Sharp's ramps up its off-trade offer
When Bill Sharp was faced with demand from north Cornwall publicans for a new beer from his fledgling Sharp’s Brewery he took
an easy and somewhat unconventional option. He simply took his two existing brews – Sharp’s Original and Sharp’s Coaster – and blended them together.
He gave the new concoction the name Doom Bar, a reference to a shifting sand bank with a reputation for bringing peril to ships off the coast near Rock, the village that the brewery still calls home today.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sharp’s and a lot has happened in that time, most notably the 2011 sale of the brewery to North American beer giant Molson Coors, and the ascent of Doom Bar to become the UK’s best-selling cask ale brand.
One-time silversmith Sharp is no longer associated with the business. These days he's happy pig farming in the Cornish countryside, but it was he who gave Sharp's and Doom Bar their lit-off, having started home-brewing because he liked a pint but didn’t want to take his kids into pubs, in the days before they were a central part of the family dining experience.
The Doom Bar made today by the team led by head brewer Andrew Madden is a very different beast to the one Sharp first cobbled together.
It’s a traditional, balanced but malt-driven amber ale that goes against the grain in the modern beer market where we’re led to believe everything needs to be about big, citrus, zesty and tropical fruit hops.
Much has changed at Sharp’s in its first quarter of a century but it still feels like a small(ish) regional brewery. It operates in relative independence, free from global beer HQ interference – though benefiting from deep investment and marketing pockets – perhaps partly because it’s such a schlep to get to from Molson Coors’ UK HQ at Burton-on-Trent,
let alone the global epicentre at Denver in Colorado.
Big brewer acquisitions of smaller producers perceived as craft or artisan have become commonplace, but in 2011 the Sharp’s deal was rare enough to raise eyebrows across the industry, and on-lookers were just as likely to think the bigger player was nuts for making the move as the smaller one was for accepting it.
“We were craft before craft was craft,” says Madden, who now oversees an already expanded brewery employing 140 people, which is in production for 24 hours day, seven days a week. “We’re at about 80% of capacity,” he adds. “We could get an extra 30-40% by expanding again on the current plant and we have room to do that.”
Madden’s keen to emphasise that it’s a hands-on approach with a balance between automation and manual control. The machines help the humans make the beer, not the other way around.
There’s a pilot brewery which makes short-run brews and is about the size of Sharp’s original plant, plus a 30-litre “nano-plant” to work up new recipes.
Doom Bar’s rise to the top of the premier league in the pub trade – where it sells 12 pints a second – hasn’t quite been matched by its off-trade performance though things are certainly moving swiftly in the right direction.
Doom Bar is a shoo-in for most supermarkets’ core premium bottled ale ranges and other Sharp’s brands, such as its Atlantic pale ale, are starting to expand its overall footprint.
Nielsen figures for the year to last April put Sharp’s aggregated annual take-home sales at just short of £28 million, up by 6.3% in a year, still some distance behind market leaders Brewdog and John Smith’s but ahead of Greene King and its ever-expanding coop of Hen beers.
What’s more, says senior brand manager James Nicholls, Doom Bar is bucking the trend with growth in PBAs where most top brands are in decline. The 50cl bottle launched as recently as 2013 and became the number one SKU in the off-trade two years later, buoyed by the momentum from its on-trade success.
“It appeals to a broader audience than other PBAs,” claims Nicholls. “We certainly see from Kantar data that we’re attracting a younger, more affluent shopper than the other brands and the average PBA.
“I think that comes from our heritage of being set up in 1994 with the more challenger approach in on-premise and having more contemporary branding that appeals to that younger generation.”
In other words, it’s perceived less as an old bloke’s drink than other brands in the cask/PBA arena. And the odd thing about that is that it’s main rivals in 50cl bottles fit far better the “pale/ IPA is king” mantra that’s dominated the ale market in recent times.
“We always want to achieve balance in a beer,” says Nicholls. “Even if we make a hoppier beer we don’t want to go too big on the hops. I guess Doom Bar looks back to the heritage of ale that stretches right back into the 1800s. It’s a great amber ale and we’ve always prided ourselves on a balanced, moreish flavour profile.
“Craft has brought a wider spectrum of flavours and interest into the category which has crossed into PBAs, and the other three of the top four are IPAs, but many people really enjoy a more balanced flavour.”
The Sharp’s portfolio also includes: a moussey, dry-hopped lager called Offshore; a small-batch Adventure Series produced with independent bottle shops in mind, utilising the benefits of the pilot brewery; and a spicy Belgian-style ale named Chalky’s Bite in honour of local chef Rick Stein’s dog.
Food plays a big part in the Sharp’s story, with Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw partnering the brewer to run the kitchen at its Mariners pub in Rock. Beer and food pairing are championed at the pub and in Sharp’s wider marketing
for its brands, including the launch of its first cookbook in time for the Christmas 2018 market, but the involvement of those particular chefs in the Sharp’s story also emphasise the important role that Cornwall plays.
New Sharp’s products start life in the local market, not on exclusive national deals with the likes of Asda or Tesco.
“The focus is on building equity with the core brands but also having a thought to ongoing innovation in the brewery with things like the Adventure Series,” says Nicholls.
But for the flagship brew, getting it bang on every time is the guiding principle. “It’s not like wine which changes from vintage to vintage,” says Nicholls. “Doom Bar has to be Doom Bar, and you have to change the recipe according to the available ingredients to keep the end product consistent.”
New recipe invention may now be a more technically precise than it was when Bill Sharp fused two beers together to make the original Doom Bar but one piece of his philosophy still guides its production in the stencilled legend on the kegging hall wall: “We Are Only as Good as Our Last Pint.”
Increased take-home focus for Doom Bar
As Sharp’s enters its second quarter of a century, moves are afoot to consolidate the strong position it’s established in the ale market, with increasing focus on take-home.
Last year saw the introduction of a 5-litre Doom Bar mini- keg – which quickly gained category-leading status according to Nicholls – and a four-pack of cans in response to the rebirth of the format as a credible way to package ale.
“Mini-keg is a category that’s growing at pace,” he says. “It’s brought new drinkers into Doom Bar. We’re trying to make the brand accessible for more occasions, like get-togethers.”
In 2019, we’ll see the first proper advertising support for Doom Bar, while its sister pale ale brand Atlantic will go into mini-keg and cans for the first time in September.
“As yet we’ve not really driven investment above-the-line,” he says. “Doom Bar is a brand that’s been successful on its quality, flavour profile and its name and the story behind that. Distribution in on-premise really drove word-of-mouth and consumer appeal into the off-trade.
“The other big thing we did in 2018 was bring through an updated brand identity,” adds Nichols.
“The craft market has moved the goalposts in terms of beer branding in general. Before craft, Sharp’s did a good job of driving a more contemporary look for cask beer but craft has taken that on again.
“It was a good time to revisit that and we worked with a local agency in Exeter, making sure we retained the coastal and premium elements of the brand but adding some more personality in the branding and more stand-out.”