag Lager” would be among the cheapest beer I’ve ever found. The can design was likely drawn up by a graphic design intern in twenty minutes and everything about this beer screams “Don’t look at me! I’m not unique! I’m barely average!” In any case, complete and total mediocrity is the best anyone can hope for when you’re paying 50 cents a can.
Name Tag does not surprise, delight or disappoint. It is exactly average. No bad taste, no good taste. It’s what I imagine generic beer in the movies tastes like. It’s only missing the big black “BEER” label.
This beer is completely forgettable. I don’t even remember writing this review.
Simpler Times Lager ($4 for a six-pack)
You know you’re a high roller when $4 for a six-pack is relatively expensive, at least compared to Name Tag. Presumably the extra dollar bought me better ingredients and a few extra hops infusions, but I fear that TJ’s blew it all on a third color for the can design.
The taste is a little less watery than Name Tag but has a bitterness that likely comes from the 6.2% alcohol. There’s not much other flavor to speak of and it’s actually not very good. Despite its mediocrity, I actually preferred Name Tag over the Simpler Times lager. Less taste is better than bad taste.
Simpler Times Pilsner ($4 for a six-pack)
This was the best of the cheap six-packs I bought. I actually enjoyed drinking it, as opposed to tolerating Simpler Times Lager and totally forgetting Name Tag. Maybe I liked it because the bar for pilsners isn’t set terribly high and it’s therefore easy to make a decent pilsner, or perhaps because I have pleasant memories attached to pilsners (drinking gallons of Stella and Amstel in Holland will condition you that way).
Whatever the case, this beer is light and sweet, with good carbonation and pilsner taste obscured just slightly by a dirty tang. It doesn’t taste as fresh or as clean as a better pilsner, but it’s decent enough (and cheap enough) that I’m definitely going back for more.
TJ’s has a lot more beer in all kinds of styles and prices. I’ll refrain from inundating you with lengthy reviews of all of them, but if I find something remarkable (or remarkably awful), I’ll let you know.
UPDATE: I did find the TJ’s Joseph’s Brau Summer Brew was very good, so check out that post.