Serious Eats: Drinks
New Beer: Trader Joe's 2011 Vintage Ale
Trader Joe's is my favorite grocery store. That's not to say the good Trader never goes bad. The Dijon mustard is a superhot crime against my tongue, and there are hands better suited to dipping pretzels in yogurt. But their industry-leading work in peanut butter cups and frozen burritos alone is enough to atone for the couple odd weaknesses, to say nothing of their beer and wine.
The Trader Joe's outlets licensed to sell alcohol do very well at the extreme low end of the price range. Charles Shaw, aka Two- or Three-Buck Chuck, isn't objectively good, but it's no worse than what huge commercial wineries pass off for double or triple the price. And Name Tag Lager is the best six-pack $3 can buy.
Domination of the bottom shelf is no guarantor of success in the big leagues, but all Trader Joe's beers are contract brewed, so they could conceivably arrange to slap their name on anything. Why not a bottled-on-lees Belgian-style strong ale that goes for a mere $4.99 per 750mL?
For the seventh straight year, TJ has teamed up with Quebec's outstanding Unibroue to produce Trader Joe's Vintage Ale.
The 2011 version is a winner. It pours a very dark brown, just a half-shade short of black, with a thick head of persistent little beige bubbles. The nose is dominated by yeast and cloves, with a wet dog undertone; it doesn't do justice to the taste.
Once you get down to the drinking, the dog's gone and the bread and cloves are joined by deep chocolate-cola malt, raisins, dark spice, and maybe even a touch of mint. It's complex yet balanced, with excellent integration of the competing flavors and little hint of the 9 percent ABV.