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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.
18 replies on “The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success”
This is a great piece of work, a really enjoyable read packed full of information.
Thanks and well done.
Interesting read, but you missed out the real reason Molson bought Sharps. It wasn’t because they wanted to sell ale, it was so they could sell more carling into the South East. Doom was just a vehicle to shift more lager, by making anyone wanting doom take carling as well.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, there’s rarely a single, simple ‘real reason’.
As a young lad I can’t really speak to any change in quality over the years, having only started drinking it in the early 2010s at a local that didn’t take IDing too seriously. It was a go-to drink for me, since it was tastier and cheaper than all the big name lagers and I’m not a cider fan (heresy growing up in the South West). I don’t drink it often any more but when I do it brings up a nostalgia for those days spent in the pub with all my mates before many of them moved away for uni, for that I think there will always be a place in my heart for Doom Bar.
I suppose I come into the category of “people who like low octane, subtle brown bitters find this particular example rather bland.” But I don’t really find it bland – there’s definitely something there, but something a bit muddy and cloying that I don’t much care for.
I can certainly vouch for people saying “Oh, you like real ale, then? Tell you what I’ve had – that Doom Bar. I really liked that.”
It’s important to remember that all the advertising and promotion in the world will only sell a bad product once. Doom Bar wouldn’t have achieved the success it has unless it was something that people wanted to make repeat purchases of. The history of British brewing is full of heavily-hyped launches that have fallen flat on their face.
Worth remembering the dominant cause of bad beer is bad beerkeeping and a depressing number of licensees continue to survive by selling bad beer more than once. When DB started pushing easily cellared beers that would make a massive difference to mediocre licensees fortunes. Most licensees seem to be mediocre at best…
We did wonder in those early years how a beer we took pot luck on finding an interesting pint of between pints of Skinners had taken over entire towns in Cornwall then Devon, now it’s obvious.
What I simply don’t believe is the claim DBs early success was by somehow being a less harsh beer than it’s peers. Most Cornish and Devon beer back then had a well earned image of being nearly hop free and the dry malt edge I love far from universal. It was simply designed to be consistently bland and the pints we liked back then were in pubs that let it get past that blandness.
“It’s important to remember that all the advertising and promotion in the world will only sell a bad product once”
That’s not true. There are plenty of beers I don’t really like but still purchase over and over again because I frequently visit pubs that I know will offer only very poor beer. I very much doubt I’m an exceptional example.
Doom Bar isn’t terrible, but it isn’t terribly nice, either. Its main selling point seems to be that its cheaper than lager, more alcoholic than water, and marginally less viscerally unpleasant than GKIPA/Pedigree. The presence of Doom Bar isn’t quite enough to make you walk out of the only pub in the village.
The real lesson here is that breweries’ punters are not drinkers, they’re landlords. If you can keep the landlord vaguely happy, then it doesn’t matter whether or not people actually enjoy the beer; they’ll drink it because they have no other choice.
Big discounts were always available on Doombar. When they opened their distribution centre in Bristol (1999? 2000?) it was on offer in the Midlands at 3 firkins for £100 when other “small” brewers needed £50 or more at the same ABV. I have also been assured, by an ex-Sharp’s employee, that every single ingredient was changed for a cheaper option after Molson Coors arrived. I know that it works as a gateway from beers of zero flavour to more satisfying, robust beers. I’m content to see it as a beer for everyone else but the rest of their mass market portfolio suffers from a “will this do?” ethos too . An IPA that is unmemorable, a lager that has tilted at lowest common denominator etc etc. Doombar itself is now ammunition in the battle between Molson Coors, Greene King and Marstons for the cash chest of British beer, if not the heart or mind
” know that it works as a gateway from beers of zero flavour to more satisfying, robust beers”
Is there any evidence that this is actually true though? The reaction of most young people to Doom Bar is normally one of “eurrgh foul”. Its very much an old man’s drink.
You have to remember that young people are probably used to the taste of fizzy pop, fruit ciders, lager, red bull, espresso. They are used to big bold flavours; fruitiness, sourness and bitterness are perfectly normal flavour for drinks. A pint of Punk IPA probably tastes pretty accessible and familiar to their palates. Something earthy and malty like Doom Bar is going to be far more of an acquired and off-putting taste.
Its no coincidence that the ubiquity of Doom Bar corresponds to a huge reduction in cask ale drinking amongst the young.
Interesting that Doom is the single best-selling ale across ‘Spoons 900 branches.
But it is probably the only ale (maybe excluding Abbot) that is permanently on in every branch.
I’ve long argued that a more meaningful (hypothetical) statistic would be sales *divided by* availability. That would give us a better idea of genuine popularity.
The thing is, one might as well write 2000+ words on why cheap, low quality fried chicken is so successful; after all, there are now a great many chicken places on virtually every high street, therefore it must be popular and, on some level, ‘good’. One could equally analyse the enduring popularity of swill amongst the pig population.
(Yes, I’m an unashamed elitist with a dismissive viewpoint. But it’s a sense of dismissiveness that I’ve long considered, not just on a beer level, but a philosophical and sociological one also.)
I just feel that seeking to explain the success of Doom Bar in terms of the actual beer and brewing process is to miss the point. It’s a commodity product and a few folks got lucky in that it was their product that succeeded where other near-identical ones failed. There may be marginal edges that resulted in *it* being Doom Bar and not something else, but the chances us most of us wouldn’t have cared much for whatever the something else was. Whatever it was.
Most of the economy – indeed, most of *life* – isn’t driven by craft beer or fine dining or arthouse cinema or high fashion or anything else that those in the know consider objectively good. It’s people knowing what they like, liking what they know and sticking with it. Occasionally that ‘circle of know-like’ expands to include something new or contracts to squeeze out something now considered passe, or which the powers of production nominate for decline-management. Doom Bar effectively fills the space in the market that was occupied by Tetley Bitter, John Smiths cask and others in the 1990s.
I know it’s a completely different beer – but that’s really not the point. It’s contemporary Strictly to 90s Noels House Party. People care so much less about this sort of thing than us beer enthusiasts that it’s sometimes impossible for us to understand. Stuff needs to be consumed; the stuff changes but the rationale behind the need for consuming it does not.
Unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to make this point without coming across like a complete snobbish wanker. Maybe I need to binge on Doom Bar and fried chicken and Cadburys and Man Utd until I’m forced into seeing things from their point of view…
It’s relevant to explore the success of Doom Bar as a parallel to what’s happening in craft beer at the moment.
It’s not explicitly stated in the article but doesn’t a lot of what happened in the story of Doom Bar reflect what’s happening to Brew Dog or Beavertown at the moment?
What IS the magic ingredient in Tennessee fried chicken that makes it so appealing to the drunk student at 2am when its the only takeaway still open?
Product is not the only “P” in the marketing mix…
Interesting article. The emphasis on consistency and ease of serving reassures me I was right to dismiss friends claiming that a prefect pint of doom bar was out there and id obviously only bought it in the wrong bars . Last time I was in my local and a sharps salesman came in i suggested to the bar staff “if he tries selling you doombar shoot the #### ” , maybe I’m just a grumpy old beer snob. Still an interesting blog.
I occasionally buy a pint of Doom Bar, just to see if it’s still as dull as it was the previous times I have tried it. It always is. Doom Bar is the James Blunt of beer: popular with people who cannot cope with any sort of challenge.
I find it to be too sweet with a taste reminiscent of Caramac. However, as in a previuos comment, I will always drink it in preference to GK IPA if that’s the choice.
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