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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trader Joe's (and José's) Lagers

Ah, beer. Probably like most folks ,I fairly distinctly remember my very first sip of brew. I was seventeen, off to college (I was a young'un all the way throughout my academic career, thanks to my birth date being right before the kindergarten cutoff date), and away from home for the first full weekend of my young, almost adult life. Long story (even by my standards) short, crazy week, and when one of my hall mates banged on my door and invited me out to his cousin's apartment for some drinks, well, I figured, time to see what the fuss was all about. The next night, we headed out and I was handed my first ever bottle of beer. I gulped, took a sip, swallowed, grimaced, and promptly said something along the general lines of "Ugh, this tastes like bleep*." The roomful of twenty-something people went dead silent, and my hallmate's cousin looked right at me, a stern look in his eye. "That's the best beer you'll ever have, don't you dare insult it again," he said through gritted teeth.

You see, the first cold one I ever drank of wasn't just any beer; it was a Yuengling, which in Pennsylvania is considered, at the very least, a good, solid beer no matter type of brew you're into. Back in my day, it was the gold standard among the college crowd. I have friends who have moved who swear they took it for granted when they lived here, but now that they can't get it where they live, they miss Yuengling more than anything else. For me, it's a staple in my basement beer fridge. Regardless to say, my initial reaction has drastically changed.

All this to say, I love beer. I am by no means an expert on it, but I love a wide variety from a good hoppy IPA in the summertime to a darker, heavier stout when the colder weather rolls in. One of the biggest questions I have heard from readers is, why don't we review the tremendous beer and wine selection that many TJ's offer? Unfortunately for both Nathan and I, we both live in the otherwise great commonwealth of Pennsylvania where by in large because of some archaic and nebulous laws, grocery stores are not allowed to sell alcohol (unless, as is becoming more common in the Pittsburgh area, they have a cafe attached). Beer is only available through distributors by the case or the very infrequent bottle shop. So, no cheap TJ booze for two-buck great, cheap selection I've seen in out-of-state stores (like $3.49 for Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout) nothing. It makes it pretty tough to review when you can't taste it.

Anyways, I won't tell you how I happened to get my hands on a six-pack sampler of Trader Joe-brand beer**, except to say it must've been the beer fairy. Yeah, that's it, because it, uh, just magically appeared in my fridge one day...yeah. I'm going to run through the three types of beer in the Trader Joe's brand that haven't been reviewed yet (Nathan reviewed the light lager in his California days), with the caveat that Sandy and I are grading these on a curve. For me, I'm grading them based on that they're a store brand that cost (uh, from what I heard...) a buck a bottle, and more or less with the mindset of a good, typical lager like Yuengling being a 5. Sandy prefers beers that are, and I quote, "fruity and taste like Sprite" or different flavors of beers, like Atwater Vanilla Java Porter, so, in short, beers that don't taste like beers.

First up, Trader Joe's Vienna-Style Lager. I'm going to start by saying, not a huge fan. It's medium-ish, kinda amber in color, and overall fairly smooth flavor. The issue is, it's extremely, well, bittersweet isn't exactly the right word, but it's fairly sweet for most of the flavor before ending on a bitter note that settles in your mouth. This taste overrides any of the medium hoppiness or maltiness that the label purports this beer to have. I realize that's part of the style of some European brews, but honestly it's not a style that I've gotten into all that much. I'm having a tough time recalling what other brands it brings to mind to relate it to, but while certainly drinkable and refreshing, it doesn't quite do the job for me. As a plus, though, it's 5.9% alcohol for those who'd like to know. I churchkeyed the lid off, took a swig, and handed it to Sandy, who siphoned some off and promptly handed it back to me before unleashing a half-hearted "meh." Well said, darlin'. Her reaction tells me she'd give it a two overall as I doubt the second one of these we have will disappear at her doing. I think I'll be generous and say three to try and be fair to Trader Joe's here. I'm sure there's better Vienna-style lagers out there, but I doubt most any of them cost a buck.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Next, we have Trader Joe's Bohemian Lager. Hmm, that's kind of a somewhat ironic name, as it tastes like a fairly conventional beer. It's a lighter, more golden colored beer that tastes pretty clean and straightforward, not much to it. There's some maltiness and a hint or two of some nuttiness that Sandy pointed out. Overall, there's not too much that's remarkable to say about it, except it's pretty smooth and refreshing overall. Still, while drinking it, I kinda found myself wishing I was drinking something else that was a little more complex. Maybe it's titled as being "Bohemian" because, conceivably, one could drink it without giving it much thought one way or the other. That's kind of how I felt. Oh, it's 5% alcohol, so about average, maybe slightly above for a basic lager. Sandy slowly nursed a bottle of this over dinner before it got a little too warm for her, and so she gave it to me to finish on up for her. This isn't an uncommon occurrence and she did say she liked it better than the Vienna-style lager, so she went ahead and gave it a three and a shrug. Again, keeping in mind it costs a buck, I'll give it a three as well...however, give me a Yuengling over this anytime.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Finally, we come to Trader Jose's Dark Premium Lager. I'm not sure how Trader Jose got the dark beer out of the bunch as when I think "Mexican beer" I immediately think "Corona"***, but like Nathan, I've given up on trying to make sense out of the different characters Trader Joe's has come up with. This, out of the three, is definitely the one I enjoyed the most. Part of it is my affinity for darker brews, and while this is a far cry from a Guiness or anything of that nature (of course), if you're familar with, say, Yuengling Porter it's about on par (not quite but almost there). Malty, smooth, fairly full-bodied and remarkably pretty tasty for a store brand. Is it going to change the world? Nah. I won't be pining for the beer fairy to show up with any more bottles of this cerveza, but if they were to appear somehow, I wouldn't mind either. Sandy simply sipped and stated a solid "Not bad," which is somewhat remarkable as this isn't one of her favorite styles. I'm assuming that means about a 3 in her book. For what it is and what it costs, to me, it's a good solid 4. Not terrific, but far from bad.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

So there you have it. In short, Trader Joe's is a fine place to procure cold, frosty beers, but in the end you'll be happier picking up some of the great deals on breweries like Samuel Smith and Rogue (I also remember there being a Kennebunkport Blueberry Beer we found at a Massachusetts TJ's last year that we liked) over getting the store brand. The TJ's offerings tend to be pretty tame and straightforward without too much to them. They're all better than Natty Ice or Milwaukee Beast, so at least they have that going for them. I'd say Pabst as well, but I have too many friends who like them a cold PBR to say anything too negative about it, lest they cut off my supply. But in all, for a buck a beer, you probably could do worse than these. Now, where's my Yuengling....

* It's a family website
** See "archaic and nebulous laws" reference
***Yes, I know, there's other Mexican beers than Corona. But it's the first one you thought of, wasn't it?


  1. The beer is named after Bohemia, a region in Czech Republic famous for beers. One of Bohemia's largest cities is known in English as Budweis, and a long time ago some Budweiser emigrants came to America and ... well, I think you can finish the story.
    The name isn't promising unconventionality, although it's a simple misunderstanding.

  2. annie - Interesting. Honestly, I didn't know that, and didn't think to look up the other possible meanings for Bohemian. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I tend to think TJ's beers are middling, but if you're in the neighborhood of a Joe's, why not? I'm not too picky with my lagers, usually like them!I usually get other brands there though, or the wine with the smiley face label.

  4. Bohemia is also where the world's most expensive hops (by weight) come from and where pale lager (or Pilsner, from Pilsen, Bohemia) was invented. The term "Bohemian Lager" can only mean, "Bohemian Pilsner," a beer style that is a relatively fuller-bodied sister of German-style Pilsner (like Beck's or Warsteiner), and a richer, more bitter distant cousin of the American Light Lager (think Coors Banquet or standard Bud).

  5. We buy Trader Jose dark frequently, as it's a dead ringer for one of our favorite Mexican beers (and probably produced at a the same bottling plant). Squish a lime wedge into the bottle and you get the best flavor. It's also excellent in the top secret chili recipe.

  6. I like the Bohemian Lager but another reason why I buy it could well be this line from "The Shawshank Redemption":

    "And that's how it came to pass, that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of '49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o'clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Bohemia style beer..."


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