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Dark Star: can we look on the bright side?

Added: Wednesday, February 21st 2018

Dark Star

Let’s begin with the weasel words of the press statement: “Fuller’s and Dark Star have joined forces”. No they haven’t. Fuller’s has bought – for an undisclosed sum – the Sussex independent lock, stock and proverbial barrel.

That aside, is it a bad deal? The usual Twitter storm when the takeover was announced elicited such comments as “Fuller’s beers are awful”. They come from the sort of people who think any brewery bigger than a rabbit hutch is the creation of the sperm of the devil.

Awful? Let’s run the list. Vintage Ale. Bengal Lancer. ESB. Red Fox. London Porter. Black Cab. The recreations of recipes from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

If these are awful beers then I shall switch my allegiance to Prosecco. I await each year’s new Vintage Ale like Robert Parker anticipating the latest annual offerings from Bordeaux.

Fuller’s is a family-run brewery with a long and noble history. Back in the dog days of the early 1970s it could have followed many other family breweries down the keg road to oblivion. Instead, with some prompting from the nascent CAMRA, it remained true to cask and reaped a rich award and a cupboard-load of trophies.

Nevertheless, some critics will point out that Dark Star is not the first brewery Fuller’s has bought. In 2005 it acquired Gales of Horndean and closed the site a year later. Before you see this as a portent of things to come at Dark Star, here are a few facts. The Gale family, who I had the misfortune to meet once, had no interest in their brewery. It was badly run down and in need of investment and the family was keen to sell.

Along with many others, I urged Fuller’s to keep Gales open and to refurbish it. Against our advice, Fuller’s shut the brewery and today there are still CAMRA members in Hampshire who would rather visit the dentist than a Fuller’s pub.

On the plus side, Fuller’s has kept a large batch of Gales Prize Old Ale and brews this rare beer from time to time, most recently in collaboration with Marble in Manchester.

Dark Star is a brewery of a different stripe to Gales. Managing director James Cuthbertson (pictured above) and his team are full of passion for brewing. Theirs has been a remarkable success story. The brewery started life in 1994 in the cellar of the Evening Star pub in Brighton on souped-up home brew kit.  The beers went down so well that the brewery moved out of the cellar to bigger kit at Ansty and finally to Partridge Green near Horsham.

It’s an impressive and substantial 45-barrel brewery today and its beers are superb. I would crawl over broken glass for a taste of Hophead and such companions as American Pale Ale, Partridge Best Bitter, Espresso, Revelation and the revered Original.

Fuller’s will mess with these beers only if they’re mad – and they’re not candidates for the funny farm.

James Cuthbertson says “Fuller’s is the perfect fit.” In order to expand, he adds, he had looked at crowd funding and tendering to raise finance but he was “not comfortable” with these routes. Dark Star has been working with Fuller’s for some time and its beers are on sale in some of the Chiswick brewery’s pubs, including the Harp in London’s Covent Garden.

Cuthbertson goes on to say that Fuller’s will help him export his beers and also develop small pack brews. The four Dark Star pubs are outside the deal and will be run by the Sussex brewery, where Cuthbertson will remain MD.

The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions. In Britain, Camden Town, London Fields. Meantime and Sharp’s have fallen to global brewers and astonishing sums of money are involved: £120 million was paid for Meantime by SABMiller and AB InBev forked out £80 million for Camden Town.

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.

Only time will tell if the deal works to Dark Star’s advantage. James Cuthberston says there will some redundancies in sales and accountants. Let’s hope it stops there.

Above all, let us hope and pray to Bacchus that Partridge Green does stay open and continues to produce its amazing beers. I don’t want to eat my words – weasel or otherwise.

*Photo courtesy Morning Advertiser