Good Beer Hunting

Fuller’s Acquires Dark Star Brewing in Bid for Craft Cred

photo by Matthew Curtis

photo by Matthew Curtis

London’s oldest existing brewery, Fuller Smith & Turner, has acquired a 100% stake in Sussex-based Dark Star Brewing for an undisclosed sum. The Sussex Brewery—which was established in the back of Brighton’s Evening Star pub in 1994—will continue brewing at its existing site in the village of Partridge Green, where it has been based since 2009.

Dark Star’s modest group of four pubs will not be absorbed into Fuller’s own estate, which boasts more than 400 public houses. Instead, these sites, which include Brighton’s Evening Star, will be operated by their corporate Directors as a separate operation. Dark Star Managing Director James Cuthbertson will remain in charge of operations at the brewery.

In addition to being London’s oldest existing brewery, Fuller’s is also one of the largest independent breweries the the UK. It’s roughly one quarter the size of Sierra Nevada in the U.S., its output a reported 274,000 barrels in 2017, compared to Sierra’s 1.2 million.

And it’s no stranger to acquisitions. Fuller’s picked up the ailing George Gale & Co. in November 2005 for a reported £91 million ($127M) and, in June 2013, it added cider maker Cornish Orchards to its portfolio in a deal thought to be worth around £3.8 million ($5.2M). Whereas the production of Gale’s beers was completely absorbed into Fuller’s production, Dark Star will, as with Cornish Orchards, preserve its autonomy and continue to brew at its Sussex site.

“The deal means we will continue to do what we do,” Dark Star’s Cuthbertson said in a press statement. “But [it] gives us huge opportunities to brew more one-off small batch beers hand-in-hand with exploring the export market and expanded bottle and can formats.”

Fuller’s has well-established distribution links to markets all over the world, including the U.S. and East Asia. It also has its own distribution arms in the form of both Nectar Imports and Westside Drinks, the latter having exclusive UK distribution for brands including Sierra Nevada, Chimay, and its own Cornish Orchard brand. It’s likely that Cuthbertson hopes that Dark Star can tap into these distribution links which, combined with what is no doubt a sizable investment from its new owner, will help it break out of its home market in the Southeast.

“Following on from the success we have had with our acquisition of Cornish Orchards, we have been looking at similar opportunities to invest in and work with young, exciting companies that have a similar ethos and commitment to quality as Fuller’s,” Fuller’s MD Simon Dodd adds in a statement. “We could see that we could add real benefit to the Dark Star business and it provides a great new range of delicious cask beers that will enhance the Fuller’s portfolio.”

Gaining credentials in the fast-paced world of craft has been a priority for Fuller’s of late. In 2017 it worked with several young breweries—including the RateBeer awarded ”second best brewery in the world” Cloudwater—for its Fuller’s and Friends series of collaborations, which was retailed nationally via supermarket chain Waitrose. It also allowed James Kemp of Yeastie Boys, formerly of Marble in Manchester and Fuller’s itself, to recreate the hallowed Gale’s Prize Old Ale, using stocks of the beer which Fuller’s had in storage. Both projects appear to have instilled a new sense of fondness in the 170-year-old brewery, including one from a younger generation of beer fans which was mentioned by Brewing Director John Keeling in a recent GBH podcast.

Notably in 2014, Fuller’s acquired the Freehold of The Harp in Covent Garden, adding it to its portfolio of more than 400 public houses. The Harp is something of an ad hoc tap for Sussex breweries such as Harvey’s and Dark Star itself—both have permanent cask lines in the pub, with Dark Star’s Hophead Pale Ale always available on draft. As observed by beer bloggers Boak & Bailey, the turnover of Hophead and other Dark Star beers in a high volume Central London pub would have given Fuller’s key insight into the saleability of the brand.

Of course, Dark Star is not a Cloudwater, a Beavertown, or a Magic Rock. The 25-year-old brewery arguably has closer links to traditional family brewers like Fuller’s than it does to the UK’s mold-breaking new wave that’s emerged in the past decade. Its output is predominantly cask, and includes lines such as Partridge Bitter and Sunburst Golden Ale, as well as the aforementioned Hophead. For the Sussex brewery, this could be an opportunity to ride the coattails of the resurgent Fuller’s, as it continues to seek renewed relevance itself in a rapidly diversifying and evolving beer market.

—Matthew Curtis