Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have stud­ied their British beer his­to­ry, or hap­pen to have lived through it, will per­haps won­der if this is Fuller’s mov­ing into Whit­bread ter­ri­to­ry. Back in the post-war peri­od Whit­bread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of small­er brew­eries until they had become a nation­al oper­a­tion – the pre­cur­sor to the rather face­less inter­na­tion­al brew­ing firms we know today.

The dif­fer­ence, it seems to us, is that back then (to gen­er­alise very broad­ly) Whit­bread were after pubs, not brands. They want­ed out­lets for their own prod­ucts – a hun­dred pubs here, a hun­dred pubs there – but did away with local brands and closed down local brew­eries, which max­imised the impact of nation­al adver­tis­ing cam­paigns and kept things sim­ple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pres­sure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, own­ing a port­fo­lio of small­er brew­eries or at least brew­ery names is a great way of doing so while con­trol­ling mar­gins and sim­pli­fy­ing sup­ply chains. Some peo­ple call this ‘the illu­sion of choice’ which is accu­rate if you define choice as the abil­i­ty to decide where your mon­ey ends up. But often it real­ly is choice, at least in terms of styles and pro­files, to a degree. Bet­ter than noth­ing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried sell­ing its own craft brands, with some suc­cess, but Dark Star real­ly is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Fuller’s has gold­en ales and sum­mer ales but no Hop­head of its own and we imag­ine that’s the spe­cif­ic beer this deal has been done to secure. (Per­haps based on sales fig­ures from The Harp, a cen­tral Lon­don free­house acquired by Fuller’s long-regard­ed as an unof­fi­cial town tap for the Sus­sex brew­ery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are nei­ther here nor there – prob­a­bly more trou­ble than they’re worth – and Fuller’s is not Whit­bread cir­ca 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to gen­er­al out­rage, and we’d be very sur­prised if pro­duc­tion of Dark Star beers moves to west Lon­don any­time in the next decade, giv­en increased inter­est in prove­nance and trans­paren­cy among con­sumers.

19 thoughts on “Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star”

  1. Whit­bread was more inter­est­ing than it can seem. I find it iron­ic that a com­pa­ny that start­ed in oppo­si­tion to 18th cen­tu­ry cof­fee sales now owns Cos­ta Cof­fee but does­n’t brew beer any more.

    I find myself won­der­ing if now is a time to wor­ry about Fuller’s. I like their beers.

  2. Like Allan, I enjoy Fullers beers. I also like Dark Star. I’m pre­pared to give it twelve months before I pan­ic.
    Not sure that it’s the same sce­nario as Whit­bread or even Greene King. Still reel­ing from Marston’s now own­ing Courage Direc­tors, mind. Bet that will die a death, and per­son­al­ly I find that very sad.

    1. I think that’s absolute­ly the right approach. This is noth­ing like the Whit­bread Umbrel­la I remem­ber. Times have moved on; this looks more like Fullers want­i­ng to make more mon­ey out of their exist­ing pubs, and I’ve no issue with that.

    2. Per­son­al­ly I can’t wait to try Marston’s Direc­tors as CW did it no favours at all. In con­trast all Marston’s brands seem well cared for from Sneck­lifter to Pedi­gree . I think Fullers will do like­wise

      1. My most recent Sneck­lifters have been very poor – tast­ing most­ly of caramel. This was in three dif­fer­ent pubs, one of which, in my expe­ri­ence, used to have the beer in reli­ably good con­di­tion. And don’t get me start­ed on Pedi­gree.

    3. Why? Courage Direc­tors moved from Alton—ADB, Alton Direc­tors Bitter—to the Horse­ly­down Brew­ery in Bermond­sey, to the George’s Brew­ery in Bris­tol, with scant regard for prove­nance or recipe.

      In Bris­tol it was par­ti-gyled to make Best Bit­ter and George’s Bit­ter from the same Ur–brew—so it was real­ly just a mat­ter of how watered-down you liked your beer.

      When the George’s Brew­ery closed, it was brewed at var­i­ous oth­er sites until the ‘brand’ was sold to Charles Wells, who brewed it at their efflu­ent plant in Bed­ford.

      I can’t see that Marston’s will be worse stew­ards. They might even be bet­ter.

      But Courage Direc­tors long ago moved from being a beer worth seek­ing out to one not worth both­er­ing about.

  3. As a west Lon­don res­i­dent, with­in walk­ing dis­tance of sev­er­al Fuller’s pubs, this is poten­tial­ly bril­liant news. If any one of them served Hop­head and Dark Star APA in the same con­di­tion as at The Harp, they would have reg­u­lar access to my wal­let!

  4. Oh you’re kid­ding me…’ was my reac­tion, ‘not anoth­er brew­ery I love ruined by Fullers’! I’m hop­ing the com­ments above are true and Fullers won’t med­dle with the beers but actu­al­ly make them more avail­able. Say­ing that I find it hard to like Fullers, once an oasis of decent beer in Lon­don in the 80s when I first moved this way. Now they are a dis­ap­point­ment to me, serv­ing bland beers in cor­po­rate pubs seem­ing­ly every­where in south­ern Eng­land these days and con­se­quent­ly suf­fer­ing from over expo­sure and poor­ly kept beer that seems inevitable with com­mer­cial ‘suc­cess’. As for the Dark Star pubs, the Evening Star in Brighton is fab so wor­ried for it’s future and I guess apart from Hop­head the oth­er Dark Star beers will be con­ve­nient­ly dropped and we’ll have Hop­head on tap across the land. Prove me wrong Fullers and I’ll feel bet­ter about you, you have a great and inno­v­a­tive brew­ery now, I hope you keep it that way.

  5. A very rea­soned and rea­son­able analy­sis. Hav­ing got over the ini­tial shock and anger, I’m rel­a­tive­ly san­guine about things for the time being, and I’m a pret­ty big Dark Star fan.

    I ‘d like to think that the les­son has final­ly been learned that tak­ing over pop­u­lar brew­eries with a view to get­ting rid of them and their beers is real­ly not a sen­si­ble busi­ness strat­e­gy.

  6. Not to get all “we’re through the look­ing glass here, peo­ple” but, giv­en the shiny new­ness of the Dark­star brew­ery, might it not be more like­ly that we’d see Fullers (brand) beers brewed in Sus­sex?

  7. Hav­ing had a bit of a think about this, I reck­on that the rea­son that I’m not over­ly wor­ried about it is that Dark­star and Fullers seem to be cul­tur­al­ly fair­ly com­pat­i­ble. Fullers seem at the very least to val­ue their rep­u­ta­tion as Peo­ple Who Care About Beer, hence they con­tin­ue to brew Vin­tage Ale, the Past Mas­ters series, Gold­en Pride, Lon­don Porter and so on rather than just crank­ing out Pride for the super­mar­kets. Mean­while Dark Star are fair­ly well focused on crowd-pleas­ing hop­py pale ales, and have a for­mu­la that Fullers aren’t going to have any strong rea­son to med­dle with.

    I’d be more con­cerned if it was Marstons buy­ing Bux­ton, in oth­er words.

  8. NB I think I was com­ment­ing on here last month that it’s sur­pris­ing that more region­al and fam­i­ly brew­ers haven’t got a real­ly cred­i­ble pale ‘n’ hop­py offer­ing. I guess that some­one at Fullers agrees with me?

      1. Prop­er Job and Ghost Ship count. Slim pick­ings else­where. I would­n’t be sur­prised to see Marstons or Greene King make a move on a small-ish mod­ern-ish brew­ery in the next year or so in order to have some­thing to tick that box when they need it.

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