|Transfer window madness: Burton-on-Trent buys Cornwall|
Yes, it's the same story that will be appearing on about eight or nine UK beer blogs at this very moment:
Burton-based Molson Coors, brewers of Carling and Grolsch, have just announced the purchase of Cornwall's Sharp's Brewery, home of the fast-rising Doom Bar and a range of wonderfully eclectic, sometimes even visionary, but difficult to get hold of beers from top brewer Stuart Howe.
There's not too much info on the value of the deal, what it means for breweries and brands etc. The press release quote from Molson Coors CEO Mark Hunter is:
“The Doom Bar brand is modern and progressive. It has a loyal following and excellent reputation amongst consumers and customers alike and has the potential to become a truly extraordinary brand. We have a wealth of experience with this type of venture and an excellent track record of building brands across all markets. We respect and want to preserve the unique culture of Sharp’s Brewery and the special appeal of their brands to beer drinkers.”
Stuart Howe adds:
“We are delighted to be joining the Molson Coors team, all of whom are passionate about Sharp’s Brewery and committed to the Doom Bar brand. We are incredibly proud to be voted the best regional cask beer by our customers, with the support of Molson Coors we’re looking forward to being recognised as the best cask beer in the country.”
So what does it all mean? Why has it happened? Here are some initial, ill-informed thoughts and speculations.
Firstly, before we get into the detailed ramifications, this represents a major change in direction for the UK cask ale market. In four years of writing the Cask Report, we've been saying that the big national brewers have abandoned cask ale and left it to the regionals and micros. Molson Coors have been talking a good cask ale game for a while now without doing much to deliver against it until recently. This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale.
Of course there are good and bad sides to that. Many will ask why MC can't just leave cask ale to people who care about it.
But this is actually a great fit. To beer aficionados, Doom Bar is an acceptable but very ordinary beer. And yet it is massively popular with mainstream drinkers. It looks contemporary on the bar and recruits new people to the ale market. It's taken on by many pubs who are looking to trial cask for the first time. Anyone who met the previous owners will have got the impression that they were aggressively building the brand, attempting to turn it into a national cask ale brand as quickly as possible. It's only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it's not as if there is any heritage here that's about to be trashed by a big corporate. There's no better brand for MC to acquire - mainstream, modern, little specialness to lose. With glorious hindsight, this is just the logical next step for Doom Bar's evolution.
So how does it fit with the Worthington brand, also given a reboot by Molson Coors with the building of the new William Worthington Brewery (which I wrote about in this week's Publican magazine)? Doom Bar is at the moment stronger in the south, while Worthington's is bigger in the Midlands. Mark Hunter told me that draught White Shield and the long-awaited Red Shield will be focusing on a radius around Burton. My prediction is that MC will aggressively build Doom Bar as a national cask ale brand. My hope is that they'll then nurture White Shield/Red Shield as something a bit more special. If that's what happens to Doom Bar it'll be good for cask ale overall, making the gateway to the category that bit bigger for the kind of drinker who doesn't have the confidence to seek out flavourful beers without the reassurance of big brands. (Yes, I know I just described Doom Bar as a flavourful beer, spare me the wisecracks - I'm talking relatively).
And what of Stuart Howe and the rest of what he does at Sharp's?
Those of us who have met Stuart know he finds brewing Doom Bar a bit of a chore - it's growing massively, it's a routine to brew - and he has a huge imagination. The line from MC is that Stuart "Stays doing what he's doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability." I'd like to think this means he'll be staying on in the new company, and will be given freedom to experiment, getting some of his Belgian-influenced ales out into the market properly. My mouth also waters at the prospect of collaborations between him and Worthington brewery legend Steve Wellington.
But whether or not this will actually this will happen within the well-meaning but slower, more corporate, conservative set-up of Molson Coors, I'm more doubtful about. Stuart won't hang around if he's just brewing Doom Bar on a bigger kit, and if he does eventually jump ship, you can bet your life it will be to start something new with a greater focus on innovative beers. So the craft beer drinker still wins out.
I'd say the only people who could/should be pissed off or alarmed by this are the regional brewers like Greene King, Marston's and Wells & Young's, who now face a serious new contender. It's going to be interesting to see how they react.
Meanwhile, Howe's blog is going to make even more compelling reading than normal!