This Is The Best Store-Brand Beer

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My wife is very thrifty and low-maintenance, so for the first two years of our relationship, I resisted pointing out that we could buy two yachts or pay off our student loans if she'd just please switch from Advil to a generic pain reliever. It was frustrating, but she doesn't ask for much, so I figured I could grant her that one expensive, anti-scientific indulgence.

But the woman eats ibuprofen like I eat beer, which is to say way too damn much for her liver's sake, and, more important, way too damn much to be high-rolling with the fancy brand. I eventually broke down and explained that if I could get by treating my headaches with Schlitz—which is objectively inferior to my preferred medicine, Firestone Walker Union Jack—she could get by with store-brand remedies, which are the same damn thing as the real stuff, just half the price (and maybe with a little bit less certainty surrounding the tamper-proof foil, but you can't go through life scared, or spending $10 a week on Advil).

She relented, and now we're filthy rich: The coin jar we're going to cash in to pay for Thanksgiving dinner has way more quarters than dimes and nickels (lotta pennies still; them bastards just pile up on you regardless of your financial acumen). This is a damn good thing, because our guests are mostly heavy and judgmental drinkers. One couple works at high-end restaurants, another are the type of dicks who name their pets after hop varieties, the third … well, they're a doctor and a Canadian gutter drunk, which could be a wash. But still. I have a lot of beer to buy, and I didn't get filthy rich by springing for a day's worth of expensive beer for eight.


It is a holiday, though, and they're good friends, so I'm going to climb a couple rungs higher than Schlitz with Notch Left of the Dial. It's a great session IPA at a very reasonable price, about $16 per 12-pack. Notch is a small Massachusetts company that currently only distributes at home and in Maine; Left of the Dial is contract-brewed in Connecticut.

Though increasingly common among top-tier beer-makers, "contract-brewing" is still something of a dirty word (or two? word and a half?), because it's strongly associated with huge international conglomerates that focus primarily on marketing and bean-counting and leave the actual brewing to the lowest bidder. But it's really expensive for a new company to build a brewery! Some of my favorite beers are brewed by contractors, gypsies, tenants, whichever term of art you prefer to mean "Someone who comes up with a recipe, gathers the ingredients, and then goes elsewhere to turn it all into beer."


So Notch Left of the Dial will get us through till dessert, when I'll spring the big, boozy stuff on them: Trader Joe's 2014 Vintage Ale, which is my dream beer in that it is both contract-brewed and store-brand, and therefore the best $5.49 750-milliliter bottle of Belgian-style strong dark ale on the market.

Trader Joe's has a million kinds of beer that are brewed all over the place. A few of them suck, most of them are decent, and Vintage Ale is very good. TJ farms Vintage production out to Quebec's esteemed Unibroue, and neither store nor brewery make any attempt to hide the arrangement, which is rare, refreshing, and also logical, since this is a beer everyone can be proud of.


The label calls Vintage a "dark ale brewed with spices and natural flavor added," and notes that it's on lees, which means there's some yeast sediment left in the bottle, so you need to use a glass. No big deal, you have a glass.

It pours nearly black, with pretty ruby highlights and a perfect head of tiny, lively bubbles that look like slightly agitated beer caviar. You can smell the Belgian yeast as soon as you pop the cork, with heavy clove and light banana notes leading the aroma, and molasses, dark fruit, fig, cinnamon, and roasted malt joining in later. A faint shot of lemon kicks in on the end to keep things from getting too heavy. It's a bit hot, with the nine-percent-ABV fairly apparent, but it's still a very well-made beer.


Beer writer Jen Muehlbauer is a big fan who notes that it's ideal for the beer geek on a budget, but says it can also be a crucial gateway beer for the casual consumer who has never had a strong Belgian ale before but might "pick it up out of curiosity and have his taste buds rearranged." This makes Trader Joe's 2014 Vintage Ale an ideal beer for enlightening Canadian gutter drunks while also appeasing the overly informed crowd.

This is Drunkspin Daily, the Concourse's adequate source for booze news, reviews, and bullshit. We'll be highlighting a beer a day in this space; please leave suggestions below.


Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.

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