Private Label Derby: Which Store Brand Beer is Best?

February 06, 2018

By Miles Liebtag, February 06, 2018

I grew up on store brands. When you’re a kid you don’t discriminate; whatever food is in the house is the food you eat. If you grew up in an economically-depressed area, like I did, having food in the house at all wasn’t a given. When we did, store brands dominated the pantry: Kroger’s Big K cola, Wal-Mart’s Great Value frosted flakes, CostCo’s Kirkland tuna fish and Meijer canned peas.

All of these products were, and are, incrementally cheaper than their recognizable brand-name equivalents. They also were, and are, nearly indistinguishable from their costly counterpart. 

If that's true for corn flakes, then is it true for beer? Store brand – or as they are often called, “private label” – beers are everywhere these days. All of the aforementioned grocery chains have their own packaged beers sold exclusively at their stores, in addition to Walgreen’s, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s. These beers are nestled in coolers and on shelves among other, more easily recognized and independently-made brands.

The stores do little to distinguish them as private label products beyond offering them as a lower price point. Many an unsuspecting consumer has probably picked up a private label six-pack under the impression that they were trying something new from a brewery they’d never heard of before, which might indeed be the case, just not in the way Joe Six-Pack assumed. 

Many private label beers are brewed under contract at large, regional breweries who may, or may not, also produce their own independently-marketed products which have no brand connection to the grocery store beers.

The tasters had no idea what brands they were tasting, or even that they were private label beers.”

Minhas Craft Brewery, in Monroe, WI, for example, was the 12th largest brewery by volume in the United States in 2016, according to the Brewer’s Association. Never heard of it? Not especially surprising, as Minhas’ Boxer Beer line, also known as “The Beer of Champions,” is made primarily for the Canadian market, and seems to be priced and marketed in such a way as to compete in grocery stores with larger brands. For example, compare it to its hard soda line. But Minhas also makes private label beer for Walgreens, Trader Joe’s and, more importantly, Costco, for whom it makes the bulk of the chain’s Kirkland-branded beer.

If you thought keeping the provenance of craft vs. “crafty” beers straight was difficult, the private label world is even more confusing. So much so that tracing a given beer’s origin can be surprisingly messy. 

But is private label beer any good? There’s no reason it couldn’t be. These beers are made by professionals in large, modern facilities capable, in theory, of producing beer every bit as good as that made on your local brewery’s ten-barrel system.

The major difference is that private label beers are made to hit a certain price point and fill a certain need for a retailer. They are not designed fulfill the vision of the brewer or offer a new experience for the consumer. These beers are commissioned in bulk. If we’re talking about the modern definition of “craft,” most observers can agree that this probably ain’t it. 

I sat down recently with a group of friends and colleagues to taste as many private label beers as I could find. The tasting panel was comprised of a seasoned wholesaler rep, a local craft brewery rep, a craft beer bar owner, and a veteran homebrewer. The beers were selected according to what I could pull off of grocery store shelves on a Sunday afternoon. We tasted the beers blind, and with no preamble. The tasters, aside from myself, had no idea what brands they were tasting, or even that they were private label beers. The results of this wholly subjective and unscientific tasting are below.

There are far, far better hefeweizens to be had for only a couple dollars more. Hard pass.”

Before we get started, one note on methodology and quality: I made zero effort to select beers based on freshness or dates on the packaging. I grabbed the first six-pack, can or bottle on the shelf, as I assume the vast majority of consumers do. As a result, many of these beers were quite old and, consequently, quite oxidized. For a little primer on what oxidation does to beer flavor, head on over to this other handy October article

Dieselpunk Pilsner
Source: Kroger

Dieselpunk, which sounds like a frustrated marketer’s Mad Lib, purports to be “Engineered for Taste. Crafted for Your Lifestyle.” Brewed by World Brews, in Novato, CA, Dieselpunk is one of Kroger’s more established private labels. I, personally, have been seeing it in Kroger stores for at least four years.

At 5% alcohol by volume, it is a sweet, grainy mess of a pilsner. The aroma is full of green apples and honeyed malts, while the grainy-sweet flavor lingers, lacking the dry, snappy finish one hopes with this style. As with many of the beers we tasted, this one had a strangely watery, insubstantial body. As we progressed through the tasting, I kept hearing things like “hollow,” “empty,” or “something missing.” This pilsner struck the chord of poorly-executed blonde ale.

Overall rating: 4/10   

Josephbrau Plznr
Source: Trader Joe’s

“Plzn” bills itself as a Czech-style Pils, and our tasting panel agreed! Even before we began discussing aromas and flavors, someone threw out “Pilsner Urquell” as a basis for comparison, which put the lowly store brand in august company, indeed.

Aromas of pilsner malt, bread dough, light spicy hop character and just a whiff of sulfur. On the palate, Plzn has a soft, round mouthfeel and a pleasant bitterness, with light minerality and a clean finish. Brewed by the venerable Gordon Biersch for Trader Joe’s, this was perhaps the favorite of the entire panel. At $5.99 a six-pack, I would pair this with a plastic pouch of pulled pork

Overall rating: 7/10

Josephbrau Hefeweizen
Source: Trader Joe’s

Take the good with the bad, I guess. Another Gordon Biersch-made product is a “Bavarian-style hef.” It was thin, overly sweet, slightly tart, and smelled like a butterscotch banana split. Ich mag es nicht.

In this beer’s defense, it was only two weeks from its expiration date, so maybe the vagaries of time and travel had been particularly unkind. Still, there are far, far better hefeweizens to be had for only a couple dollars more. Hard pass.

Overall rating: 3/10

Good Beer HuntingThe best, and worst, of both private label beers and beer snacks?

Iron Line Shuttle Train Belgian Wit
Source: Kroger

A regional store brand, available primarily in Ohio Kroger stores, Iron Line was the only “local” private label brand we tried. Brewed by Rivertown Brewery in Monroe, OH, the Iron Line brand is a perfect example of how older, larger craft breweries are using excess production capacity to contract brew for retailers and other, smaller breweries.

This witbier, however, was not quite a perfect example of the style. I liked it much more than the rest of the panel, as I found its clove-like phenolics, slightly tart wheat character, high carbonation, and semi-dry finish a nice change from the rest of the largely sweet and stale beers we’d tasted. Others found the visible floaters – likely protein and yeast sediment – unappetizing. It was unanimously agreed upon that this beer exhibited the strange, watery “hollow” quality as well.

Overall rating: 6/10

Trouble Brewing After Party Pale Ale
Source: Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart beer: Let that sink in a little. Also brewed by World Brews in Novato, this one was flat out disgusting.

It smelled of rancid honey, old hops and oxidized crystal malts. There was little hop flavor to be had – to my taste, it was piney and rather Cascade-like. The beer was not as thin as some others, but had an oppressively thick, muddy, artificial sweetness to it, which clashed horribly with the residual hop bitterness in the finish. A mess, and probably old to boot, but the can was dated by a code we couldn’t decipher. 

Overall rating: 3/10

Boatswain IPA
Source: Trader Joe’s

My last experience with Boatswain was out of a bottle. As with so many others, this long-established store brand is now in a can. I knew we were heading into trouble once we opened this IPA. While it’s conventional wisdom that IPA’s innate hoppiness and bitterness hide production flaws more readily, it’s also true that large production breweries more accustomed to making light lagers can bungle an IPA like no one else. On top of that, these beers age terribly.

Boatswain IPA didn’t disappoint. It was estery, as though fermented too warm, with lots of green apple and hop-driven cheesy aromas. The flavor was metallic, thin, and muddy at the same time, with a rank bitter finish that discouraged further sips. Brewed by Rhinelander Brewing Company in Wisconsin (which appears to have a single employee, according to its website), this was probably the worst beer we tasted – with the possible exception of Boatswain DIPA, for which my notes included “nail polish,” “honeyed crystal malt,” “orange marmalade,” “thin,” “watery,” and “hot.” These also had unreadable code dates.

I’d be willing to give fresh samples a day in court, but it would be one lengthy appeals process.

Overall rating: 2/10

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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