Whether you're in Penzance, Polperro or a pub off the Kings Road in London, chances are Sharp's Doom Bar will be the guest ale.
As well as being number one cask beer in the South West (according to the brewery), the beer had the highest new entry in this year's Publican Brands Report. Based on data from Nielsen, it showed Doom Bar among the 61-70 division of the biggest drink brands in the English and Welsh on-trade.
This is a real ale that is going places — the brewery's imagery is bright, modern and breezy, it easily fits into the new Cornwall of Stein, surfing and the Eden Project. It's a beer whose broad constituency of drinkers would be the envy of many other breweries: surfing dudes and dudettes, smart London types dashing down west to their second home by the sea, CAMRA members — they all like a pint or two of Doom Bar. It's a state of affairs with which Sharp's managing director Nick Baker and director Joe Keohane are naturally thrilled - with good reason.
When they bought Sharp's Brewery from founder Bill Sharp in 2003, the rumour doing the rounds of Cornish tap rooms was that the beers would be good matched with pasta.
This comment wasn't anything to do with the locals' sudden enthusiasm for the food-and-beer matching revolution then taking place in London, but more of a wry comment on the background of the new boys on the brewing block: both men emerged from the food industry, with an emphasis on fresh and chilled pasta sauces.
However, this switch from food to beer brought with it its own advantages, as Baker recalls. "From my background in the food industry, I learnt a lot about consumer buying habits and what they liked, and the lesson was that consumers enjoyed consistency," he says. "When you have a product people like, you don't want to disappoint, whether it is cars, food or beer."
The lessons have obviously worked: six years on, the two men preside over a fast-growing brewery that only started in 1994 and was for a few years just another micro in the West Country. In 2003, Sharp's was producing 10,000 barrels of beer, but the figures for 2008 were 45,000 and, according to Baker, by 2011 the aim is to reach 83,000.
Doom Bar is an amber-coloured session beer of four per cent ABV and it accounts for 70 per cent of the brewery's output; more remarkably, it has achieved its pre-eminence without Sharp's owning any pubs or having the sort of heritage and tradition that other successful brands such as London Pride and Greene King IPA can draw on.
It's not even a beer that has had beer writers or geeks raving (maybe a good thing?). Rather, a dry biscuity chewiness and a sweet marmalade-like citrus work hand in hand to provide a pleasant drinking experience. It's a bitter that's not too bitter.
Modernising the brand
The slick branding is definitely one aspect of its success. "Our branding is young and modern," agrees Baker, "We don't go for the cartoon-like images and we don't pretend that we have a 300-year history behind us. Doom Bar is a modern, progressive drink brand."
According to Keohane, when they first bought the brewery, he and Baker had a good long look at Doom Bar, which was, as now, Sharp's leading brand.
"As well as a following in Cornwall," he says, "there was one in London, Bristol and the Midlands. We felt that Bill [Sharp] had built up the brand to have a traditional feel, the image being that it was an old family brewery. We felt it wasn't right."
Knowing that expanding distribution was important, a depot was opened in Bristol and then one in London. There was also a sense of keeping it in the family. "We put our own people on the ground," says Keohane. "We have our own drivers. I guess we weren't scared of building up the business and going beyond Cornwall, so we built up these transport networks."
Baker also spends a lot of time visiting Doom Bar's outlets, which are split 65/35 between freetrade and pub companies; eight per cent of the production also goes into the off-trade and a small amount of this is exported to places as diverse as Japan and the US.
The lesson that Baker had learnt about consistency has been applied with rigorous vigour on the brewing floor. One of the first things head brewer Stuart Howe asked for when the workmen arrived was a small lab, as well as the best raw materials.
"This is a given in the background where I come from," says Baker. "If you are not using the best, then what are you using? Our products do not go into a barrel until Stuart signs off every single brew."
With £2.2m invested in the new brewery and nearly half-a-million in marketing, which includes Doom Bar sponsoring the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race, Baker and Keohane have transformed Sharp's. This has not happened, though, without causing ripples and rumours among the local brewing establishment and further afield.
The success of Doom Bar is straightforward; there is no magic formula. Keohane says that Doom Bar's (and Sharp's) success is down to "hard work and keeping it consistent". Meanwhile, Baker modestly adds: "There isn't any great mystique or magic. While we position the brand as young and progressive, it is reinforced operationally by old-fashioned values of integrity, quality and customer service. We deliver on time, we treat our customers with respect, these are just the basic things of running a business well."
As for the future, Baker says: "We want Doom Bar to be a national cask brand. We also want Doom Bar to become the quality standard for cask beer." Keohane nods his head in agreement: "We certainly think Doom Bar is going to be in the top 10 cask beer brands in the next 12 months." Check the 2010 Publican Brands Report to see how realistic this proves.