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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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.