Trader Joe's isn't just a place to buy boxed curry and frozen meat pies. It's also a great spot to buy booze to go with them, and although the store's famously cheap wine gets all the attention, there's also a wide selection of private-label beer, most of which costs a buck or two a bottle.
But what's actually worth buying in that big ol' sea of suds? To find out, we tasted a handful of TJ's brews with Certified Cicerone Jensen Cummings, a beer expert and chef/owner of Brewed Food in Denver, Colorado. Here's what's worth your two bucks, Chuck.
9. Mission St. IPA
"It smells generic in the hop profile. And the hops are pretty background. I'm guessing they went generic with some Fuggle, Kent Golding, and Centennial hops. Nothing distinct. This is just as vanilla an IPA as you're going to get. It's the perfect IPA for a craft beer aficionado to buy for their light beer-drinking buddy to bring them over from the dark side."
8. Josephsbrau Bohemian
"It's got a little bit of malt character to it -- some other TJ's beers I've tried are so flat. It has good carbonation, which is key to a style like this. When the urge for a cheap Mexican beer hits you, resist it and upgrade with this ode to the Bohemian brewing tradition." [Editor's Note: Mexican beer styles have a European background!]
7. Mission St. Brown Ale
"It's a little thin on the palate, but it has good toast, finish, and carbonation. Low alcohol on this beer, too. Mostly you'll enjoy it because you can harken back to moments of nostalgia when you first graduated from yellow beer to, say, Heineken Dark Lager or Newcastle."
6. Black Toad dark ale
"This is a proper pub pint to be sure. It's porter-esque. It's super-roasty -- it doesn't have an astringent, acrid bitterness. This is good if you want a porter but don't want to deal with acrid burnt-toast finish. And who the hell would?"
5. Boatswain double IPA
"This looks like it should be served at a British pub, and it doesn't smell like it's 8.4%, which is good. Anytime they do a good job of hiding the alcohol I feel like they've done well. A lot of times, you have a shitty double IPA that smells like they had an IPA and poured some neutral grain spirit in it. But this has good bitterness and a solid mouthfeel. There's also a long finish with a touch of sweetness. This is what you and your whole crew need when you want to channel your inner hooligan and smack around intense flavor."
4. Josephsbrau Heller Bock
"I'd tailgate with this! It's super drinkable, with just a slight hint of banana, which is a welcome surprise. The color's nice. It has some banana on the nose, though not as much as a hefeweizen. The carbonation is good. The alcohol is well-integrated -- it doesn't smell or taste 'hot.' I don't feel alcohol burn."
3. Mission St. Hefeweizen
"This one has tons of banana aromas, but it doesn't smell like banana extract or banana runts that give it a synthetic feel like some other TJ's beers. It has good carbonation and mouthfeel, which adds a little bit of suppleness to the beer. It finishes really short -- you'd want a longer finish on a hef. But I'd drink this. It's not a beer I'd tell people they'd have to try. But when your buddies are having a cookout and you forget to bring your own beer, and you think, 'Shit, now I have to drink what they have!' -- if they had this, I'd be fine."
2. Providential Golden Ale
"It's super-supple. The texture's great, and it has that classic Belgian candi sugar sweetness. There's also a smooth, long finish. It's a little sweet for the golden ale style -- it typically finishes a little more dry. But TJ's is in the craft beer big leagues collaborating with Unibroue for a house brew. It's an elite craft brewery from Quebec, and they do the French-Belgian-style golden ale proud with this one."
1. Vintage Ale
"It's got a quadrupel base with a little spice to it that you get from dark, strong ales. There's fig, dried dark fruit, and some clove on the nose here. Smells good. It tastes a bit like figgy pudding. There are sticky toffee with clove flavors -- not quite cinnamon and nutmeg -- but I taste clove and allspice. This beer tastes fundamentally different from TJ's other stuff. It's brewed well by the Unibroue folks, and the alcohol is integrated nicely. It's everything you could ever desire from a holiday-spiced quad with those sticky toffee notes. Christmas comes early!"
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