For the record--I love Trader Joe's. Shop there almost weekly. I especially love their pesto tortellini, which I'm pretty sure is Amy's repackaged. But it's cheaper than when source my lunch elsewhere. And, therein lies the issue. Trader Joe's great products at low prices come at a cost. In most cases, I'm willing to overlook the hidden nature of TJ's supply lines, but their beer is an exception.
Ten seconds worth of googling yielded a small history of TJ's brewing. Since I didn't do the research myself, I'm not sure if these attributions are completely accurate but the idea is clear. TJ's generally finds quality suppliers to provide their discounted products. An example discussed in this Texas example outlines the basic approach.
Here's the range of $1.99 beers:
Boatswain Twin Screw Steamer Double IPA. Poured nice in the glass with an off white lace over a dull amber ale. Double IPA on the bottle, but my first swig tasted more like an American lager. Nose isn't bad if it was a light pale ale, but no where near DIPA territory. Mineral and caramel with little to no hop bite. Very disappointing, even for $1.99.
H.L.V Heavy Lift Vessel. Mud brown and copper ale with light brown head. 7% alcohol comes through with chocolate and dark malt. Acrid cold coffee taste with a metallic twang. Out of balanced and inappropriately tastes of butterscotch.
American I.P.A. Copper and gold IPA with a dirty white head that disappears quickly. Some fruitiness and spice in the nose but overwhelmed by a musty stank. Light caramel sweetness is cloying and has little in the way of bitterness. Unpleasant version of one of my favorite styles.
Chocolate Stout. Tan head of tiny bubbles piled thick and creamy over a dark brown to black stout. Slight roast in an unassertive nose. Velvety chocolate and coffee taste though the mouth is a little thin but not a problem. While still not great, easily the best of the bunch and pleasantly drinkable.
2012 Vintage Ale. This Belgian dark ale is brewed by Unibroue yearly. Rocky, irregular tan head falls quickly over a dark chocolate ale. Alcohol hotness and noble hops written on the bottle come through the nose nicely. Dark fruit and surprisingly hoppy taste is adequate but not impressive. Not a $1.99 beer but cheap for the target quality.
In a word: disappointed. Evidently there's not a beer person working in the upper echelon of Trader Joe's. My main concern is that people in Woodbury where I shop (and elsewhere) are buying these beers and thinking that they represent craft beer. Rightly, they will turn up their noses and, sadly, return to the Three Buck Chuck wines without actually tasting a solid craft brew. Sigh.