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

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.…

      2. 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?

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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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