November 18, 2010

What Ales You: Trader Joe's picks run from top-notch to totally tasteless

By Tom Atwell
Staff Writer

The beer aisle at Trader Joe's can take you to beer heaven, beer hell and just about everywhere in between.

click image to enlarge

You can find an interesting selection of local and nationally distributed brews at Trader Joe's, but you won't find Budweiser, Coors or Miller.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

In the three weeks that the Portland store has been open, I have not yet drunk everything on the store's shelves, but I have tried enough to know that there is something to please everybody -- and probably enough to displease everybody.

There is a lot to like about Trader Joe's choice of beers. It carries some offerings from all of the major Maine beers -- Geary's, Gritty's, Sebago, Shipyard, Allagash and Peak -- along with some high-quality New England brews -- Samuel Adams, Smuttynose, Harpoon and Narragansett.

The store is also notable for what is missing: Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc. You can get high-quality national and international brands such as Ommegang, Guinness and Ayinger, however.

For the typical canned American and Mexican beer, you are going to have to go with the Trader Joe's brands.

The cheapest is Name Tag, at $2.99 a six-pack, with 5 percent alcohol. That and Cerveza LaPlaya, brewed in Mexico at $3.99 a six-pack with 4.6 percent alcohol, come in cans and are virtually tasteless.

The Simpler Times Pilsener, at $3.99 a six-pack, was the worst of the lot. Son-in-law Christian Ratliff and I both threw it out before finishing it, which is more common for Christian than it is for me. Simpler Times Lager, at 6.2 percent alcohol, didn't have the unpleasant sourness of the pilsener, but it wasn't good.

So much for the bad.

The Stockyard Oatmeal Stout, which the bottle says is brewed by Joseph Brau Brewing Co. in San Jose, Calif., is one top-notch beer. It is creamy and smooth, with great body and flavor. One of my favorite beers of all times is Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, and although I did not do a side-by-side tasting, I think the Stockyard, at 5.2 percent alcohol, would come close.

I also tried the Joseph Brau Oktoberfest and found it good, but not as good as Samuel Adams. All of the Brau beers cost $5.99 per six-pack, and they include a Dunkelweizen at 5.2 percent alcohol and a dark ale called Black Toad at 5.3 percent.

The Trader Jose brand covers the Mexican line -- except for the canned Cerveza LaPlaya -- and costs $5.99 a six-pack. I liked but did not love the Trader Jose dark lager, finding it not quite as good as Negra Modelo, my favorite of that kind.

I have not tried the Trader Jose Light or Lager, but since I don't much like Corona and Sol -- although Dos Equis is OK -- I suspect I won't be crazy about these, either.

The Mission St. line out of Paso Robles, Calif., is the highest-priced of the Trader Joe's brands, costing $6.99 a six-pack and $1.99 for a 22-ounce bottle. I have not yet tried them, for which I apologize -- although I never thought I'd apologize for not drinking enough beer.

The brewer names on Trader Joe's beers are pseudonyms, but you probably can figure out who makes them if you go online.

One popular Trader Joe's brand you won't see at the Portland store is Kennebunkport Brewing Co., or KBC. That is the Trader Joe's pseudonym for Shipyard.

Tami Kennedy, a Shipyard spokeswoman, said the company had not and does not plan to register the name in Maine. They don't want to be competing with themselves in their home market.

Although hard ciders aren't beer, they share shelf space. Trader Joe's has two versions -- Granny Smith and orignal -- of Newton's Folly draft cider, 5 percent alcohol, out of Middlebury, Vt.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:


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