That house beer is something else

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A YEAR OR SO ago, the people who run Inn Flight Steak and Seafood Grilles in the northern suburbs decided to shake up their image. The chain had been a successful family restaurant for years, but the owners wanted to attract new, younger customers by re-creating it as a pub.

One of the first things they did was commission Yards Brewing to produce a house beer. Playing off the chain’s classic airplane theme, it would be called Wingwalker Ale. Labels and sixpack carriers were designed, menus were rewritten and bartenders started pouring bottles of this “lively balance of English malt and English hops.”

It’s now the bar’s No. 2 seller among 50 brands, behind Coors Light.

It’s been so popular, later this year Inn Flight plans to change the name of its restaurant in Colmar, Montgomery County, to the Wingwalker Pub.

Funny thing: Inn Flight’s special house beer can be found in any decent area bar. Wingwalker Ale is, in fact, another popular Yards standby, Extra Special Ale. The only difference is the label.

Some might call that a bit of a ruse, except that many of Inn Flight’s patrons already know the truth because bartenders, if asked, tell them. But the success of Wingwalker Ale points to a curious phenomenon: A good-looking label, a quirky back story and an aura of exclusivity attract customers.

“We wanted to introduce our patrons to an old-style English ale,” Inn Flight president Robert Bales said. “They might not normally try it, but there’s a little mystique to the name, so people are curious and they might say, ‘Gee, I’ll give it a taste.’ ”

It’s a phenomenon that bar owners throughout the region have already discovered.

At London Grill in Fairmount, one of the most popular drafts is Willie Sutton Lager, named after the famous escape artist who was once housed at the prison across the street. That brew is actually Stoudt’s Fest.

In West Chester, Rex’s Bar sells Duff Beer, Homer Simpson’s favorite. It’s actually Victory HopDevil. In Cape May, Congress Hall’s Blue Pig Tavern Ale is really Flying Fish Extra Pale Ale. In University City, the White Dog Café’s Leglifter Lager is Stoudt’s American Pale Ale.

All are big sellers.

This weekend, Rembrandt’s Restaurant and Bar in Fairmount will try to copy that success by kicking off a contest to design a logo for its new house beer. It’ll be called Rembrandt’s Beer, but my sources tell me it’s actually Stoudt’s Pils.

Beer branding

Small brewers often agree to play along with the charade because it’s a way to sell more beer. On the downside, though, is the loss of a tap handle with their own logo.

Until last spring, Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton allowed a nearby tavern to pour the brewery’s Extra Special Bitter as its house beer, calling it Porter’s ESB. But with his brewery growing, owner Dan Weirback decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Building his own brand name was more important.

“It doesn’t really get the brewery much name recognition,” said Weirback.

Taverns that truly want something to call their own take the extra step of commissioning a brewery to supply an original house beer with a unique recipe.

Eulogy Belgian Tavern in Old City, for example, serves an ale called Busty Blonde, made exclusively for it by La Binchoise Brewery in Belgium. The beer is available only at Eulogy. Across town, Monk’s Café serves its own Monk’s Flemish Sour Red Ale by Belgium’s Van Steenberge Brewery. Both beers were designed to the unique specifications of the taverns’ owners.

In western New York, a small brewery called Custom Brewcrafters has made a business of supplying house beers to area taverns and restaurants. Customers can order as few as 14 kegs, and the company will create a proprietary recipe, design the logo, supply the tap handles and guarantee that no other bar will pour the same beer.

“The motivation for a restaurant having its own beer is the same as having its own chicken wing recipe,” said Custom Brewcrafters owner Mike Alcorn. “Restaurateurs don’t like to just buy something from the food distributor, drop it into the deep fryer and throw it on the plate. There’s a tremendous amount of pride in providing something special for their patrons… .

“If they can offer a house salad- dressing, why not a house beer?”

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