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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Molson Coors buys Sharps!

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!

32 comments:

Tandleman said...

Think that's more or less what I'd say. It has ramifications beyond the acquiring of a brand. Coors have thrown down the a gauntlet to GK and Marstons.

Big questions are, have they the staying power and will Stuart stay churning out boring brown beer with his wings clipped?

Curmudgeon said...

I must say, as someone who does enjoy many "mainstream" beers, to my taste Doom Bar is one of the dullest and least distinctive cask beers around – it's something I'd actively avoid.

And what's the betting through crass marketing and poor quality control that Molson Coors will piss away Sharps' brand equity in a few years?

More an accident waiting to happen than a new dawn.

Andrew Bowden said...

Absolutely gobsmacked. One of the big brewers buying Sharps? Blimey and indeed Charlie, it's unexpected after all these years of it all being about the global lager brands.

Pete Brown said...

Well Mudgie, if there's one thing Molson Coors does understand, it's how to manage brands. But do they understand how to manage cask ale? We'll soon find out...

Tandy - no. Not if that's the scenario that does ensue. I wouldn't have thought so for a second. But I can't imagine MC would be thick enough to make that his job description. They've already got plenty of people who can brew as you describe.

jesusjohn said...

As I've mentioned on twitter, I think it's interesting to compare the two examples we've had today of macros extending their portfolios:

1) AB InBev unveil plans for Stella Cidre.

2) Molson Coors buy Sharp's to add to their other quality lines, including Blue Moon, Worthies, Urquell, Grolsch (esp. the excellent Weizen).

There's a clear divide between the positioning here. Lowest common denominator vs positioning for where the market - and/or better margins - is/are going.

Anonymous said...

FINALLY!!!!!!!!!!! I'm so pleased that they have finally backed up all their talk. Well done to all the team who made this happen. I'm just sorry to not still be a part of it!

Dan

Anonymous said...

That MC knows how to promote herself.

Pete Brown said...

Spot on, JJ. Couldn't agree more.

Curmudgeon said...

Has the Worthington brand been well-managed? The impression I get is of much talk and little action.

Cooking Lager said...

One can only hope Coors do not lose focus on their core business of knocking out dirt cheap fizzy delicious cooking lager.

SteveF said...

Not actually sure that Doom Bar is even their most boring beer - that acolade must surely go to the truly insipid Cornish Coaster.

Curmudgeon said...

Well, yes, of course M-C are responsible for Carling, the acme of cooking lager :-)

Jack R. said...

I would welcome such an occurrence in the USA. As PBrown states, I believe the support and distribution of a craft beer by a macrobrewery makes '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'; a very good thing.

The nearest allegory in the USA is than AB-InBev owns about 1/3 of and provides distribution for Craft Brewers Alliance, Inc., with is comprised of four very good to excellent craft beer companies: Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, Illinois, Kona Brewing Co, Kona, Hawaii; Redhook Ale Brewery, Woodinville, Washington and Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., Portland, Oregon.

Neil, eatingisntcheating.blogspot.com said...

- Cooking Lager

That one tickled me just a bit

- curmudgeon

I think it's been really well managed. the beer tastes as good as ever (ok, within reason, you know what i mean) but is available in so many more places now. I've noticed white shield in the fridge of bars that previously only ever sold macro brands like becks (we all have to enter them occasionally, damn non beer geek friends!), its becoming a regular occurance; "oh no there's nothing decent on the bar... ooh... wait, white shield!"

Stono said...

maybe its how you define "South" but Sharps Doom Bar seems pretty ubiquitously available round these parts(mainly GK territory) already, even without Molson Coors pushing it heavily. so how do you nationalise a beer more thats already escaped its immediate influence boundaries. conversly the white & red shield brands seem the opposite, very difficult to get hold of outside of Burton or London.

so it would be interesting if Sharps stuff like chalky's bite or the offal, jellyfish beers Oz Clarke was seen tasting recently came along with it, but that seems a step too far to begin with.

but I think to challenge the regionals (though the difference with something like GK must be awfully close thesedays) nationally they need to pair it with something that is "special" so its not just Doom Bar leading by itself as the distinctivness for Molson/Coors (unless they do something on the tie, which oddly might then decrease the exposure of DoomBar in the regionals own areas) could be lost

Ali T. said...

I believe that this is a positive move. It shows that the large brewers are now taking an active interest in the wealth of new breweries, beers and brewing talent that has grown over the last decade. This might mean that more good, quality ales are more widely available. I only hope that they don't take too much of an interest and start buying all of the smaller breweries - this would just kill the wealth of creativity that we have seen recently.

Martyn Cornell said...

One thing's for sure - no way will [the bulk of] Doom Bar be brewed way down in Cornwall, a very long brewer's dray trip from Britain's big beer markets.

The big downside is that we will now see a big push behind a boring brown beer that gives more interesting brown beers a bad name, at the expense of better brews from still-independent brewers. I'd hate to see, for example, pubs in my area dropping bers from the excellent Twickenham Brewery or Windsor & Eton brewery from the bar because MC is offering them Doom Bar more cheaply and with lots more marketing cash behind it.

Roger Humphreys said...

£20m will seem a snip when it becomes a genuine national cask ale. Coors are investing in a growing brand and will grow the market for real ale with big advertising spend. Good news but hope it doesn't go keg.
Watch out for more deals - Thornbridge?

Sid Boggle said...

My own 2p - as Martyn says, geographically, it's unlikely Doom Bar will continue to be solely brewed in Rock.

Heritage? The current Doom Bar in no way resembles the first incarnation I drank shitloads of on holiday in 1995 at the Port Gaverne Hotel. Crossover beer as a national brand?

Quality. Doom Bar is (was? need to update) on the bar of a couple of pubs round my way. It was poor bordering on off when I did a crawl in October. Stuart Howe got their local guy to call in, I believe. Are MolsonCoors going to be keeping an eye on quality? I wonder about the 'London Pride' effect devaluing even a fairly unremarkable beer...

Phil said...

the craft beer drinker still wins out.

No 'e don't, 'cause 'e's just lost a craft brewer enn'e. Them's the rules. Sad day for craft brewing in the pore ole U of K, that's what it is guv. (The real ale drinker wins out, though, and good for him or her.)

I think I must be the only beer blogger who actually quite likes Doom Bar. I don't see it often, but I had a couple of pints in Cornwall last summer which were very acceptable.

Kristy said...

Evening all - at the risk of being accused of bias it is VERY exciting news!

Some facts - 100% of Sharp's beers will be brewed at the brewery in Rock under the creative brilliance of Stuart Howe (take a look at his blog if you want to see what he thinks)

We WILL be investing in the brewery and making sure Stuart has the time to keep on experimenting with exciting new brews and projects.

So no wing clipping,crass marketing, kegging, moving to Burton or anything other than business as usual for Sharp's but with more investment behind it

Sounds like good news to me

Pete Brown said...

Once again, depressed and amused in equal measure by the people who are already convinced beyond all doubt that Molson Coors are going to devalue Doom Bar without even giving them a chance to fuck it up first.

You may well turn out to be right. But Molson Coors have promised local Cornish radio that Doom Bar will still be brewed in Cornwall.

Also - Steve Beaumont makes a good point over on my Facebook page. In Canada they have a bit more experience of the Molson bit of Molson Coors than we do. And if you look at what they've done (and haven't done) with Creemore Springs, if they were to adopt a similar approach here (give the brand wider distribution and scale without messing around with how it's made) it would be very welcome if they did something similar here.

As my frequent posts on Stella show, if they actually do fuck up this foray into cask ale, I'll be the first to attack them. But how about we allow them to make that fuck up first?

Phil said...

For clarity, I think this is great news. It may go wrong, which would be bad, but I think the only thing we can be sure about at this stage is that it'll confuse some dogmatic 'craft beer' numpties, and more fool them.

Tyson said...

"And yet it is massively popular with mainstream drinkers."

Not in the North West, it ain't.

"It looks contemporary on the bar and recruits new people to the ale market."

Ditto

"It's taken on by many pubs who are looking to trial cask for the first time."

True, but also taken on by many who are too lazy to check what their customers want.


Of course we should give them the chamce to screw up first, but Pub Curmudgeon seems very much on the money. Putting aside whether it's an exciting brand or not, for a minute, Coors do not have a good record. They talked a lot and yes, White Shield has had a little push, but under their stewardship Worthingtons has declined to no more tham a ghost.

The omens are not good.

Gary Gillman said...

It's an interesting development, but what's kept cask ale going, and will keep it going, are the hundreds of small and medium-sized brewers. They won't disappear anytime soon, choice a plenty exists. And if Sharps or Worthington's becomes a national brand and keeps its quality, nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps Molson Coors is starting to see that the long-term prospects of lager and keg ale are limited. This new purchase provides a needed fillip.

Gary

Pete Brown said...

Balanced point of view as ever, Gary.

Mudgie and Tyson - have to take issue on White Shield. Re Worthington Smoothflow, there's simply no room outside their heartland for a third tasteless smoothflow on the market after John Smiths and Tetleys.

As far as White Shield is concerned though, it's now much bigger - and better - than it was ten years ago. It's won Champion Bottled Beer of Britain. It's available in supermarkets. It's doing so well they've had to start making the bottled version in the main brewery. And they've just spent £1 million on a new state-of-the-art piece of kit called the William Worthington Brewery, which will now brew Red Shield and White Shield on draught. By anyones reckoning, that's progress for the brand. I would emphatically agree that all this has taken much longer than it should have to come to fruition, but it's getting there.

Phil - can you please explain to me how exactly the same beer brewed on the same kit to the same recipe by the same brewer is suddenly no longer a craft beer just because of a change in ownership? Hang on, on second thoughts, please don't.

Curmudgeon said...

Re the Worthington brand – yes they have managed to revive the fortunes of White Shield, but it wasn't exactly rocket science to brew it so it actually tastes dry and hoppy rather than sweet and malty, make sure it does some conditioning in the bottle and use yeast that sticks to the bottom. I could have told them that. But I've never seen Red Shield either on cask or in bottle (is it even available in bottle?) which suggests it hasn't been a roaring success. The fact they are now buying Sharp's must indicate a lack of confidence in their ability to develop Worthington into a popular, respected cask brand.

And perhaps I should mention the ultimate fate of Ruddles after being taken over by GrandMet as a warning for Sharp's. I hope they don't, but all precedent suggests that M-C will eventually destroy that which they have embraced.

Phil said...

Pete - exactly, which is why the term 'craft beer' is meaningless.

I'm enough of an indie kid to feel a bit of a pang at seeing an independent label bought out by a major, but really I can't see much of a downside here. Any increase in commitment to real ale by one of the majors is basically a Good Thing, even if the real ale in question were as thin and bland as the stuff American ticker's caricature. If it means better distribution for a brewer who knows what he's doing, so much the better.

Fishter said...

Here's what the CamRA masses have to say:
http://www.facebook.com/campaignforrealale/posts/184955778205724

Sounds like Molson Coors have already converted Sharps to a chemical infested fizzy pop factory...

Kristy said...

Mudgie - Pete puts it better than I could but I don't see how a £1m new brewery shows a lack of confidence in Worthington's. We have big plans for the Worthington's family of ales alongside Doom Bar and all the Sharp's brands.

Phil said...

Sounds very silly. Sometimes I'm glad I'm not on FB.

Sslaxx said...

Kristy, PR speak is meaningless because few people believe it, so don't engage in it. Let the actions of your employers speak for themselves, not marketing words.

The use of "brand" etc. and not referring so much to "taste", "quality" and so on is a little disconcerting, but if you have Sharps' head brewer on side - and you do seem to have made a good (if slow) job with Worthingtons - there's definitely some promise there.