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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?

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Doom Bar and the Question of Origin

It’s official: thanks to Lucy Britner at Just Drinks we now know that Sharp’s Doom Bar — the bottled stuff, at least — has been being brewed outside Cornwall since 2013.

From the moment Molson-Coors bought out Sharp’s in 2011 people down here in Cornwall have been wondering how long it would be before production moved to Burton-upon-Trent. Others assumed it had already happened and that there was slyness afoot. One local source even told us they’d heard a Sharp’s brewer dropping big hints about it last year.

Now the cat’s out of the bag, what does it mean?

In a part of the world where the act of buying local is highly politicised it might create opportunities for other Cornish brewers to supply restaurants, supermarkets, delicatessens and bars which have, until now, been happy with bottled Doom Bar.

In reality, though, we suspect it will take months for most people to clock this news and, even then, many won’t care — it’s a popular beer which presumably sells to the trade at a competitive price and it’s still Cornish-ish, right?

But if we ran a business and had for the last two years been buying those bottles on the understanding that the beer was Cornish-made — and probably pitching it to our customers as such — we’d be pretty annoyed.

We came to this story via the Western Morning News and are grateful to Kev Head for pointing us to the original source.

Update 01/07/2015

We asked Sharp’s the following question on Twitter but have yet to get a reply despite prodding:

Update 16 December 2018

We’ve now written a more substantial piece about the history of Doom Bar.

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Top Ten Cornish Beers 2013

Chocolate vanilla stouts.
Chocolate vanilla stouts from Harbour and Rebel. (Honourable mentions, below.)

Last year, as the season approached, we put together lists of our favourite Cornish beers and pubs. Those lists were fine then, but things are changing fast on the beer scene in Cornwall, and we though we ought to revisit our ‘top tens’ before the new season. (Though floods, hail and gales suggest it’s not here quite yet.)

So, for 2013, here are the cask-conditioned beers we’ve particularly enjoyed in pubs in Cornwall in the last year. We could easily have named five beers from Penzance Brewing Co., and another five from St Austell, but have tried to ‘spread the love’.

  1. Driftwood Spars – Dêk Hop (3.8%). Pale amber, flinty and tannic; hoppy without being flowery. (What we said last year.)
  2. NEW ENTRY Harbour Brewing – Light Ale (3.2% when we tried it). Super-pale, with lemon peel zinginess, tonic bitterness and a restrained aroma.
  3. Penzance Brewing Company — Potion 9 (4%). A ‘pale and hoppy’ which continues to blow our minds every time we drink it: sessionable but complex, with the same fresh bread maltiness we find in the best Czech lagers.
  4. Penzance Brewing Company — Trink (5.2%). Potion’s big brother, edging towards Thornbridge Jaipur territory. Deeper in colour, stronger, and more honeyed than Potion, but with a distinct Eden Project exotic floweriness — Citra?
  5. NEW ENTRY Rebel Brewing — Eighty Shilling (5%). Somewhere between a stout and a mild in character; plummy, with a touch of roastiness, and a little coffee cream.
  6. Skinner’s — Porthleven (4.8%). You wouldn’t know this gently-perfumed golden ale was from the same brewery as Betty Stogs. Not outrageously flamboyant in its aroma, each pint leaves the throat just dry enough to demand another.
  7. NEW ENTRY Spingo — Ben’s Stout (4.8%). As served at the Blue Anchor, one of the few decent dark Cornish beers, even if it is a little variable. We find ourselves craving it. Like black tea with brown sugar, in a good way.
  8. Spingo — Middle  (5%) A classic, and an illustration of a typical sweetish West Country beer. Keeps improving, too, and now has a little more dryness and a good malty snap.
  9. St Austell — Proper Job (4.5%) The best of St Austell’s regular beers, but not found in all of their pubs. It was modeled on a US IPA and, though lighter-bodied than many of those, does provide a satisfying whack of citrus hop character.
  10. St Austell — Tribute (4.2%) With Sharp’s Doom Bar and Skinner’s Betty Stogs, part of the bog standard line up on a Cornish free house bar, but by far the best of the three. Actually an interesting beer (custom Vienna-type malt, US hops) and, on good form, a delight. (We said the same last year.)

Honourable mentions

  • Few of Sharp’s regular beers really float our boat but their specials (e.g. Hayle Bay Honey IPA) can be very characterful, and we loved their Connoisseur’s Choice bottled beers.
  • Harbour and Rebel are both making some very interesting bottled beers, e.g. chocolate vanilla stouts.
  • St Austell’s Korev Lager, which we hated at first, continues to rise in our estimation. Not a ‘challenging’ beer, it is certainly very satisfying, especially on a hot summer’s day. Their spring and summer seasonals tend to be variations on Proper Job but lower in alcohol and were stunning last year. And need we mention 1913 Stout again?

As before, breweries who aren’t mentioned and think they ought to be should drop us an email, or comment below, and we’ll tell them why.

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Surprisingly good beer, surprisingly good pub

Beer glass with Bays Brewery logo.

Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’) is one of those ‘Islington-on-Sea’ towns, crawling with celebs and with more bistros than you can drizzle a jus on. We arrived there on Sunday after a long walk along the coast, covered in mud and gasping for a pint, and began the ritual review of the pubs on offer, settling eventually on the Galleon.

Though the signs weren’t good — ugly red brick building, Doom Bar logos, the sounds (shudder) of live sunday afternoon jazz — it was the word ‘freehouse’ that lured us in. Might we find something other than Tribute, Doom Bar or Betty Bloody Stogs? Reader, we did: there were beers from the iconoclastic Cornish publican’s foreign brewery of choice, Bay’s of Devon.

Bay’s are a perfectly OK brewery. They’re good. They’re fine. They’re not at all bad. We wouldn’t go out of our way to find them, but we’re always pleased to see them on offer. Except, on this occasion, one of the beers was better than OK: it was excellent. Devon Dumpling (5.1% ABV), while not in the same league as Thornbridge Jaipur, reminded us of it, with a similarly hefty body and orange glow, and a well-judged balance of sweetness and bitterness. We awarded it a distinction in Leigh Good Stuff’s ‘same again please’ test and drank several.

By the standards of the UK’s hottest pubs and bars, the beer selection at the Galleon was nothing special, but it was well-chosen, including Sharp’s Cornish Coaster, a 3.6% golden charmer which ought to be their flagship beer; St Austell Proper Job, by far that brewery’s most exciting draught product; and Doom Bar, the most popular choice of the old boys at the bar. (The big gang of teenagers who’d just got back from a night out clubbing in their shiny trousers were on Tequila, Stella and white wine.)

What the Galleon shows, we suppose, is that a pub doesn’t have to be ancient to be cosy, and that it’s possible to offer quality and choice, in a quiet way, without scaring the horses.

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Sharp’s Connoisseurs’ Choice in the pub

Sharp's Connoisseur's Choice triple

There isn’t much Belgian beer on sale in pubs in Cornwall, which is a shame, because strong, slow beers lend themselves to stormy, candlelit Sunday afternoons, of which we have plenty. Fortunately, Sharp’s head brewer, Stuart Howe, is something of a Belgophile, and has produced two beers which very neatly plug the gap.

Honey Spice Tripel (10%) is entirely convincing and delicious. Honey in beers we can take or leave but, as is usually the case when it’s employed in brewing, it’s not a very pronounced presence here. In fact, what lords it over this beer is a big, unrestrained Belgian yeast pumping out banana aroma and tongue-tingling Asian spiciness. (The Westmalle strain, right?)

The Quadrupel (10%) is apparently fermented with four strains of yeast. The overall impression, though, is that, once again, something very like the Westmalle strain won. Our impression (according to notes on one of the touchscreen devices) was of more bananas — really ripe ones — doused in rum, but it’s another one of those beers that has almost every flavour in it if you wait long enough. (Chocolate, coffee, dark fruits, Werther’s Originals, old army boots, bat’s blood…) In a blind tasting, would we rate St Bernardus Abt 12 higher? Maybe, but the freshness and swagger of this beer might tip the balance.

Final observations: it was great to see these on sale in a relatively normal pub, at a not-outrageous £5.50 a bottle, which is less than imports go for down this way, on the rare occasions they’re seen. It was even better when the barman announced, with evident pride, that they had a full supply of the attractive Belgian-style glasses in which they are supposed to be served. But… Connoisseurs’ Choice? Why not just call them Wankers’ Selection or Dickhead’s Delight? We bloggers don’t need our egos encouraging.