Building Your Brand with a House Beer

It’s 6:08 pm. A lone man enters your pub and seats himself at the bar, nervously eyeing the colourful array of tap handles nearby. A bartender asks: “what’ll it be?” The man responds with “I just want a beer.” The barkeep smiles because he knows what to do. Reaching back for a glass, he pours a tall pint of the house lager, a sure pleaser. The guest takes a pull and lets out a telltale satisfied sigh.

A house beer can be more than one thing. It can serve as a go-to product, streamlining guest-server interactions when a preferred brand isn’t requested or available. It can be a completely custom recipe, or it can be your supplier’s stock beer, with or without tweaks. It can also be presented as an up-front, undisguised partnership with the brewery down the road. It might be positioned as a private label, springing mysteriously from an unnamed source, with an imprint that exists nowhere else on the planet.

For an owner, serving a beer sporting your own label has clear benefits. It’s a point of differentiation, suggesting that your business has the means to produce a unique product and it sends a subtle signal that you’ve “made it”. If done well, it can help cement brand loyalty. At retail, it provides a new opportunity for your fridge-browsing clientele to interact with your brand.

For reasons like these, a number of North American breweries derive part of their income from third-party contract brewing for retail and hospitality businesses (as well as smaller breweries). Some even specialize in producing private label beverages as their primary source of revenue.

Where Does the Beer Come From?

One of the biggest players in the private label business is Minhas Brewery & Distillery. They discovered early on that there was a far bigger market selling private label beer, wine and spirits to US grocery and convenience store chains than flogging their own beers. Now they fulfill giant contracts like Costco’s Kirkland brand house brew.

Albeit on a smaller scale, BC’s best-known contract brewery does a similar thing. Vancouver’s Craft Collective burst onto the scene last year, partnering with local micro-breweries that needed to outsource some or all of their beer production in order to keep up with BC’s newfound insatiable thirst for craft beer. However, they don’t just brew for breweries. One of their newer contracts is Brown’s Social House (whose Social Lager had previously been produced by veteran Granville Island Brewing).

Stephen Smysnuik is Marketing Director at Craft Collective. He knows the ins and outs of creating a house brand, and he’s quite candid about the fact that this avenue is best suited for those clients willing to put in a commitment. The first reality check is that for a custom or packaged beer there’s a minimum quantity involved, which is 50 hectolitres (think: one hundred 50L kegs, or 10,000 500ml cans). There are also plenty of other details to consider before any brewing happens.

Smysnuik provides a full suite of services, including recipe consultation, graphic design, packaging, and storage. All of this has to be factored into the contracted price, so initiating a full-on private label program is not necessarily a ticket to cut costs. You have to want it for other reasons.

However, if you’d just like a beer to call your own, without all the creative work and inventory, there’s an easier way.

Partnering with a Local Brewery

Haus Lager is Collective’s entry into the mainstream/value crossover segment of the craft beer retail market. Although Smysnuik created the product to sell at retail, it can also be wholesaled to clients in draft form. Smysnuik suggests that a pub, which wants a self-branded tap, can work out an arrangement to rebrand Collective’s lager, avoiding the large brew order that a custom or packaged product would require.

Vancouver’s 12 Kings Pub uses a similar approach. Co-Owner Armin Sodhi notes that when they took over their Kingsway location in 2014, they upgraded the existing tap list to 100% craft beer. They had to be ready for pushback, so they found a house lager that would keep the regulars happy in the form of Coal Harbour Brewing’s 311 Helles, which they’ve nicknamed “12 Kings Lager”.

“People that aren’t into craft beer will come in and say, ‘Gimme a beer’,” reports Sodhi. “We knew that we had to attract our less craft-beer-forward clientele with something that was approachable. 311 had won a couple of Gold Medals. We did a taste test and found that it was right up our alley.”

Sodhi has been fully up front about the origin and true identity of the beer. “I’ve seen a lot of places that carry their house ale, and everybody asks, ‘who brewed it?’”, he opines. He feels that patrons respect transparency.

Collaborations: the Latest Trend

The craft beer wave has created a number of idiomatic trends, and ‘collabs’ (collaborations between breweries) is a prime example. Taking the concept of partnering to the next level, a pub or LRS possessing a good relationship with a craft brewery can create a collab as a quirky one-off, or as part of a series.

Collabs are, in essence, an opportunity to engage your brand with a hot new brewery and a passionate market. The resulting output could be treated as a temporary, miniature, private label campaign with a potentially high viral marketing upside.

12 Kings is all over it. “We’re talking to a couple of breweries about being involved in the brewing process,” Sodhi shares. In addition to offering a branded lager or IPA, that would allow them to do special brews, “like a 12 Kings Pineapple Pilsner,” he says, only half-jokingly.

Setting up a house beer program is all about assessing your identity, knowing where you fit in the modern beer marketing landscape, and targeting your buyer. Larger, more established and multi-outlet operations can justify the burden of a full-on white label program for the branding and consistency benefits. However, thanks to the proliferation of small, entrepreneurial breweries, along with flexible printing and packaging options, there are exciting opportunities for creative pubs and small retailers.

Dave Smith is Editor of What’s Brewing, the Journal of BC’s Craft Beer Movement (
Photo courtesy of Dave Smith: Armin Sodhi holding a 12 Kings Lager.