It seems prices are skyrocketing for everything these days, whether it’s gas for your car or freeze-dried guacamole for your wife’s crudité platter. Probably those are bad examples, but my point is: in a world where rising prices seem to be a constant topic of conversation, Trader Joe’s is still selling six packs of beer for $5.99. What are they, crazy or something?!
If that $5.99 beer was terrible, it wouldn’t be much of a bargain. We used to get Keystone Light and Von’s store brand beer for 50 or even 25 cents a can back in college, but even for poor, drunk college students that stuff was considered “emergency only” — the kind of beer pong stock that was rightly treated as a punishment. In-house branded products seem to have come a long way since then. Kirkland Signature makes decent versions of everything from golf balls to bourbon now. I think you can actually baptize a child at Costco (Kirkland holy water, probably right next to the pancake mix and watch batteries).
Speaking for myself, I like to cook, so Trader Joe’s — which still sells largely frozen, ready-to-eat, and pre-prepared foods — isn’t my go-to grocery store. Which means it requires a special trip. Is saving a couple bucks on beer, especially with the plethora of options available almost everywhere now, really worth the extra effort?
Well, that depends. Mostly on whether that Trader Joe’s-brand beer doesn’t suck. And what I found in my latest tasting is that, for the most part, Trader Joe’s-branded beers don’t. By and large they were surprisingly solid. Of course, not all of them are created equal (or brewed by the same people), so I bought every Trader Joe’s brew I could find right now to determine which ones might be worth an extra side trip and which ones you can skip.
Trader Joe’s seems to stock different brews at different times, and good luck getting them to tell you when which ones will be available where and when (I checked, they do not). At my local locations in Central California, as of about a week ago, I was able to find these six.
- Trader José Light
- Trader José Premium
- Trader José Dark
- Josephsbrau PLZNR Czech Style Lager
- Josephsbrau Summer Brew Top Fermented Lager
- Josephsbrau Bavarian-Style Hefeweizen
I tasted all of these “blind,” which is to say in unmarked glasses, not knowing which beers were which. Of course, I also bought them, so I had a general idea of which beers would be included in the blind.
6. Trader José Light
Yellow, straw color, the lightest of the bunch. Velvety head with small bubbles rising. On the nose… not a ton of things I can detect, though it vaguely reminds me of a Budweiser. On the palate, it has a crisp, light, and watery flavor. Fine enough for a sipper, but not super memorable. There’s nothing particularly offputting about it and nothing particularly memorable either.
I mean it’s a light beer. The competition is Bud Light, Corona Light… These are beers you drink next to the pool and don’t think about much. This one, reportedly brewed by Cervezeria Mexicana, who make Tecate, is in line with those. I wouldn’t make a special trip to buy this one but it’s perfectly fine for what it is.
5. Trader Jose Premium Lager
Fairly indistinguishable from samples 2 and 3 — though I guess it has a little more head on top than 2. Amber yellow. This one has a touch more hops on the nose, a crispness to the nose. This has the refreshing qualities of samples 1 and 3, but with a slightly more bitter, less sweet finish. Offputting at first, but it sort of grows on me after a few sips. Definitely not as watery as 1. More bitter than 2. Doesn’t have the lemon note of 3.
This is the non-light version of Trader José Light, reportedly also brewed by Cervezeria Mexicana. Trader José Heavy, I like to call it. It’s a little better than the light version, as you might expect. I don’t think it’s as good as my favorite versions of this (probably Modelo Especial) but it’s dece. Not worth a special trip but a great way to save a few bucks if you’re already at TJ’s.
4. Josephsbrau Summer Brew Top Fermented Lager
Gold to amber in color, with just a little velvet head on top. Nose is… mostly undetectable to me other than a sense of “brightness.” I think there’s a lemon note in there? Tastes kiiiind of like a Mexican lager, like a Modelo. It doesn’t quite have that watered down “light” flavor, but it doesn’t taste like much either.
Kind of an inoffensive summer quencher.
The Josephsbrau line is, or was, reportedly brewed by Gordon Biersch in San Jose, who make some damned fine German-style beers (co-founder Dan Gordon learned his craft in Munich). This one is their Kolsch, described on the label as a “unique brew made in the Kolsch style, which means using Ale yeast, but fermenting at Lager temperatures.”
Again, it’s probably not my favorite Kölsch I’ve ever had (Fort Point makes a pretty good one), though I’m also not a huge Kölsch fiend (they’re fine). It’s a decent version of a decent style, very drinkable though I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way for it.
3. Josephsbrau PLZNR Czech Style Lager
Yellow, but more of an amber yellow than the watery straw yellow. Very small bubbles, not as much velvety head on top. Looks slightly flatter than the others. The nose is more malty-sweet, with maybe a hint of lemon? Tastes like some malt, not very bitter, with a sweeter finish. This tastes like a (pretty good) Czech pilsner, like a non-skunky Pilsner Urquell or a Trumer Pils.
Pretty solid for what it is.
This is a very solid pilsner and the sweet-malty kind of pilsner that I tend to prefer to the hoppier ones. I’d be curious to taste them head to head, but it seems like this is as good as some of my favorites, like Trumer Pils or Scrimshaw.
2. Trader José Dark Lager
The first one with a notably different color, with about the same amount of head as the lighter ones, rising bubbles with a little lace on top. This one is a sort of reddish, root beer brown, not totally opaque like a stout or a porter. There’s obviously some of that darker malt on the nose, with notes of caramel, toffee, and chocolate. On the palate, this tastes like a nice, caramelly darker lager, which to me is one of my favorite beer styles. It’s sweet and more syrupy than the lighter lagers, but not too hoppy. It has very little bitterness, but still with a little refreshing bite/crispness — it’s clearly not a brown ale (which I also enjoy, but this is crisper and lighter bodied). Reminds me of Negra Modelo or Dos Equis Ambar.
Some of my favorite styles of beers are Vienna lagers, märzens, and medium-brown Octoberfest styles, so it’s no surprise that the Mexican-style dark lager was one of my favorites in this test. I guess the big question is, is this better than a Negra Modelo or a Dos Equis Ambar or a Bohemia Oscura? Without tasting them head to head I can’t be certain, but I would say that this is at least comparable, and at a price point the others couldn’t match.
1. Josephsbrau Bavarian-Style Hefeweizen
Price: $5.99 for a six pack.
The most orange of the non-brown beers in this taste test. Also seems to have the most bubbles on top. It looks a little more full-bodied than the other lighter ones, though still largely clear.
I may have doubted my sense of smell a bit with the other four lighter beers in this test, but putting this one up to my nose, I’m 95% sure this is the hefe. It has that yeasty, wheat smell, which basically smells like proofing bread. For the record, I’m a huge fan of German hefes, and I wish more craft brewers made more wheat beers that were actually about the wheat itself, and not all flavored up with coriander and oranges and everything. Give me a hefe that doesn’t come served with a lemon slice.
On the palate, it continues and deepens that wheat aroma. It’s sweet and full bodied, though nicely balanced, thanks to the abundant carbonation. I like this a lot. It reminds me a lot of my two favorite German hefes, Franziskaner and Weihenstephaner.
It’s honestly tough for me to choose between this and the dark lager because I like them both a lot, and they’re so clearly the top two by a margin. I think I’m going to have to give this one the edge, simply because I think a good version of this style of beer is harder to find than a decent dark Mexican-style lager. I can be 85% certain I’m going to find Negra Modelo at the supermarket, whereas it’s close to a certain that I won’t find this kind of hefe there.
If I wanted this style of hefe this good, I’d have to go to Total Wine or BevMo to pick up some Franziskaner or Weihenstephan and I’d probably be paying almost twice what Trader Joe’s is selling this one for.
Like I said up top, I don’t do much shopping at Trader Joe’s, so going there requires an extra trip, which means the bar for their beer is a little higher. I would pick up any of these, with the exception of maybe the Trader José light, if they were available at my local supermarket. The other ones are all solid beers at a price point no one else can touch, but with the exceptions of the top two, usually, you can spend an extra buck or two for a comparable beer and make it up in time and gas money. The top two are worth traveling for, but never knowing what Trader Joe’s is going to stock at any given time complicates that a bit. I suppose you could always check the website. Of these, only the Josephsbrau Hefeweizen appears to be guaranteed available.
It’s also probably their best product, so… uh… there you go.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter.