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Mission St. India Pale Ale has been my go-to bargain IPA for a long time. How long? Long enough that I can recall when it was just $3.99 a six-pack.
Granted, that may have been more than a decade ago, but back then, heady, hoppy IPAs weren't as ubiquitous as they are today. Mission St. IPA was full of flavor and juicy zing, and better than 99 percent of what was sold at the average supermarket. Plus, while the price eventually crept up to $5.99, that wasn't much more than the bubbly yellow water being offered by macrobrewers.
Sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s, the Mission St. brand also encompassed a tamer pale ale, as well as a brown ale and a hefeweizen. The latter two were also good buys. For years, all were brewed and bottled for TJ’s by Firestone Walker Brewing Co., of Paso Robles, California—a fine brewery with great beers under its own name. But in 2013 word leaked that Firestone Walker would soon be exiting the contract brewing business.
Contract brewing is when a brewery produces house-brand suds for a restaurant or bar. Many of Trader Joe’s beers are exclusive to their stores, produced by contract breweries including Golden Road Brewing, Minhas Craft Brewery, Gordon Biersch, Shipyard Brewing Company, and even Tecate’s Cervecería Mexicana.
But for the last year, my go-to IPA has been inconsistently stocked, with store managers vaguely referencing “problems with delivery.” Yesterday, when I stopped by my local TJ’s, I found out why.
For months now, Trader Joe’s has been working to transfer its Mission St. contract to a new brewery. The fruits of that labor are currently in stock at Trader Joe’s California stores, and destined to roll out east over the next few weeks. Yep, Mission St. India Pale Ale is back on the shelf, but there’s new packaging and a new price: $6.99, or a buck upcharge on this former best buy.
The manager at my local store said the new brewery was using the same recipe as before, “though it tastes a little different,” he added. I cringed.
On closer inspection, the bottle revealed that Mission St. is now being brewed by “Four + Brewing” in Salt Lake City, Utah. The name wasn’t familiar to me, but a little Googling and a call to the receptionist at Utah’s largest brewery revealed Four + to be the DBA of Uinta Brewing Company.
Ironically, more than 60 percent of Utah’s population identifies as members of the Mormon faith, a religion that prohibits consumption of alcohol. But while Uinta's headquarters are located just four miles from the world's largest Mormon temple, the company has been steadily growing since its founding in 1993. The Trader Joe’s relationship has to be a feather in its cap.
Alas, it may be a while before Riedel gets to sample a Mission St. India Pale Ale in Utah, since beers with alcohol content of 4 percent and above can only be sold through state-owned liquor stores. Although Trader Joe’s has two beer-hawking locations in Utah, they won’t be carrying Mission St.—it's disqualified by its healthy 5.8-percent ABV.
So what did I think of the new brew? I'm an aficionado, but I'm no beer critic or cicerone. Worse, I can’t do a head-to-head comparison (pun definitely intended), since I don't have any old stock on hand.
Going from memory, then, the Utah-produced Mission St. IPA strikes me as a little less hop-forward than the Firestone Walker version. It's still imbued with a pleasing, well-rounded taste, though perhaps a bit less bold. The recipe may be unchanged, but something’s different—be it a new strain of yeast, the local water, or a different variety of hops.
Regardless, it remains superior to most mass-market beers, with just enough of a craft-y feel that I’ll keep coming back for more. And at $6.99 (in California, anyway) it’s still a solid deal.
There's no word as to whether Uinta will also produce Mission St. Hefeweizen or Brown Ale—Trader Joe’s did not respond to my queries—but the old pale ale has been re-branded as Session Pale Ale. This beer actually seemed like an improvement over the old version and, at a modest 4.7 percent ABV, it's an easy drinking brew that will surely find new fans.