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.

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.

Patreon’s Choice #2: Bottled Hophead

Hophead label.

This is a quick entry in our series of notes on beers suggested by our Patreon subscribers. This time it’s the bottled version of Dark Star Hophead as suggested by @AleingPaul who has never tried it himself.

We bought this from Beer Ritz at £2.78 per 500ml bottle and, like the cask version, it has an ABV of 3.8%.

A note, first, on that cask beer — a classic we think it’s fair to say, or at least a standard. Here’s a bit on the history of the beer from an article we wrote for All About Beer a couple of years ago:

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter… worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013. He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets. These, along with other U.S. hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer. ‘Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,’ recalls Tranter. When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% to 3.8%. Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

Cask Hophead might have had a wobble a few years ago, or it might just have been that we had a run of bad luck, but on the whole it’s been a beer we cannot help but drink when it’s on offer. Its relatively low strength means we can take a decent amount without getting in a whirl or suffering the next day; its light body makes it swiggable and easygoing; but it is far from bland, even by the hop-saturated standards of 2017.

Perhaps our fondness is partly down to the fact that we’re of the Cascade generation and developed our love of beer when that hop variety was the coolest thing in town. Whatever the reason, fond we are.

So, how is the bottle? Does it capture the magic? Can you get that Hophead buzz in the comfort of your front room, dressed in your jim-jams?

Apparently not.

The bottled beer is utterly dull — a pan-and-scan VHS, K-Tel edit, plastic imitation.

It’s not horrid — there’s enough hop character there to spark a little pleasure — but it feels heavy, tastes as if it’s been microwaved, and has nothing to set it apart from any number of golden ales from less beloved breweries available in every supermarket in the land.

It’s weird to feel so irritated by a mediocre beer, but it must be because it’s a mediocre incarnation of a great beer.

We won’t be going out of our way to buy it again but will perhaps enjoy our next encounter with cask Hophead all the more.

Dark Star Belgian IPA

Dark Star Belgian IPA.

A beer claiming to be a Belgian IPA promises a certain complexity that comes from the mingling of beer cultures. Too often, however, such beers either resemble tragic teleporter accidents, or simply get the balance wrong.

But we had high hopes for Dark Star Belgian IPA (7.2% ABV, £3.79 per 330ml bottle from Noble Green Wines).

Under former head brewer Mark Tranter, Dark Star were ‘early adopters’ of the saison style in the UK, and their Hophead (3.8%) is not only a favourite of ours, but was also cited by at least one very hip new generation brewer as a key influence. If anyone can successfully mash up Belgian and US influences, we thought, surely it must be this lot?

First impressions were of a distinct fatness. Relatively dark in colour (amber, but only a notch away from the dreaded brown), it rolled around the glass like oil, and reminded us (in ‘mouthfeel’ only) of sugary, unctuous desert wine.

It smelled wonderful, too — heady and heavy, as if — bear with us — someone had taken a basketful of particularly cannabis-like hops into a sauna. (We’ve all done this, right? Right!?)

Beneath the low-lying fog of hops was a surprisingly uncomplicated but pleasant apricot jam flavour, a balancing bitterness, and a jarring black pepper burn — a harsh note which was the only thing that brought Belgium to mind at all, and which we found rather fatiguing.

Overall, we enjoyed it; would recommend it to fans of big American beers; and would certainly buy it again, if only to see if we can find more Belgian character next time.

Bar well and truly raised

Ten years ago, with the range of beers they offer today, the Red Lion in Leytonstone or the Bull in Highgate would have been among the best pubs in London. Now, while certainly way better than run-of-the-mill, they merely count as friendly neighbourhood craft beer bars.

That’s right: every neighbourhood in London now seems to have a craft beer bar and many (like the Bull) are also brewing. Everywhere you look, there are enamel signs advertising Orval and glowing neon Brooklyn Brewery logos. These days, you’re never more than a bus ride from a pint of Dark Star or a Camden Helles.

These kinds of places seem (thank God) to be replacing the kind of ‘style bars’ or ersatz ‘gastropubs’ which were everywhere until recently and which had snobbery without the saving grace of exciting beer. They were the kinds of places where you would be charged a fiver for a pint of stale Erdinger wheat beer or four quid for a pint of UK-brewed San Miguel; now, for that money, you get beers that are (arguably) worth the asking price.

There’s more detail on each of these pubs to follow in subsequent posts. Suffice to say we liked them all the more for their localness: drinking in them didn’t feel like a trip to Beerworld, Britain’s newest theme park.