Serious Eats: Drinks

Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Trader Joe's Beer

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Last week was a good week but a busy one, so I didn't get around to drinking until Friday afternoon, which seems to happen more and more often these days. I keep lapsing into these medium-long accidental unbenders where all of a sudden I look up and it's been four days since my last beer. This isn't the worst thing in the world—Canadian hockey fans and rain, for instance, are worse—because even though it's a sign that my life has devolved into some other kind of life than the one I'd known and loved, it means that come Friday afternoon, I tend to be very rich and handsome and rested and restless and deserving of fine rewards, such as the bacon double cheeseburger at Green Street Grill.

Green Street is my favorite restaurant, let's say. MC Slim told you all about the bar a couple weeks ago. They also sell very good food, and since Emily's one of those weirdos who likes to eat when she goes to restaurants, we resolved to meet for some eating after work on Friday. When we go to restaurants, we split almost everything we order. This drives her brother insane, and rightly so. It's obnoxious. But it's a good deal for me because she is very thin and wastes tons of time chewing before she swallows, so I can usually count on 65 percent of the food. Since we were dealing with a double cheeseburger here, that meant I was looking forward to 130 percent of a cheeseburger at my favorite restaurant well before sundown on a Friday. We also got some asparagus, because we live on the precious side of town now and I'm trying to blend in.

So there I was just minding my business and the business of the awkward date to my left, happily eating green food and drinking gin and awaiting what I'd been assured was one of the better cheeseburgers in the area code. (I'd somehow never ordered it.) Emily was doing the same, but with tequila. Then we were served a very good burger on a very bad bun and I had to cross "Green Street will never screw me" off my very little list of life's comforting sureties. The bun was stale and mangled, to such an extent that at first I doubted my bun-analyzing skills. Are fancy double-digit cheeseburgers supposed to come on busted buns these days? Is that what "applewood bacon" means? Bacon served atop a burger that comes with a stale bun? What about all the creases and divots and dents? Were they carefully designed to enhance flavor delivery, like those beer bottles with little swirls carved into the neck? Or were they, at the very least, signs of character? At first sight, I wanted to call the bun stale and deformed, but maybe I meant rustic and artisanal?

I wasn't certain what was going on and I was hungry and in a hurry, so I just shrugged and ate my super-half of it; the bun was stale. It was still a very good burger and I will order it again soon. Green Street is still my favorite restaurant. But the fact remains that it is fallible. I hate that. Which brings us to Trader Joe's beer.

Two of the other least disappointing things in my life are beer and Trader Joe's. I wish I didn't like TJ's so much, because I'd rather be the sort of guy who mocks people for having favorite grocery stores, but facts is facts. I love Trader Joe's. It's let me down a couple times: The Dijon mustard is painfully sharp and the low-end salsa is pretty ketchupy (the habanero lime is outstanding, though). But my career success rate at TJ is at least 98 percent, so I was thrilled to learn that the one near my apartment sells several brands of house-label beer for significantly less than Narragansett and PBR, my two favorite cheapies. I got a six-pack of Name Tag Lager for $2.99 and Simpler Times Lager and La Playa Mexican Lager for $3.99 each.

As expected, these cans of truth more than made up for the evening's burger hardship. The Name Tag is very ambitious, almost recklessly so. It has a distinct and, it must be said, odd flavor. It's all caramel candy up front before turning dry and bitter. And the aftertaste has an aggressive sweetbitterness that's easily remedied by taking another glug in a hurry. This is very serviceable cheap beer and I can't imagine doing better for the price. This costs half as much as PBR and tastes just as good and maybe even a little better.

Simpler Times Lager is also a decent discount brew, though I doubt I'll be buying it again, because it costs a buck more than Name Tag and isn't any better. Emily, in fact, didn't like it at all. She thought it was too sweet. I can see that. It's a touch fruity and veers uncomfortably close to that Keystone-ish yeasty banana territory. And I don't like the cranky name. But still, this is nothing an honest man would turn down on a hot day that wasn't a payday.

La Playa Mexican Lager is the winner here. Em says it means "the pool" or "the lifeguard" or something similarly resortful. Maybe that's why it's salty? I know that sounds gross, but it's a very subtle saltiness that really enhances the strong fresh fruit flavor. This is pretty serious beer for the price; you have to respect the Trader for not taking the coward's route with his cheap beer. I like PBR because it's cheap and it's beer and it doesn't taste like anything offensive. These TJ brews really go for it, which can be dangerous at this price point, but it works. I think I'm a Name Tag man on lean days, and I'll spring for La Playa on lean-plus-an-extra-dollar days.

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