Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Doom of Doom Bar


The UK's No. 1

Keen observers of the brewing industry will have noticed that last year Sharp’s Doom Bar became the No.1 selling cask beer in the UK! This is good news for Sharp’s of course, but it’s not so good for the nation’s beer lovers. In pubs up and down the land, local beers are being elbowed off the bar to make way for this all pervasive brew; small wonder then that many are referring to this phenomenon as the “Doom of Doom Bar”!

So how did this beer, which didn’t even exist 20 years ago, come from nowhere to become Britain’s biggest selling cask beer, eclipsing even the likes of Greene King IPA and Fuller’s London Pride?

Sharp's Brewery was founded in 1994 by businessman Bill Sharp. For Bill beer-making was little more than a hobby. He had no background in brewing and according to legend took the recipe for his beer from a home-brew kit. It was rumoured that he started off making his own beer in his shed because he was newly-married and his wife didn't like him going to the pub!

After some success with his home-made efforts, Sharp decided to try brewing commercially, particularly after realising that there was almost no competition locally. He found premises just outside the Cornish village of Rock, and started off with three beers - Sharp's Ale, Sharp's Special and Cornish Coaster. Eighteen months later he blended Sharp's Ale and Cornish Coaster to create the new beer which became Doom Bar, named after a notorious sandbank in the nearby Camel Estuary.

In 2003 Bill sold his micro-brewery to Nick Baker and Joe Keohane. They also had little brewing experience but they had worked in the food industry and knew the importance of quality control, of using the finest ingredients and listening to their customers. They were also very ambitious, especially about creating and building a big brand, and in this respect Doom Bar more than fitted the bill.

Unlike many micro-breweries at that time, Nick and Joe weren’t interested in pretending to be an old traditional company, and made no secret of the fact that they were growing the business with a view to selling it off. And grow it did, driven by Doom Bar; their premium brand. In the year from 2009 to 2010, sales doubled. In January 2011 they reported that profits had quadrupled in the previous year after turnover leapt from £11.4million to £16.1million - a massive increase of 40 per cent.

This phenomenal growth attracted the interest of North American brewing giant Molson Coors, who bought Sharp's in February 2011 for £20million. In the first year under new ownership, sales rose by a further 22 per cent. Brewery employees and beer lovers were initially apprehensive but their fears proved unfounded. Molson Coors took the view that if it ain't broke, don't change it and immediately announced it had no intention of moving production away from Rock.
 
Sharp's were allowed to carry on brewing as they always had, but with Molson Coors behind them. The multi-national invested £5million in the company and also brought their marketing expertise and budgets to further fuel the expansion of this one time “hobby” brewery.

CAMRA spokesman Neil Walker, said at the time that he didn’t foresee any decline in Doom Bar's popularity, describing the brand as “a classic English beer”. He added that “The fact that it comes from Cornwall gives it even more positive connotations. People think of happy holidays they spent there. It's a beer that you can drink all day."

I tried a bottle of Doom Bar the other night; it was included amongst the beers I was given for Christmas so it seemed rude not to crack it open and give it a go. The bottled beer is slightly stronger than the cask version, weighing in at 4.3% rather than 4.0%. It’s difficult not to have pre-conceptions about a beer which has become the top-selling cask beer in Britain, but somehow I thought the bottled version would be better. Unfortunately I was wrong and I would say it’s no better and no worse than the stuff one sees on sale in pubs and bars up and down the country.

Ironically I really enjoyed my first glass of Doom Bar. Ten or more years ago, back in the days when we had our Real Ale off-licence, I was given a ticket for the Pub & Bar Show. Held in London, at either Earl’s Court or Olympia (I can’t remember which), this was a strictly “trade only” show, but being an off-licence proprietor I obviously qualified. I wasn’t overly enamoured with the show, which is probably why I never went again. If you think the trade day at GBBF is little more than a glorified “publican’s outing”, then you’ve never been to the Pub & Bar Show!

After trying various varieties of crisps and the odd cocktail, I decided it was time to head for home; after all I had an of-licence to run and my paid help was only covering the lunchtime shift. As I made my way towards the exit I came across Sharp’s trade stand, shining out like a beacon in a sea of mediocrity. With its clean modern looks and contemporary design I was quickly drawn towards it.

There was no draught beer on the stand, but they were offering tasters (500ml bottles) of their newly re-branded beer- Doom Bar. Against a backdrop of colour posters depicting the Camel Estuary where the notorious Doom Bar sand bank lurks, plus stand-ups and other point of sale material, the attractively-packaged beer was enough to draw me in to request my sample.

I can honestly say it was the best beer I had sampled in a long time, with a clean, refreshing taste to match its stylish modern appearance. I was impressed. But at the same time disappointed because despite Sharp’s presence at the trade show, there was no way at the time they would be able to send a couple of cases to our own little off-licence.
The isolated Royal Oak at Hooksway
And so it proved, because the next time I saw Doom Bar was not in bottle, but on draught at a pub deep in the West Sussex countryside. This was several years later and things had moved on. We had sold the off-licence after I was offered a much more lucrative job working back in industry. I was walking the final stage of the middle-leg of the South Downs Way with a friend, when we stopped off for lunch at the remote and unspoilt Royal Oak at Hooksway. On the bar was a hand-pull offering Doom Bar. My friend had never heard of it, but I obviously had, so we ordered a pint each.

It slipped down a treat, especially after our long and quite arduous walk all the way up from Cocking, far down in a valley to the east. The beer was so good that we had three pints to go with our light lunch, which wasn’t the best of ideas given the not inconsiderable distance we still had to cover before the day was over.

Over the next few years Doom Bar began appearing in pubs closer to home and became so popular that it even replaced former pub favourite Taylor’s Landlord in many local pubs. I tried it on several occasions, but the beer seemed to have lost some of its original character.

A natural wonder, but for how much longer?
The brewery will of course deny this; but then so did the brewers of Bass, Boddingtons, Young’s and more recently Timothy Taylor’s. Perhaps this is the fate of all “cult beers” which attract an almost messianic following and end up as victims of their own success. Doom Bar has certainly achieved national cult status; I know people who actively seek the beer out, whilst for others it is their favourite beer. However, having seen many such beers come and go over the past 40 years I wonder how long this one will last?

6 comments:

Tyson said...

I groan with doom when I see it on the bar.

Mark said...

A timely post. I've avoided Doom Bar for several years now, it is usually the only regular beer on at my local and has the usual sweetish, malty, no discernible hop character taste I loathe. However, this week I was forced to order a pint in a pub which didn't 'to have Guinness as an alternative, and I was pleasantly surprised, not sweet, some spicy, peppery hops, similar area to Adams/Bomadier. Not earth shattering but very drinkable.

Similarly I've had cause to reappraise Bass recently after having a well-session able pint in a former Bass house with a loyal following for the beer. A couple of years ago I was also surprised at how good ( not great) a pint of John Smiths Cask was in ale pub in Newark was. Again not spectacular but I'd have been more than happy to drink it all afternoon if the need arose.

I say all this as a seasoned Citra lover, generally preferring dry, session able pale ales, milds, stouts etc. the only conclusion I can reach is that very little beer leaves the brewery that's poor or maybe even average (backed up by how good otherwise average beers often taste in the sample room), it's on the pub cellar that it so often goes wrong, particularly for national brands being handled by less experienced licensees.

Having said all that, I've yet to be pleasantly surprised by the once great Marston's Pedigree, but maybe one day...

Paul Bailey said...

Mark, the odd thing about Sharp’s is they do brew some excellent beers, and their Head of Craft Brewing, Stuart Howe has an internationally acclaimed reputation. Sharp’s Connoisseurs Choice range has some stunning beers in its portfolio, including the amazing No. 1 Quadrupel Ale, the No. 3 Honey Spiced Tripel and the No. 6 Dubbel Coffee Stout. Also, who could forget Chalky’ Bite, produced in collaboration with Rick Stein.

Going back to mainstream cask, for a minute, I agree that when handled correctly, Draught Bass can be surprisingly good. I don’t know about John Smiths, as I thought the cask version had been dropped years ago!

Martin, Cambridge said...

I enjoyed your analysis Paul. Interesting that you highlight the effective dropping of Landlord to be replaced by Doom Bar; I wonder if London Pride and Adnams will still be around in the average pub company bar in 10 years time ?

I can also vouch for the occasional quality of Doom Bar, as well as John Smiths. Pure volume means a pint if Johns is still a good option in South Yorkshire. Bass and Pedi seem much more variable but still occasionally wonderful (rarely seen in your neck of the woods or mine though).

Kes said...

Bitter for lager drinkers...

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