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More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twitter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Predictably, lots of people wanted a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we deliberately omitted because we were after a decisive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the optimistic side — Dark Star seemed in the doldrums to us and this is more likely to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 people who did feel strongly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the meantime some concrete information has emerged. For the Morning Advertiser James Beeson interviewed Dark Star MD James Cuthbertson who said:

“There will be some overlap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redundancies, which we will hope to keep to a minimum. However, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the overriding point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat people.”

There have also been substantial reflective pieces from Pete Brown, who is typically keyed into the emotional aspect of the story:

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

And Roger Protz, who is generally critical of takeovers and sensitive to corporate skullduggery, but here says:

The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions…. These takeovers have been driven to a large extent by rapidly declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the other hand is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline. But working with Dark Star and creating collaboration beers with Moor Beer of Bristol and Marble has shown the kudos that can be gained by identifying with a craft sector that has such appeal to younger and discriminating drinkers.

His summary of the background to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is helpful, too: an uninterested family, a decrepit brewery, and little choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lingering local resentment all the same.

* * *

Some people seem puzzled or even irritated at the focus on this story, especially those who don’t live in or anywhere near London and the Home Counties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star — it’s a case study in what might happen elsewhere in the country.

If you want to play the prediction game perhaps start by looking for a brewery with a convincing modern craft beer identity and high profile, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the example at hand, lost its superstar head brewer, Mark Tranter, in 2013, after which its beer was widely perceived as having dipped in quality. It also seemed to be struggling to maintain its relevance in a world of Cloudwaters and BrewDogs, always one rebrand behind the zeitgeist.

Or, to put all that another way, breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

15 replies on “More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links”

I wasn’t aware of the perception that Dark Star’s quality had dipped, and I probably wouldn’t have agreed with it. If I remember rightly (can’t find the piece now) but in his early statement, didn’t James Cuthbertson mention the potential for expanding their bottling activity? It would be such a boon for their business, I think. Their current bottle offering is small and does not do them justice. Fuller’s canprovide resources to turn that round.

I remember being extremely concerned about The Harp when Fuller’s bought it off Binnie. The prices have soared, but maybe they should have soared earlier anyway. It’s the same pub. Even with their own houses, I get the sense that Fuller’s do, indeed, ‘get it’.

Most startups fail. Or, put more traditionally, most businesses fail. We should probably start viewing these deals as successes.

FWIW, we only noticed perhaps the *briefest* of dips in quality for Hophead but have been enjoying it as much as ever for the last year or so. It’s possible that Mr Tranter’s departure caused people to imagine an issue but it’s not inconceivable that there might be a wobble when senior staff change.

Don’t have much of a feel for the US scene but people seemed mostly over Camden by the time they sold, and they were never Cloudwater or Magic Rock in terms of national fascination and adulation. The hype phase is really only one or two years, isn’t it? That mad bit when demand outstrips supply, you can’t move for cheery profiles of the owners, and the first social media clanger has yet to drop.

Speaking as someone who definitely identified as a Camden “fan” in my early days of blogging, it didn’t feel over here in London. Magic Rock are 7 years old but still very much feel like a brewery with plenty of hype and adulation. It varies from brewery to brewery of course – but hype can be everlasting if played right. Look at Cantillon, for example.

Interesting re: Magic Rock. From our slight distance from all that, especially for the six years before we moved to Bristol, we could definitely see the buzz dropping away there. Still respected, still interesting, but there’s much less heat around the discussion. After hype comes the reaction against the hype….

The US scene is rather different. Hype in most cases relates to beers, rather than breweries, because pretty much anyone who isn’t a producer of National or International Piss is considered a craft brewer – the tiny handful of old breweries, the original micros, and the most recent craft types. And most of them have set out from the start to produce a range of beers. So for the most part, it’s individual beers or whole styles that have been hyped – Imperial IPAs, American Pale Ales, IPAs, Double IPAs, Black IPAs and NEIPAs, for example. It applies to breweries only really if they are directly identified with just the latest fad. It’s the breweries that manage consistent quality and/or public image that are targets for the big guys, and that makes more commercial sense than buying a brewery in the middle of a heady hype phase, doesn’t it?

As a Brighton resident and a frequent Evening Star visitor I was a bit worried about the news, but feel more relaxed about it now. The Evening Star will carry on doing what it does well and it sounds as if Dark Star will too (a strong line up of regulars with not too many flights of fancy). I don’t think the quality has dipped but they don’t have the same excitement about them, the impression I get is that has shifted to Burning Sky locally.

In terms of hype, Northern Monk seem to be having the Magic Rock moment now – starting to appear more widely but still innovating, whereas Magic Rock seem more established (establishment?) and so the hype has cooled. I still love their beer though.

* I should add that the excitement at Burning Sky is obviously because Mark Tranter is there now, turning out some excellent saisons.

After the Fuller’s & Friends box I’ve got some faith that they do understand more modern beer styles in a way that GK clearly don’t (ie. they won’t just produce a cheap beer and whack a Darkstar pumpclip on it).

I think they do try to remain credible to some extent – take a look at The Stable chain of Pizza & Cider restaurants (which I believe they have a significant stake in). While I’ve felt the quality of service and food has declined over my past few visits, they do still offer something different in the marketplace (boxed cider and pizza toppings with local provenance in a slick family restaurant?!) and obviously the investment from Fuller’s has allowed significant expansion in a crowded marketplace (from 6 sites in 2014 to 17 today).

I personally don’t think Hophead has been the beer it was over the last two or three years , I find it often lacks the intense citrus bite it once had, I have wondered if this was down to increased demand leading to pushing the beer through the brewery and into pubs more quickly than they should? I also have wondered has the recipe been tweaked, such as using English grown hops instead of American.
Of course it could just be down to my taste-buds being shot away by seeking out extreme hopped beers.
It is though still a decent beer, lets hope it stays that way.

Like Nathan, I was intrigued by the perception that quality has dipped and the brewery seemed in the doldrums. In c.600 different pubs visited last year (from the Beer Guide) I guess I saw Dark Star a dozen times, rarely above London, but Hophead seemed a popular and reliable pick; in Hendon’s Midland recently it was nectar.

Like all breweries no longer seen as new and shiny, with good beer but without a sizeable estate of their own, it does rely on landlord loyalty for bar space. Dark Star in the Parcel Yard would suit me just fine.

I think it’s bad news, on general Eeyore-ish principles of avoiding disappointment by not getting your hopes up. At the very minimum, there aren’t going to be any new Dark Star beers – nobody’s going to be restoring Dark Star’s reputation from its post-Tranter dip by bringing out something as good as Revelation or APA – and that’s a loss in future diversity if nothing else. In more concrete terms, Hophead, Revelation and APA are all fine beers (although I didn’t think much of Six Hop) – but they are all, in different ways, pale’n’oppy; will Fuller’s want to go on brewing all three? Hard to imagine. And what are the prospects for Dark Star’s beers outside the pale’n’oppy space, where Fuller’s has more going on – does the brewer of London Pride and ESB need a Partridge or a Dark Star?

There’s the question of timescale. There’s an interesting paragraph in Pete Brown’s piece about the pressures for cost-cutting and standardisation which are likely to manifest further down the line, however rosy things look now; I think that’s a point worth bearing in mind. I also think the quality of Sharp’s beers has absolutely gone down the drain since they sold out (we could also talk about Meantime). To judge from Pete’s reference to Sharp’s, you’d imagine that they’d only ever made BBB for the masses; how soon we forget!

I found Pete’s account of the “emotional aspect” odd, too. “Turning on your mates because they’d betrayed you” and “sympathising with your mates because they couldn’t hold out any longer” are two possible reactions, but he omits “cheering in fanboyish glee at the prospect of your mates making the big bucks, pausing occasionally to scold anyone who’s not joining in” – which is very much the emotion that he, and other bloggers of the better sort, displayed in response to all three of the big ‘craft’ buyouts (Sharp’s, Camden and Meantime). At least reactions to this latest news are a bit more sober.

While I’m bitching and moaning (you can stop any time – Ed.), has anyone written at any length about Marston’s as the new Whitbread, and/or the ways in which Marston’s isn’t the new Whitbread? It seems like a really interesting comparison, but – apart from a reference in your previous post – I can only ever remember seeing it made once, and that was out in the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the blogosphere.

Thanks for that, Phil — really interesting, and substantial enough that you should probably have stuck it on your own blog as a post rather than give us all the quality hashtag content.

We’ve mentioned similarities between Marston’s and Whitbread once or twice, and this piece by Richard Coldwell comes to mind:

Marstons are wholly financially motivated; they may have been a little naive in talking to a trade journal in terms of the words they use to describe their products; the traditional real ale drinker is a very small part of their market and doesn’t appear on their radar; the quality craft beer drinker is not recognised beyond a ‘trend’ in drinking… I don’t see any differences now between Marston’s and the ‘big six’ of the late sixties and early seventies.

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