The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

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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?

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These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

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A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

An Ordinary Weekend

Fifth amendment pumpclip.

Quietly, slowly, it just keeps getting easier to find interesting beer, in more-or-less pleasant surroundings, in our part of the world.

On Thursday we went our separate ways for the evening. Bailey popped into the Turk’s Head in Penzance where he enjoyed St Austell’s Fifth Amendment, part of their ongoing series of one-off brews making use of the two pilot breweries they operate alongside the industrial-scale kit. A 5.2% ABV amber ale, it was quite unlike any other St Austell beer, combining tropical American hops with a spicy, toasty medievalness. The pub is one that is 80 per cent of the way to being a restaurant but lots of locals do just drink there and, as long as you don’t object to the sight of people devouring mussels nearby, it’s actually got one of the cosier, ‘pubbier’ interiors.

Boak, meanwhile, went with a pal to The Tremenheere, our local Wetherspoon pub, where Hook Norton Amarillo Gold (4.7%) provided exactly what you’d expect from such an accomplished traditional brewer, with the exotic hops enhancing the underlying fruitiness rather than suffocating everything with citrus. It was so good that one pint turned into several. The pub is tatty, occasionally ‘lively’ in a Wild West way, but it has always got a buzz, which can be hard to find in a quiet town between October and Easter.

Cards in the pub.

On Friday, we did the rounds, working our way from The Yacht on the seafront up the hill towards home. St Austell Proper Job continues to be a go-to beer and just seems to be getting better and better, capturing and intensifying the live essence of hops in the same way freeze-drying seems to do for raspberries. We had a couple. The pub itself continues to treat us mean: after visiting once or more every week for something like five years, we still don’t get any flicker of recognition from the staff. It seems to work because we do, indeed, remain keen.

The Dock, almost next door, isn’t quite the same under new management, even if the beer range has expanded to include Potion 9 as well as Blue Anchor Spingo Middle. Potion didn’t quite taste itself, perhaps suffering in close comparison to Proper Job, or because it was served on the chilly side. There was a young bloke from New York eating a takeaway in the corner, which seemed odd.

The finisher, Timothy Taylor Landlord at the never-ending faintly hippyish music festival that is The Farmer’s Arms, wasn’t the best beer of the night (it lacked zing) but we enjoyed it the most. The barman recognised us and anticipated our order; he gave us the fancy glassware reserved for trusted customers; and we got to play cards in the corner while the band finished their set with an electrified Cornish folk song. Just perfect, really.

A dog between two customers at the bar.

Saturday took us to St Ives, a quick hop on a local train from Penzance. After making sandcastles and clambering about on rocks for a bit to build up a thirst we went to The Old Pilchard Press, the town’s micropub, which was (as it always seems to be) rammed and (as often seems to happen) almost sold out of beer. We’ve grumbled about St Ives Brewery in the past, unimpressed by skunked bottles of mediocre pale ale actually brewed several counties away, but the cask version of Knill by Mouth, which is really brewed in St Ives, rather impressed us: zesty and fun, like Jaffa Cakes. Brain’s Reverend James, which we’ve not had in years, was the good kind of brown — nothing to inspire poetry, but well put together, a bit like finding a decent episode of The Sweeney on ITV4.

The Hub continues to baffle us — last time we went, they were happy for us just to have drinks; this time, we got a pass-agg guilt trip, and the menus were snatched away after we’d ordered what was intended to be the first in a few rounds of snacks. Still, the beer, and the choice of beer, is good, and different: Magic Rock Cannonball, a long way from home, was a breath of fresh air. The same brewery’s the chilli porter was pretty exciting too — a seasoning tingle rather than Man vs. Food. As we’ve said before, if people go on about Magic Rock, it’s with good reason.

We finished in The Hain Line, the town’s Wetherspoon pub, near the station. It’s got a much smarter interior than the one in Penzance and equally smart staff who, if we ran a hospitality business, we’d be poaching. We got excited by yet more foreign beer here: Salopian Lemon Dream, all the way from Shropshire. It’s a bit of a novelty brew — just a touch too sour, really, and a little cartoonish — but we enjoyed it a lot, especially at something like £2.30 a pint. The second round was more fraught — beers advertised were in the process of going off, and the generous tasters we were encouraged to try didn’t reveal anything else as thrilling — so we had a couple of forgettable festival beers. Still, we left thinking that, overall, Spoons had won.

Pints of Proper Job.

Then last night, Sunday, the sun was out, the sea was still, barbecue smoke was on the air, and we couldn’t resist one last pint of Proper Job at The Yacht. It was just about warm enough to sit outside, too, which is how we know summer is almost here. If anything, the beer tasted more exciting than on Friday, remastered and bass boosted.

As we wandered home we saw a bloke, bare-chested, staggering across the road after a full day’s drinking. ‘I’m wasted,’ he said mournfully. His companion slapped his back and replied: ‘Mate, it’s the only way to be.’

Heavy Lies the Crown

Cornish Crown is a difficult brewery for us to write about so we’re relieved to find that, finally, it might finally have come good.

It is based in an industrial unit outside Penzance and has a brewery tap here in town, The Crown on Bread Street which is the only PZ pub in the 2017 CAMRA Good Beer Guide. It’s a good pub, the pints are relatively cheap, and generally in good condition. It’s just that, for several years, the beer itself has been somewhere between indifferent and downright rough.

We said cautiously good things about the brewery when it launched, expecting it to get better, but actually, it got worse. But with decent branding, competitive pricing, and a strong local story, the beer was everywhere for a while, including places like London from where friends would text us: ‘This Cornish Crown… is it meant to taste like that?’

Every now and then someone would ask us what we thought of the brewery, on Twitter or in real life, and we’d be honest: ‘We don’t rate the beer.’ Sometimes, that would be met with astonishment, and we began to think that perhaps we were being a bit fussy. (We are, generally.) But the fact remained that for a long time we were happier to drink St Austell or even Skinner’s — another brewery towards which we are lukewarm — than Cornish Crown.

We kept checking in, though, things do change over the lifetime of a brewery (new kit, new staff, training and development) and, sure enough, last year we noticed a sudden upswing in quality. The keg vanilla porter in particular was not only passable but positively delightful. Then yesterday, prompted in part by the estimable Ellie Bennett, we made another visit to The Crown and gave the beer a fair workout.

Causeway best bitter is still not an exciting beer but was at least clean-tasting. If you like this kind of beer, there’s no reason you won’t like this particuarl example. One-Hop, the beer Ellie was excited about, was an extremely pleasant surprise, no longer muddy and cardboard-like, but popping with sweet citrus. It’s still fairly heavy-bodied and honeyish so not our favourite type of golden ale but there was nothing wrong with it at all within those parameters. Extra Stout Porter, a cask ale at 5.9%, was also sweet, mild and moreish, with no stale notes to spoil the fun. Our companion felt conned by the keg Red IPA –‘It’s more Greene King than Lagunitas’ — but it wasn’t sour or cabbagey as we have found it in the past.

We’d still rather drink a great pint of St Austell Proper Job than any of these beers but, for now at least, The Crown is back on the circuit for us, and we’re upgrading our advice on the beer from AVOID to GIVE IT A TRY.

Magical Mystery Pour #19: Verdant Headband

The first beer in our fifth round of Magical Mystery Pour beer tastings is Verdant Headband pale ale, chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East.

Here’s a quick recap of what Magical Mystery Pour is all about and how it works: we ask a fellow blogger, Tweeter or otherwise interesting person to suggest five or six beers they think we ought to try, and try them. We buy them with our own money which is why our only restriction is that altogether they shouldn’t cost an absolute fortune, and we should be able to buy them all from one online retailer. The idea is that this will get us out of our comfort zone and nudge us to try beers we might not necessarily be drawn to ourselves, or make us reconsider beers we’ve encountered in the past.

This time, we screwed up. Rebecca chose a selection from Honest Brew but we didn’t get round to ordering them all immediately which meant that, to get the full set, we actually had to place three online orders at different retailers. But it’s fine — we now have a very well-stocked beer cupboard, overflowing with old favourites and other things that caught our eye.

The first beer we tackled from Rebecca’s list is from a Cornish brewery based near beer-geek destination Falmouth. We’ve tried Verdant’s beers on draught a few times and been impressed — they’re full-blown big-city-type craft beers (def 2) of the kind not often found this side of Bristol, with haze and hefty helpings of hops.

This beer was hard-won — we had to hunt around until we found a single can on offer at Beer Hawk (taken over by AB-InBev at around this time last year) at £2.49 for 330ml. It has 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

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QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.

UPDATE: Every Pub In Penzance

Last December we made a new year’s resolution to visit during 2016 all the pubs in Penzance we had until then overlooked.

In fact, what we said was that we wanted, in general, to go to…

More and different pubs. We don’t even need to go far afield: there are pubs in Penzance we’ve never been in. This is ridiculous, and we will sort it.

With trips to Birmingham, Bolton, Dudley, Hartlepool, Manchester, Newcastle, Stevenage and a whole bunch of other places, with the specific intention of visiting pubs not necessarily known for their beer, we’ve achieved our broader goal. But the pubs of Penzance remained stubbornly unfinished until the weekend past.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

We started out well, visiting The Pirate at Alverton and The Sportsman at Heamoor in April, liking both enough that we’ve made return visits despite them being out of our way. The Pirate especially has got something about it: Adnams Broadside, a verdant beer garden, a carpeted and cosy old-fashioned interior, and a proper crowd of locals who (all we ask for) don’t look at us twice. It’s become a little treat for us to wander out that way on a lazy weekend afternoon when we’re not on a train or bus somewhere up country.

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Sonder, Truro’s Craft Beer Bar

How had we not heard about Sonder, a six-month-old craft beer bar with, 12 keg taps in Cornwall’s county town?

We did know about Newquay’s craft beer venue, No. 5 Brewhouse, but our plan to visit that was foiled by its closure for a private party. Sonder, meanwhile, we merely wandered past on our way to Truro bus station.

It caught our eye because it gives off all the correct signals as prescribed in the Craftonian manifesto: dark paintwork, neon, modern typography and, of course, liberal use of the phrase CRAFT BEER on the frontage. Inside we found more of the same. Edison bulbs? Check. Recycled pallet wood? Everywhere. Staff in black T-shirts? Several. ‘Street food’? A menu full of it.

Pallet wood seating.

Based on stopping for two drinks, one on Friday afternoon, another on Saturday evening, we can’t presume to pronounce judgement, but our first impressions are good. Like a lot of would-be craft beer bars outside big cities (Truro is technically a city but, well…) it has an endearingly un-hip micropub quality, with customers of all ages and types chatting around the bar.

Edison bulbs.

The beer list is unusual with few of the usual suspects, suggesting direct supply rather than middlemen, and is displayed on electronic screens behind the bar. Turnover seems brisk with several beers on the list having changed between our visits. Tasters are positively pushed, too, which makes up for the obscurity of some of the beers on offer. On our first call, Buxton Axe Edge and Chorlton Mulled Lager were classical and fascinating respectively, the former crystalline, the latter hazy. On take two we had Pilsner Urquell served in a cute, chunky branded mug, and an IPA whose name we forgot to write down from a brewery we’d never heard of. (We’ve only been doing this for a decade — cut us some slack.) They were served weirdly without any head but we managed to whip some foam up with a plastic straw once we’d cleared an inch or two.

The bar at Sonder.

We mention that last point partly for the sake of honesty, and partly to underline that this isn’t a super-slick operation — the phrase ‘labour of love’ crops up on the Facebook page, and that’s what comes across. It simply feels like a happy place to be, if not yet quite comfortable in its own clothes. We remember, though, when Cask at Pimlico, the first pub in the Craft Beer Co chain, felt much the same, and look how that turned out.

It’s good, finally, to have an at least tentative answer to a question we get asked fairly frequently — where’s good for craft beer in Truro? — having never been able to back The Hub wholeheartedly. We’ll certainly be adding Sonder to our own regular and slightly eccentric Truro crawl along with The Old Ale House* and The Railway Tavern, a former working men’s club next to the station which we like for reasons other than its beer.

* We popped into The Old Ale House on Saturday but left after one — how is it possible for what is meant to be Skinner’s flagship pub, a venue with lots to commend it otherwise, to be serving beer that tastes so tired? Exasperating.

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.