Beer pint

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

House 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

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