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How did a beer born on an industrial estate in Cornwall in 1995 become a ubiquitous national brand in just 20 years? And what about it inspires such loyalty, and such disdain?
A few incidents made us really start thinking about Sharp’s Doom Bar.
The first was a couple of years ago on a research trip to Manchester, having travelled all the way from Penzance, when we walked into a pub – we can’t recall which one – to find two cask ales on offer: St Austell Tribute, and Doom Bar.
The second was at a pub in Newlyn, just along the coast from Penzance, where we met two exhausted cyclists who’d just complete the John O’Groats to Land’s End run. They wanted one last beer before beginning the long journey home to the Home Counties. When we got talking to them, one of them eventually said to us: “You’re into your ales, then? I’ll tell you what’s a good one – Doom Bar. Do you know it?”
People love this beer. They really, genuinely, unaffectedly find great pleasure in drinking it.
Sales statistics support that: from somewhere around 12 million pints per year in 2009, to 24m in 2010, to 43m by 2016, Doom Bar shifts units.
So what is, or has been, Doom Bar’s secret? And is there something there other brands might imitate?
There’s a trend in Hollywood against repeating origin stories and the tale of Sharp’s birth and metamorphosis has been told too many times, but here are some key dates, and a little context:
- 1994 – founded in Rock, Cornwall, by businessman Bill Sharp
- 1995 – Doom Bar first launched (a blend of Cornish Coaster and Sharp’s Own)
- 2002 – Stuart Howe joins Sharp’s as head brewer
- 2003 – Joe Keohane and Nick Baker buy out Bill Sharp
- 2010 – c.24 million pints of Doom Bar per year (SOURCE)
- 2011 – Molson Coors buys Sharp’s
- 2015 – Coors admits to brewing bottled Doom Bar in Burton-upon-Trent
- 2017 – c.43 million pints of Doom per year (SOURCE)
When we were living in London in the noughties, Sharp’s beer was ubiquitous, especially in pubs whose clientele skewed middle class, with Cornish Coaster as likely to show up as Doom Bar.
Once we’d started blogging about beer, after 2007, we recall Sharp’s having a mixed reputation. Beer writers were schmoozed aggressively (they once invited us to go for a ride on a speedboat on the river Camel) and Stuart Howe was a favourite of the BGBW, being outspoken and entertaining. Beers such as the strong golden Chalky’s Bite, a commercial tie-in with celebrity chef Rick Stein brewed with Belgian yeast, stood out as interesting in those pre-BrewDog days.
At the same time, there were grumblings about the 2003 takeover. First, there was a sense that the new slickness of its marketing and ever-growing scale of its operation was, frankly, uncool. And, of course, the beer wasn’t What It Used To Be. Finally, there was the fact that everyone knew, or suspected, that the brewery was being fattened for sale to an even bigger player.
The 2011 sale to Molson Coors was the first time we really noticed the familiar arguments around brewery takeovers being played out: it was terrible news, it was brilliant news, what did ownership matter, how could ownership not matter, and so on. Commentators attacked Sharp’s, or defended it, as Doom Bar (already a big brand) gained the weight of a corporate sales and PR operation.
Bar-room wisdom (which we haven’t been able to confirm one way or the other) has it that Doom Bar’s ubiquity after this point was the result of cynical sales tricks such as offering television football licences to publicans in return for taking the beer. It certainly became part of the total package of Molson beers, often seen alongside Coors Light lager and Worthington keg bitter in social clubs and pubs.
The shift of production of some Sharp’s branded beers from Cornwall to Burton did further damage to the brewery’s reputation, not least because it took prodding for Molson Coors to admit it. (Where a beer is brewed doesn’t matter, goes the argument, except for marketing purposes when it suddenly does.)
In 2015 the claim was the only bottled Doom Bar was being brewed in Staffordshire and that cask production continued to take place solely in Rock. When we checked in with Sharp’s in 2017, we were told that continued to be the case, but for whatever reason, many drinkers, based on conversations we’ve had in pubs, simply don’t believe this to be true.
So that’s the top level story, but what was going on behind the scenes all that time?
In our early days as bloggers Sharp’s then head brewer, Stuart Howe, was a somewhat intimidating figure. He was invariably pictured with biceps on display, or looking fit to burst out of a standard issue head brewer’s blazer, with a faintly menacing smile.
In his interviews and writing from the time we detected a certain defensiveness over Doom Bar; how could everyone have so many good things to say about BrewDog and so few positive words for his award-winning, technically perfect, extremely popular cask ale?
Mr Howe left Sharp’s in 2015 and is now the head brewer at Harbour, another Cornish brewery, where we emailed him in November. He was happy to answer our questions, including the big one: what is the secret to Doom Bar’s appeal?
Doom was always characterised by being subtler than most of the cask ales on the market with a softness on the palate, a gentle fruity bitterness, and a clean finish.
It was a great deal more accessible than the harder, drier tasting cask beer which dominated the category back in 2002. It used to convert a lot of drinkers to ales from lager.
I’ve found that in beer preferences there is a continuum which runs from people who don’t like beer because it’s bitter to people who like beer that feels like someone has pulled out your tongue and nailed it to a plank.
Humanity has evolved to avoid bitterness, rottenness and dryness because substances which have those taste properties are often harmful. Most people therefore are at the end of the continuum closest to the low bitterness/dryness/rottenness, and Doom Bar appeals to them. Geeky drinkers tend to choose challenging beers at the opposite end.
When Doom was growing at 40% per year, every pub we sold the beer into ordered more beer each week as more drinkers converted to Doom.
At the time we had no one in marketing and the marketing budget just about covered a few bar towels and beer mats so there was no manipulation of the gullible, people just enjoyed drinking the beer.
(We’ll come back to the point of marketing a little later.)
One complaint levelled against Doom Bar by real ale purists is that it barely counts as cask-conditioned. That’s because it ships from the brewery with relatively little live yeast in the cask, meaning less expertise is required to handle it in a pub cellar and, correspondingly, there is little of the mystique of Bass or Landlord.
Stuart Howe confirms that this ease of handling was key to Doom Bar’s popularity with publicans, which is a key step in its popularity with drinkers:
Doom was popular with landlords because it was racked with a lower yeast count and the correct CO2 level for dispensing. This meant you could put the beer on about 4 hours after it was delivered and it would be crystal clear and full of condition. To achieve this the beer was conditioned in the brewery before racking and of course the elements which affect how it would perform in trade were measured and controlled. There weren’t many breweries in the UK doing this at the time.
If some subtle variation is all part of the fun for cask ale drinkers – again, that mystique – then Doom Bar’s rigid consistency is a mark against it for that audience, but a significant plus for casual drinkers. Stuart Howe describes achieving uniformity from one brew to the next, and from one year to the next, as an exhausting battle:
Doom is a difficult beer to manage because of its subtlety. The hardest thing a brewer has to do is to maintain a beer’s palate in the context of continual change.
Every year the hops are different, the malt is different and there are changes in the hops and malt from the day they are harvested to the day your stocks run out and you change on to the next year’s crop.
Also, yeast varies from generation to generation and can do strange things in response to nutritional changes in the wort.
As a brewer you need to continually make small changes to the process to maintain the consistency of the beer. The more subtle the beer, the greater the impact of change and hence difficulty in maintaining the balance.
Add to this getting the beer to be the same from two entirely new breweries, the crop of the main hop variety failing, and the barley variety being changed by the supplier twice and you’ve got a tough job.
That’s why I didn’t take a holiday for five years at Sharp’s and why I’ve got a heart condition!
Jason Merry is now sales manager for Devon brewery Otter but he spent much of the noughties as Sharp’s regional sales manager in the West Country, based primarily in Bristol. We spoke to him over a pot of tea at a central Bristol cafe in late November, and it was evident that he remains proud of the part he played in making Doom Bar a star.
He began by offering a useful reminder of what Doom Bar was 15 years ago: a hip, upmarket product associated with surfing and sport, second homes and music festivals:
At Sharp’s, we hated that image of the old man in the flat cap drinking warm, flat bitter. We were young, we liked surfing and the beach, so we had hoodies and all that. The national appeal of the beer was based a bit on ‘posh Cornwall’– the Rock crowd, up in London.
He also believes that the sales team had a certain youthful vigour missing from better-established rivals which had dominated the market:
We were very aggressive on the ground, almost to the point of where people thought we were arrogant. We were all in our twenties and just really up for it. I think some of the older local and national brands commonly seen around the region at that time had got a bit lazy and complacent, and whereas their sales people would be in the pub chewing the landlord’s ear for half an hour, telling anecdote after anecdote, we were more like, ‘Right, let’s do some business, let’s sell some beer.’ Publicans are busy people.
He echoed Stuart Howe’s suggestion that the technical qualities of the product gave it a leg up…
We held onto it for a few days longer than other breweries typically might with cask ale, seven to ten days, so when it went into pubs, it was ready to go. There was less sediment so, crucially, the yield was better. They’d always get another pint or two out of a tub.
…but also suggests, contradicting Howe’s underdog narrative, that the capital Kehoane and Baker put behind the product helped enormously:
When someone ordered a tub of Doom Bar, they got the works. No expense was spared on point-of-sale material. No flimsy, flappy cardboard pump-clips – proper enamelled ones, and glasses, beer mats, bar runners… I knew once I’d got a pub to take it once, it would stick, and I could move on.
This ‘stickiness’ was a recurring theme: Doom Bar was a reliable product (critics might say bland) that won customers’ loyalty, and that of publicans in turn. That meant a small sales team could dominate an entire region, getting the beer into every freehouse in, say, Taunton, and then moving on.
There is an ironic kicker in Jason Merry’s story as he acknowledges, without bitterness, that Doom Bar has become a challenge in his new role: “Now I’m with Otter I spend a lot of time trying to undo my own work. Doom Bar is everywhere and, like I said, it’s hard to dislodge it. People are very loyal to that brand.”
We asked our followers on Twitter for their thoughts on Doom Bar and got some interesting responses.
Given the obvious self-selection – people who follow us are, by definition, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘beer geeks’ – it wasn’t surprised that many were critical:
- “It’s the only [boring brown bitter] I won’t drink anymore, even as a distress purchase. I had a pint of Hop House lager when last faced with DB as the only ale on.”
- “It’s the Devil’s vomit.”
- “Never drink it, never have, never will… [because it’s] ubiquitous, aggressively marketed, in every pub you go into…”
- “I used to quite like it – when I only got to drink it when I went to Cornwall. Seemed fairly characterful and tasty. Not cutting edge, but respectable. And then… Molson Coors. I don’t believe it’s the same beer now, bland even when well kept, and it seems to encapsulate all that’s wrong with globalisation. Will only drink it as an absolute last resort – or last but one, if GK IPA is the alternative.”
But other comments were perhaps surprisingly positive, such as this from Michael @bringonthebeer:
The biggest shame for me over the whole issue was that an ale which was an occasional treat (yes, I like how it tastes – subjectivity rules!) has now become as ubiquitous a background feature as any other mass market beer, through no fault of its own… Doom Bar is a middling inoffensive beer in itself and it’s a better fall back option in mass market pubs than Ruddles or Abbott or, ye gods John Smith’s or Worthington. I do have qualms about a certain % of my £ propping up ‘big beer’ but I try to remember that there’s a small Cornish brewery underneath all the hype and hostility.
Steve (@untilnextyear) pointed out Doom Bar’s success in broadening the appeal of cask ale:
I remember 10+ years ago it being the saviour of a pub I went to frequently that previously didn’t serve real ale and had said it had no demand for it. Suddenly, there was a different crowd and happy real ale drinkers who had in the past steered clear.
Journalist Tom Davidson used to like Doom Bar, but doesn’t anymore, and puts forward an interesting argument for why that might be:
The ale… is often stocked at pubs which don’t specialise in beer but want something to offer the beer-drinking punter… Sadly for a beer I once cherished, I’ve gone off Doom Bar so entirely due to poor pints I make almost every effort to avoid it.
Consistent, easy, available
On balance, then, it seems Doom Bar was successful because:
- It required less care from publicans, and less waiting, with each cask yielding a little more beer.
- Its owners invested in marketing, especially at point of sale, conveyed a sense of quality and reliability to consumers.
- It reminded people of holidays, and an aspirational lifestyle of sand, surfboards and picnics.
- It became a name brand, like Guinness, to which publicans and drinkers are extremely loyal.
In our experience, Doom Bar doesn’t taste any worse now than it did a decade ago. If anything, we’ve found ourselves enjoying it a little more – does it seem a touch drier and lighter these days, perhaps?
At the same time, the argument that beer geeks are somehow unable to appreciate Doom Bar’s subtlety doesn’t ring true either: even people who like low octane, subtle brown bitters find this particular example rather bland. And that’s the downside to consistency – the inevitable result of technical perfection and ease of handling.
We certainly don’t buy into the narrative that Molson Coors ruined a once decent beer; rather, we think they were drawn to a beer that was already successful because it was precision engineered for the mainstream.
Note: throughout, where we’ve quoted emails or Tweets, we’ve made light edits for length and clarity.