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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