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Eat & Drink

Toronto bars brand their own beer, but what is it?

Posted by Ben Johnson / January 15, 2013

Beer pintHouse branded beer is something you might discover on tap if you find yourself in bars that have been around for a number of years or that have a clientele that tends toward less-expensive drinking habits. It's typically a lager named after the bar, it's usually something easy to drink, and it's almost always offered inexpensively in pitchers. But what exactly is that beer?

Well, according to a highly unscientific study I conducted last week, most of the time it's just Amsterdam Blonde. In fact, of the handful of bars that I spoke to that advertise a house brand, a full 40% admitted that their house-branded beers were actually just Amsterdam.

Another 25% of these bars are branding Great Lakes Brewery's Horseshoe Lager as their own, and about 12% are opting to pour Cool Beer Brewing Company's Cool Beer as their house beer.

This probably isn't too surprising for people who drink in Toronto bars with any sort of regularity, but what was a little surprising was how readily bars were willing to admit that their "house beer" was nothing more than an inexpensive local lager with a custom tap handle. "Yeah, it's actually Amsterdam Blonde," was a common refrain as soon as I asked about house beers. "It's actually just Great Lakes lager," said others with virtually no prompting. "The house brand thing is just a gimmick," they admitted.

Indeed staff at only one of the bars I talked to was hesitant to offer up any details on their eponymous house brand. "It is brewed especially for us," I was told over the phone. And when I asked who brewed it for them? "I don't know. And the person who would is out of town."


Of course, these "house brands" are not to be confused with the very small number of bars in the city that actually have their own unique beers. Most recently Get Well announced the introduction of an on-site nanobrewery where small batch beers are in fact brewed on the premises (and, incidentally, are quite good. The porter they brewed recently in collaboration with Duggan's was something of a revelation for me).

Craft beer mainstay barVolo has likewise been pumping out quality one-offs and collaborations with local brewers as part of their House Ales program for over two years.

Furthermore, and for my money far too often overlooked, Opera Bob's offers a fantastic beer brewed just for them. Mill Street's Bob's Bearded Red is actually brewed only for Opera Bobs. Mill Street Brewmaster Joel Manning is friends with world-renowned Canadian opera singer Robert Pomakov (aka Opera Bob), and created this traditional Irish Red Ale (not the North American version that's generally a darker amber with caramel flavouring) just for him. This is a fantastic nitrogen-charged, creamy pub draught you can usually only get at the Mill Street Brew Pub and, obviously at Opera Bob's.

But aside from those and other sparse exceptions, most of the time when you order a "house beer," you're probably just getting something cheap and easy-to-drink made by one of a handful of the city's craft breweries.

The question is, is this dishonest? Bartenders, and even bar owners, didn't hesitate to fess up, even when I disclosed I was writing for the site, so is this a case of underhanded marketing, or is this just a forgivable marketing gimmick wherein everybody wins? Breweries get to sell their beer, the bar gets to say it's their own local lager, and customers get cheap, drinkable draft.

What do you think?

Photo by July Lavelle in the blogTO Flickr pool



Arrow / January 15, 2013 at 09:02 am
I guess it's the only way they can sell their disgusting supply of Amsterdam Blonde.
Rick / January 15, 2013 at 09:17 am
Meh. I don't think it's underhanded if they admit to it. Plus, if people insist on drinking boring lagers, at least they're drinking local ones.
Christopher / January 15, 2013 at 09:24 am
Bob's Bearded Red is pouring at Hadley's, too.
Mikey / January 15, 2013 at 09:46 am
$9 pitchers of The House Water, any day you want them at Bistro 422!!!

What do you expect for $9...
Mikey / January 15, 2013 at 09:55 am
Also, as per "Arrow," I would not describe Amsterdam Blonde or Cool Beer as "easy to drink" (though the latter does feature heavily in my fridge for those friends with undiscerning palettes and parking lot drinking sessions).
gtb / January 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm
I miss Red Claw beer at Red Lobster...
C replying to a comment from Rick / January 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm
dwt / January 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm
" This is a fantastic nitrogen-charged, creamy pub draught you can usually only get at the Mill Street Brew Pub and, obviously at Opera Bob's.";

I can always find this beer pouring in Guelph, ON.

Mark / January 15, 2013 at 01:08 pm
I'd love to know which bars use Great Lakes Horseshoe Lager. That's not bad at all. But honestly, for the price, there's nothing wrong with Amsterdam Blonde or Cool Beer. If you can't tolerate it ... move on.

Anyway, honesty isn't even a factor. It's just a word generally understood to mean "here's our cheap stuff". No one expects a restaurant to create their own house reds or whites.
alex / January 15, 2013 at 01:41 pm
Anytime you drink a house-anything in a bar, it's always something that's appealing to everyone, so you shouldn't expect anything special.

I'm curious though if bars that feature mostly craft brews, also have amsterdam or great lakes as their house brand.
evan / January 15, 2013 at 02:05 pm
They taste better than canadian or stella or something, and are always as cheap or cheaper. Sounds like an awesome deal to me.
evan / January 15, 2013 at 02:07 pm
OH, and maybe since it's a beer from a local, they have to dress it up so as not to offend their Sleeman/Molson overlords. Yay local option!
Billy / January 15, 2013 at 02:21 pm
Fionn MacCools just introduced Hop Mason which is a beer brewed by Keiths (If I am not mistaken) and it is wonderful. It is also brewed specifically for Fionns which is pretty neat.
Ben replying to a comment from Billy / January 15, 2013 at 04:32 pm
Actually, Keith's Hop Mason is currently available in all Prime Pubs, which means it's on tap at every D’Arcy McGee’s, Fionn MacCool’s, Paddy Flaherty’s and Tir Nan Òg's. And they didn't make it exclusively for Prime, rather I suspect this is a test market situation. If Hop Mason does well in Prime Pubs, you'll soon see it everywhere, including the Beer Store.
Andrew / January 15, 2013 at 05:07 pm
In the old days, the "house beer" at a few places was often Rickard's Red.
Bill / January 15, 2013 at 05:12 pm
I think most people that order the "house beer" would be pleasantly surprised to find out it wasn't made in the bathroom of the bar.
seanm / January 15, 2013 at 07:10 pm
Amsterdam Blonde is serviceable as a cottage/lawnmower/getting drunk all day beer, but only if you get the $31.95 25 pack from the brewery. Otherwise it's not worth it, even at house beer pricing.
Simon Tarses / January 15, 2013 at 07:52 pm
Too bad that most places can't have their own pop made for them on the premises...that would be something to see (or even taste).
Guelphite / January 15, 2013 at 08:03 pm
Bob's Bearded Red is also poured in Guelph.

This is not to say that it is the equivalent of a "house beer" (aka Amsterdam). I've had the Bearded Red on a number of occasions and it is very good indeed. I doubt however that any beer is brewed for just one single establishment.
Jason / January 15, 2013 at 08:04 pm
When I worked at Ein-Stein Bierhalle on College a couple years ago, the "Einstein" house beer was from Great Lakes and was $4 a pint, $10 for a pitcher. That was a good deal for a local craft brew. It still is, in fact.
Jason replying to a comment from Guelphite / January 15, 2013 at 08:35 pm
Mill Street brews their Royal Stinger Honey Lager just for the Royal York Hotel. Occassionally you can find a growler of it in the Mill Street retail shop, and it was served at the brew pub once (ONCE) at a brewmaster's dinner.

Bob's Bearded Red was made especially for Opera Bob's, and is sometimes found on tap at Mill Street. Where can you find it in Guelph?

And Mill Street also makes their own root beer (for the kids and pregnant ladies) which is quite good.
Smith replying to a comment from Guelphite / January 15, 2013 at 11:43 pm
The bar/restaurant called Jupiter here in Berkeley, CA brews their own beer (about 8 different varieties) and only serves it in house, on tap. I wish I could buy it outside the establishment because their beer is wonderful.
Lorne Marr / January 16, 2013 at 04:54 am
@ or that have a clientele that tends toward less-expensive drinking habits.
Well, lovers of beer could get angry when reading this statement. It's more or less a question of preference. And a common stereotype that wealthy people drink ridiculously expensive cognac. I love bars where you can get their own beer. It often tastes much better than beer from large beer brands. Of course, provided the brewer is skilled enough.
MIke / January 16, 2013 at 03:13 pm
The most hilarious part is that on one hand Amsterdam Blonde is touted as a premium, high-end craft beer, while on the other sold off at a pittance and be re-branded. While this practice is not new, and certainly not unique to the beer industry, it is pretty hypocritical.
Ryan replying to a comment from Jason / January 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm
Mill Street Root Beer (non-alcoholic) is also available at place called The Local Gastropub in Barrie, On. Supposedly, they're the only place other than the brewpub that carries it.

Also, the various house beers at C'Est What? (Hazelnut Chocolate Stout, etc) are brewed by County Durham in Pickering.
Tim / February 15, 2013 at 08:16 pm
Usually its breweries just trying to unload some of their batches that haven't measured up to their standards. Big companies want a consistant tasting beer and sometimes, for one reason or another, the batch just doesn't taste the same. There's nothing wrong with the batch, it just doesn't taste like the others.

Instead of just pouring the batch down the drain, breweries will sell it cheap to local pubs with the allowance of letting them call it their own. That's why they can offer it so inexpensively to guests.
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