Beer #11: Trader Joes 2006 Vintage Ale, a Goddamn Complicated Mess

This beer is one hell of a complicated mess, and in more ways than one.

It pours an opaque dark brown with a rich walnut head. The silk-screened 750ml bottle, sealed with a champagne cork, describes the contents as “Dark Ale on Lees, 9% ABV.” Lees means yeast sediment, which is another way of saying the beer has been “bottle-conditioned”, which is another way of saying a secondary fermentation has taken place in the bottle. All of which means this is what I like to call a “live beer” as opposed to a dead beer that has been filtered and pasteurized and therefore contains no living or dormant yeast.

Trader Joe’s 2006 Vintage Ale

The Dark Ale nomenclature indicates this beer doesn’t fit in an easily defined category but is unruly and irreverent, which is ironically appropriate for a beer that is fashioned after those produced by nuns and monks in Belgian abbeys.

The initial bouquet is faint, but that may be due to the fact that I served it at too cold a temperature to allow the fruity ale yeast esters to fully blossom.

The flavors, on the other hand, are disarmingly complex, dense with holiday spice and yet crisp and light for such a big beer. The latter character is likely a result of the high level of carbonation which propels the dark juice over the tongue and cleanses the palate on its way down. Nutmeg, clove, and aniseed spices make brief appearances, as do a cluster of dark fruits like plum, raisin and cranberry.

The “Best Before” date is listed on the bottle as 08-28-2009 and I have no trouble believing this beer will grow increasingly complex over the years, which brings me to the second complicated aspect of beer.

It is marketed as Trader Joe’s 2006 Vintage Ale. Trader Joe’s is a grocery chain, not a brewery, so naturally I wondered who they contracted to brew this annual elixir. The first answer seemed simple enough. The small type at the bottom of the back of the bottle says “Brewed by Unibroue.” Great, Unibroue is a wonderful brewery in Chambly, Quebec specializing in Belgian style ales. I recently acquired a whole slew of their beers and am planning to have a special tasting of them with some friends. But upon further investigation, I realized the brewery answer wasn’t as simple as that. Unibroue is actually owned by Sleeman Breweries Ltd., Canada’s third largest brewing company. But it doesn’t end there either. Sleeman was acquired in August 2006 by Sapporo, a Japanese-based global beerhemoth. So Trader Joe’s 2006 Vintage Ale is brewed by Unibroue, which is owned by Sleeman, which is owned by Sapporo.

Goddamn! Can’t a guy have a simple beer any more?


6 Responses to Beer #11: Trader Joes 2006 Vintage Ale, a Goddamn Complicated Mess

  1. Dan says:

    Great treatise on this beer. Just what I was looking for. Now the reason for my quest: is this beer a cheaper version of any other known Unibroue ale??

  2. beeractivist says:

    Good question Dan, and one I hadn’t even considered. Unfortunately I don’t know the answer, although I’d like to think it is a unique creation and not just a repackaging.

  3. brikon says:

    Aside from the Trappist beers, Unibroue are definitely my favorites and are always rich flavors. Who cares who they are owned by as long as it tastes good.

  4. Smitty says:

    Very useful commentary. I’ve got two bottles of the ’06 and will pour one this evening for a New Years eve drink. I’ll let you know how it stacks up after a few more months in the bottle.

  5. oopsisharted says:

    Unibroue has always been a favorite of mine… Sad to see that its oned by such a prevelant macro… But I’m drinking a trios pistoles as I type this.

  6. Ralph says:

    I just happened upon this review. As it turns out, I purchased several bottles of this 2006 Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale. I drank at least one bottle at the time, and while I enjoyed it immensely, I didn’t find it to be a great ale. I found my stashed bottles in 2009. I drank one with my brother, and wow! what a difference! All the complex flavors really made us stand up and take notice. One fine ale! As an experiment, we decided to see how this beer would hold up after one more year. As it turns out, not quite as well. Still good, but not as terrific as it was a year earlier. If this pattern holds up for the subsequent vintages, hold on to a bottle or two for about three years to get maximum enjoyment. Cheers!

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