Who knew Trader Joe's had craft beer?

Who knew Trader Joe's had craft beer?
The selection of craft beers at Trader Joe's. (John Verive)
The wine selection at Trader Joe’s markets is a well-known draw for the harried shopper, and the beer choices also offer some solid brews at bargain prices. And among the bottles are some pretty good craft beers. Here are some picks to try the next time the vehicular scrum in the parking lot during the post-work rush drives you to drink.

While the inventory at Trader Joe’s markets varies from store to store, the beer selection at many of the locations has expanded as craft beer has caught on with mainstream shoppers, but there are a few caveats to beer-shopping at TJ’s.  

The biggest pitfall is getting a six-pack of old beer. Freshness is a huge part of tasty beer, and bottles that spend time on the warm shelves of your local market degrade faster than you might realize. Most craft breweries say their beer is best in the first 120 days after leaving the brewery, but this window assumes cold storage. Beer at room temperature stales much faster than cold-stored bottles.

Thankfully, many of the best brands for sale in Trader Joe's print date codes (either a “bottled on” date or a “best by” date) on the packaging. Freshness is especially important when dealing with the ever-popular hoppy brews like IPAs: hop character is the first thing to fade in old beer, so check those bottles for date codes! Anything under 90 days old should be acceptable, and if you see a bottle that’s under 30 days old you’re in for a fresh treat. 

If you’re looking for a bargain, the Trader Joe's house brands might be the first place you look. Like many of Trader Joe’s products, these beers are made at major manufacturers to Trader Joe’s specifications and branded especially for the local markets.
The Josephs Brau line of German-style brews is made by Gordon Biersch, while Ol’ Burro beers are brewed and canned right in Los Angeles at Golden Road’s brewery. The Josephs Brau Weizenbock and the Ol’ Burro Tap 79 are some highlights of the TJ’s private labels, but neither brand prints date codes on the outside of their packages, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot when buying them. 
The Boatswain line (brewed in Wisconsin at Minhas Craft Brewery) is even less expensive, but it's also not as well regarded. And let’s just leave the Simpler Times Lager on the shelf.  

One private label beer that’s just hitting local shelves is the annual Trader Joe's Vintage Ale. This spice-tinged Belgian-style ale is brewed by Quebec’s beloved Unibroue -- makers of La Fin Du Monde and Blanche de Chambly -- and the 750ml bottles are an outright steal at under $5. Grab a couple of extras, and if you have bottles left after the new year then pack them away with the Christmas decorations and see how they taste alongside next year’s batch. 

While they're not as inexpensive as the house labels, the name-brand craft brews are still usually a buck or two cheaper on the shelves of Trader Joe's than at the liquor store, and the selection of craft brews has been steadily improving.
Stone Brewing usually has a heavy presence in L.A.’s TJ’s locations, and Stone does stamp the neck of the bottle with an “enjoy by” date. Keep an eye out for Stone’s seasonal and special release bottles in particular, as Trader Joe's often gets generous allocations of these brews.
The seasonal brews from Firestone Walker are also often discounted at TJ’s. Velvet Merlin, an oatmeal stout released by the brewery each winter, is a particularly good score at $8.50 per six pack. AleSmith’s seminal IPA is another great bargain at $5 for a 22-ounce bottle, and the San Diego brewery also stamps a “bottled on” date on the shoulder of their bottles.   
What if there’s nothing particularly fresh at your local market? Don’t go home empty-handed; look for beers and styles that are less impacted by a little shelf age.
It’s best to stay away from the more hop-forward styles, but bottle-conditioned Belgian ales should age more gracefully. Chimay, Duvel, and Unibroue are all common sights in Trader Joe’s around town. 
Some locations also have a “build your own sixpack” section that can be a fun way to sample many different brews, but keep in mind that these orphaned beers can often be well past their best-by dates, so pay special attention to date codes on single bottles if you’re going to experiment.
More markets have also added six packs to the coolers near the prepared foods, so don’t forget to check that spot for your favorite brands if you’re beer shopping. It’s always better to buy brews that have been stored cold.