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  1. Bars & Breweries

How good are Trader Joe's beers? Let's peek behind the label

Have you ever wondered about those vaguely familiar-looking, off-brand beers that make up about a third of the brews on sale at Trader Joe's? A friend of mine did after picking up a few at the new St. Pete location.

"Why don't we try some and you can write an article about it?" he asked. Well, I upped the ante by buying every TJ's beer on the shelf, and we ran the gauntlet.

Trader Joe's contract-brews private-label beers through several well-known breweries across North America (though the brewery names on the label are often aliases). For example, Rhinelander Brewing Company beers are brewed by Minhas Craft Brewery, out of Monroe, Wisc.; they make the Boatswain series of beers, including the tasty Chocolate Stout and Name Tag and Simpler Times lagers.

For Boatswain, we started with the excellently-named H.L.V. (Heavy Lift Vessel) before moving onto the American IPA and Twin Screw Steamer Double IPA. All three tasted fairly similar, with the H.L.V. covering the more malty side of the spectrum and the IPAs, of course, covering the hops. My favorite, which is being a bit generous, was the H.L.V. For under $3 per bomber, they're worth trying.

Next, we moved onto the Josephsbrau range of Bavarian and Czech-style beers. These are brewed by Gordon Biersch Brewing Company in San Jose, Calif. I've got to say, this is a solid line of beers. Gordon Biersch knows their stuff in this arena (co-founder Dan Gordon is a Weihenstephan grad), and these beers show it. The bock, vienna lager and both Czech-style lagers were authentic and delicious.

Then came the Kennebunkport Brewing Company beers. KBC is an alias for Portland, Maine's Shipyard Brewing Company. These beers actually mirror some of that brewery's flagship beers — a porter, an English-style IPA, and a blueberry wheat ale — with flavor profiles to match. The KBC beers are discount Shipyard beers, if you will.

One of the more popular brands at Trader Joe's is the Mission Street line, brewed by Steinhaus Brewing Company, which is actually Firestone Walker Brewing Co. of Paso Robles, California. The hefeweizen was decent, but the brown and pale ales were very good.

Next, we enjoyed the malty but balanced Fat Weasel and Jumping Cow Amber Ales, both of which had ridiculous, '90s-style label art. These are brewed by River Trent Brewing Company, in Ukiah, Calif. (which some speculate is actually Mendocino brewing). Reasonable, old-school microbrews, whoever makes them.

The Steinhaus beers are a bargain, but buy them while you still can — Firestone Walker is phasing out its contract brewing program, and the Mission Street line will eventually be discontinued, replaced by the Ol' Burro Brewery line, made by Los Angeles' Golden Road Brewery.

Next up: more lagers. The aforementioned Simpler Times and Name Tag were passable, if oddly sweet-tasting, cheap lagers. More interesting was the Trader Jose's (yes, really) Light, which is a knock-off of Corona Light, produced by Cervecería Mexicana, who produce Tecate. It comes in a clear bottle and is aggressively skunky, almost to an absurd degree. If you like that style, you might like this.

Two of the bigger hits of the night were the Black Toad Ale and Stockyard Oatmeal Stout, which are also produced by Gordon Biersch. In fact, the Stockyard was a near-unanimous favorite, until we cracked open the Trader Joe's Providential Golden Ale.

Providential Golden Ale is brewed sans pseudonym by Montreal's fantastic Unibroue. At $6, corked and caged, this is a real winner. Unibroue also produces an annual vintage beer for TJ's, so be on the lookout.

Trader Joe's ciders are quite decent. Henry Hotspur's Hard Pressed For Cider is back-sweetened with apple juice, as its clearly juice-like flavor reveals. The Newton's Folly ciders were made by Vermont Hard Cider Company in Middlebury, Vermont (producers of Woodchuck). Of the two, most preferred the Granny Smith, for its crisp, tart flavor.

For the price, it's hard to argue with TJ's private label beers, which cost a fraction of the price that brands like Firestone Walker, Unibroue and Shipyard usually command. The quality is generally good, with some very good beers, like the Stockyard Oatmeal Stout and Providential Golden Ale. My advice: go check these out yourself, but maybe don't try and blast through all of them in one sitting.

— jg@saintbeat.com

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