Doom Bar.  Where did it come from all of a sudden?  Sharp’s Brewery isn’t 20 years old yet their flagship brand, named after a sandy marine ramp, that squelches around the low tide mark and is generally frequented by sea molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and assorted ships’ keels, is one of the UK’s fastest growing cask ales.  Fascinating.  And what makes it fascinating is that this is a genuine brand – it hasn’t earned its success as a function of a strong tied estate which gives a beer a springboard forward, gets it noticed; and it isn’t over-marketed. I mean, take the badge on the beer engine. It’s not exactly a design classic is it?    Simple, punchy, sure…but superlative design, no.  Then there’s the beer – purist or not, put a cask ale in a clear bottle and whether you like it or not, you’re supping on stoat¹ before you know it. And frankly, it isn’t a bad beer; equally it isn’t great, it does what it was designed to do: sit in the middle of the market and appeal to most.

doombarSo all this got me pondering on how brands get created.  Because despite CAMRA’s claims to the contrary, it isn’t marketing money. Oh sure, it helps, don’t get me wrong, and certainly, you would be utterly slack jawed if you knew how much money breweries (and not just the ‘big’ ones – let’s not fall into that trap) throw at winning and keeping distribution² (ie the stuff that we, as drinkers, don’t see).  And yes, it buys a nice font, and a few glasses for us to purloin, but there’s obviously much more to it than that.  Think of the brands that are spending big today: not that many. And think of the brands who have spent big until recently but just can’t stem the decline: Tetley’s, Boddington’s for example.  Broadly speaking, it seems that advertising money keeps you there, but it doesn’t get you there. More often than not in fact, it seems to be that the main audience is the Tesco or Morrisons Beer Buyer: ‘Look!’, the advertising says, ‘my owner is serious about me. List me, please!’

None of this explains Doom Bar that’s for sure.  Their approach has been to PR the hell out of their brewer, Stuart Howe, allowing him free rein, and slowly build from their heartland, out. And my, they’ve done this relentlessly and ‘executed’, as the Americans would say, superbly. Good for them.  But arguably, what they have done is no different to a vast array of other great brands, that have much more varied degrees of success. Take one example: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – it’s been kicking around for yonks compared with Doom Bar, but it sells nowhere the near hundreds of thousands of barrels Doom Bar sells a year…and is, if you’ll forgive my personal taste, a vastly superior beer.

It’s tempting to deconstruct the inputs of the brand. The stuff it’s doing and gets to market. It’s glassware. It’s assorted ephemera – drip mats and all that.  Even the pubs it’s sold in. The myths and legends that emanate from its PR team. But I don’t think it’s that. My theory is this: it’s groupthink, or clearly in this case, groupdrink.

Go with me on this. I run lots of research with consumers across all sorts of different types of products – dairy, coffee, tea, soft drinks, banking, snacks – you name it.  And one of the biggest issues I contend with is groupthink. The tendency for humans, when they get together or socialise to adopt collective behaviour, views, opinions and attitudes. It’s remarkable because it takes no time at all – literally minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics in a group: here are total strangers – never met before, unlikely to ever meet again. Yet within minutes they are watching how their peers in the situation are reacting; what they are saying and how they are saying it. It’s an innate human trait – more than that, a desire to fit in.  All sorts of tricks are attempted to avoid it- typically, asking for individual, written responses, done in silence before the group start discussing.  Of course, there’s a huge amount of difference in opinion when you do this, but again, within minutes, the lifelines are being thrown out: ‘Well, when I first saw it (lets say it’s an idea for a new beer) I liked it, it sounded really appetising. But now I’ve heard what this lady has said, I’ve changed my mind’.  There’s lots of scientific study in this area and it confirms what you don’t want to hear: I’m afraid, just like in The Life of Brian, you’re not an individual.  Human tendency is actually to conform. And ultimately, be conservative.

So the question is: how do you get your brand to the trigger point? To that point of reputation where a few people, just a few, are actively drinking and recommending your brand.  And in a situation where the context is positive.  This for me, is the happy serendipity that faced Sharps. Wittingly or unwittingly I’m unsure, but they chose to build their brand out of Cornwall, and specifically that part that has a lower concentration of Cornish, and a higher (albeit seasonal) concentration of tourists.  Tourists with a predeliction to come back year in year out; to bring their children and pass on that gene. To pop down for long weekends whenever they can, and if fortunate enough, buy a second home down there.  To sail in the Camel Estuary and pop over to one of Rick Stein’s bistros for a spot of supper. This is the emotional context that comes washing ashore with Doom Bar. And before you know, you unknowingly want to fit in, so you order a pint…

It can be replicated too. Sure, not exactly (albeit  Adnams has the wind in its sails for a similar reason), but building positive context and association around your brand is doable. Take Brew Dog; unless you live in Pitlochry, it’s not exactly on your door step, but their positive context is the challenger, maverick attitude.  ‘If you think this, come to me’ it says. And Black Sheep – the name says so much; the Yorkshire values; the visual portrayal:  a small Stone cottage just in view between the wooded interlocking ridges of the Dales.  It’s this mental image, this mindset that we really buy into. And that’s what Doom Bar have got so right. And why we all want to drink what he’s drinking.


²Put it this way, UK Volleyball wouldn’t be experiencing any funding problems through to, oooh, let’s say the 2092 Olympic Games. They’re in Ulaanbataar by the way, order your Mosquito Spray today.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Session #66: One Beer to Rule Them All

the session beer blogging fridayOne Beer to Rule them all.  Of course, for any lover of beer this is an impossible task, yet a beautiful, playful one at that.  So I saw the subject of this month’s Big Session blog and decided, no matter how difficult it proves to answer it.  To find the one beer to rule them all.

But why impossible?  For many drinkers, perhaps it is easy just to pick one beer and say, ‘that’s it, that’s the one. My beer’. Not for me.   It’s the seemingly infinite number of great beers available today, increasing seemingly exponentially that talks about the healthy future for beer.  There’s even new styles emerging, either inspired by the past or just the crazy playthings of brewers willing to mash concoctions into something drinkable.

What should go into consideration – what makes a Beer a pretender to the One Beer Crown?  How about balance?  That subtle interplay, that dance that a great beer has from the initial aroma, the dimensions of its taste, its appearance and its presentation.  I choose beers on each of these alone.   Then there’s moreishness.  I remember a great quote from a beer executive that I used to work for – “The great thing about our beer is, it’s drinkable”. I kid you not.  Actually, I know what he was driving at:  there is something great when you have a beer, and from the first sip it’s enticing you back to a second.  Often because that thing that attracted – the aroma, or the taste say – you want more of, or often because you can’t quite put your finger on what makes it great.  For me, this is a sign of a great beer, and narrows down my list.

And versatility.  I’ve lost count of the number of brewers who bang on about beer and food, and not really know why this is important other than a band seem to be on a wagon.  I like my beers to be versatile – fundamentally they must stand up on their own right. They must be intriguing, moreish, and damnably tasty. But I want it to go with my pizza on a Friday night and be able to stand up to Fajitas too. That’s a lot to ask – so it narrows the list further.

There are other variables. Patriotism is one.  I’m proud of great British beers. I am happy to admit there are beers in my repertoire that aren’t in my Top 10 best ever beers but that I want to drink because I want them to continue brewing what they do.  And memories. Budvar is a beer that I’ve drunk on some happy times in great places. So it’s up there for me….but that alone is not enough.

Ah, the tyranny of choice, and a spectrum of considerations from tangible on the one hand to seemingly irrational on the other. But I will get to it.  I’m not going to list my Top 10. I’m going for the jugular.

My One Beer combines complexity of taste with moreishness; multidimensional taste reward with just the right amount of alcoholic hit;  a bottle shape I love and a label design I wished I had designed myself. Its presentation invariably fires up my pleasure neurons with a thick, tight white head, and copper colour.  The story of the brewery – from start up to boundary pushing present day;  where it’s from and the appeal of the lifestyle.  In short, it’s got everything. It is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

This being the case, it is only fitting to finish in lamentable tribute to the inspiration for this month’s theme…

Three Beers for the Czech-kings under the sky.
Seven for the Belgian-Monks in their Abbeys of stone.
Nine for Bavarian Counts who would their beers lie.
One for Uncle Sam on his Hoppy throne
in the Land of Cali where the craft brewers vie.
One Beer to rule them all.
One Beer to find them,
One Beer to bring them all and in the hoppyness bine them
in the Land of Cali where the craft brewers vie*.

…and, of course, to reserve the right to change my mind next time round.

*JRRT: sorry.


© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Reassuringly bollocks free.

There’s a general murmuring in marketing communities that the latest Stella work from ABI for it’s ‘Cidre’ brand is the dogs bollocks. Taking the basics of a drinks experience and adding a premium feel to every touchpoint., hence ‘Cidre’ not ‘cider’; ‘From the continent’ not ‘…the country’; and of course, served, not in a pint glass, but in a ‘chalice’ (“Chalisssse”). Perhaps it is the DBs, or perhaps Newcastle Brown, ever-so cheekily, have really read it right?


Brass balls and bar humbuggishness

What is it that makes up the right ambience, feel, vibe, in a bar or pub?  It’s one of those things I imagine to be quite intangible, but I wonder whether that’s really true…  I write this waiting for a meeting in Farringdon, so rather than buy an expensive and disappointing coffee in a chain, I’m sitting in the diner-cum-style bar*, ‘Smiths’ of Smithfield.

This bar is at least 10 years old, and it hasn’t changed substantially in that time.  I know this because a Dutch man with a deeply glottal, spittle-projecting name told me about it. Phonetically, Herrrrrt ten Karrrrrrte was aghast that I wasn’t aware of this bar, and that it was a stockist of the beer that we shared a mutual commercial interest in.  It turns out that Herrrrrrrt had discovered it on a long weekend break from his home in Holland; what had started with the intention of a romantic break of discovery, museums, long walks in royal parks with his partner, hadn’t got much past an alcoholic breakfast at Smiths, which turned into a lunch and eventually into high tea, all fuelled by the rich and distinctive taste of Grolsch.

It’s a formula that has been much aped now, but this bar is still a bit of a ‘Daddy’. Industrial chic is probably the term – the old metal pillars treated with Hammerite, holding up huge spans of pitch pine; metal ventilation ducts all New York loft style; exposed concrete, roughly set, and railway station touches like a rotary display board that in any other place would announce arrivals or departures…here it announces house blend breakfast smoothies. The ‘innards’ are ‘out’ards’ so to speak, like those de-skinned anatomy models doctors use. It’s not, in short, the place where a couple of decades ago you would have dreamed of serving food and beer from, and for that very reason, it was, and is, a triumph.

‘Smiths’ of Smithfield. Raffishly Post modern neo-iconclastic industrial chicishness. A bit.

‘Triumph’ – yes, I admit it’s a subjective statement; but sitting in a full bar at 9am on a Thursday seems like a good barometer to me. People working in the leisure trade tend to bang on about two things (a) ‘woe are us’ our pubs are closing, and (b) the saviour is serving food.  Both fill me with ire. Mitchells & Butler’s do a total disservice to their (acquired) pub legacy by declaring themselves ‘agnostic’ about beer and now planting their flag very pointedly in ‘restaurant group’ terra firma.  This is missing the point, pretty widely.  Because what makes these places successful is the guest being able to decode what the bar is about.  Perversely enough, M&B do this pretty well with their ‘unbranded’ brand, Castle – essentially a series of draught focused bars, that stock a combination of more unusual and eclectic draught beers, ciders and spirits. They serve food but the orientation is drinking.  Likewise, a Toby Carvey serves beer, but you know that really it’s a mid price restaurant, or a Vintage Inn, whether we may decry it or not, does feel like a pub (the focus is on the bar as you enter).  It’s just that their focus will be on food in the future.  In an different orbit, a chap I know has a ‘formula’ for his drinking pubs: they are oak-led (floorboards, bar, chairs, tables); the cask pumps are the entire focus of the bar; it’s smart old brewery memorabilia and a lit fire. ‘Smiths’ is successful because its food and drinking is so seamlessly integrated in the way that some of the great North American ‘casual dining’ bars are. I remember going to ‘The Keg’ in suburban Toronto once, where there was a guest list of beers, local beers on draft (sic), beer and food pairings, and a ‘special’, cooked with beer.  A great beer bar in any other name, but the food was totally integrated and, I’m led to believe, that ‘The Keg’ is pretty typical.  ‘Smiths’ does this effortlessly too…in the mornings and at lunch, it’s an American diner, London style. But come the evenings, you move upstairs for food and downstairs becomes the hub.

There’s a big part of me that agrees and sympathises with the plight of the British pub, now being sponsored by CAMRA.  For me, it’s a particular concern in smaller communities, and where other facilities have closed or been axed over time. But there’s another voice too – that of inevitability and innovation.  Great, inspiring, successful bars and pubs are floating to the top – those that don’t innovate, don’t inspire drinkers to visit, well, they will fail.  That’s competition folks. The key is to take the time to learn the lessons of success and strap on the big brass balls to do something about it.  Complaining about our fate will not get us anywhere.

*’Style’ bar…sorry about that. It’s like saying ‘Cool’ Bar. The very act of calling it that proclaims as deeply uncool, and hence unstylish.  Although in this case, it is.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012