The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

This post was made pos­si­ble by the sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like  Nick Moyle and Sue Hart whose encour­age­ment jus­ti­fied us spend­ing sev­er­al days of our free time research­ing and writ­ing. If you like this, and want more, please do con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

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?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Suc­cess”

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs”

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.