Dark Star managing director James Cuthbertson says that he expects Fuller’s to act ‘in the right way’ after yesterday’s buyout – but that ‘ultimately [Dark Star] is their toy’.
Cuthbertson says that anyone worried about the deal, which has seen Fuller’s take a 100% stake in the Sussex business for an undisclosed fee, should look at how the Chiswick brewery has dealt with The Harp, a London city-centre pub, since they bought it from a freehold owner in 2014.
‘When they bought that, it was one of our biggest customers,’ he says. ‘We thought, “We can really do without losing a couple of vans a week into that, we’re not that big”. But they invested in the cellar, making it safer and better. They left us alone. That was good enough for me. It showed they know how to behave.
‘Ultimately it’s their toy – but I have total confidence they’ll deal with us in the right way.’
The biggest impact of the deal for Dark Star, which was founded in 1994, could be the greater nationwide availability of Hophead, which makes up more than 50% of its 16,000BB annual output.
‘I think Hophead is a no-brainer for Fuller’s; it sits in their portfolio really nicely,’ he says. It’s an iconic, sessionable hop-forward ale. Fuller’s see that, they’ve got a big estate, they’ve got routes to market that we don’t have.’
A year in the making
The deal has been a year in the making. Cuthbertson says that Dark Star looked at and then rejected investors and crowdfunding before a conversation with Fuller’s began. ‘We were chatting over a pint about next year’s Fullers & Friends and I explained where we were, what we should do next,’ he says.
‘Simon Dodd [managing director of the Fuller’s beer division]said: “Let’s talk a bit more about that”, and we just did it as mates over a beer. It was a handshake. We’ve done a deal that’s good for both.’
The sale makes sense for both parties, since Fuller’s is gradually shifting its focus away from its traditional cask ales, such as London Pride and Chiswick Bitter, which was recently reduced to a seasonal summer ale, to keg and can brands such as Kolsch/lager Frontier, which enjoyed a 27% volume rise in the financial year ending last April. Hophead could help revive its cask offer, and add extra craft punch.
Dark Star, meanwhile, is stuck in the middle between the new breed of brewers that have sprung up in the last five to 10 years, and established firms like Fuller’s. Cuthbertson, who anticipates a small number of redundancies as a result of the deal, believes Fuller’s can help them escape that trap through its export and distribution network.
‘We’d like to become a Sussex-based, nationally-recognised brewer,’ he says. ‘That’ll see Hophead in more pubs nationwide. I don’t mean Doom Bar-level, but there’s a network of people who’ll now be able to get the beer who couldn’t before. I’m really chuffed.’