2 June 2008

Dark Star Brewery Tour

When Garrett Phipps - the ever-jovial landlord of the marvellous Bull* pub in Horton Kirby, Kent - mentioned that he was planning a coach trip to Sussex in order to tour the Dark Star Brewing Co., we simply had to be involved. Garrett is the only person I know to be more fanatical about Dark Star beers than we are. Over the last three years he has cemented a solid relationship with the brewery’s bosses and regularly serves their best seller Hophead on gravity, often alongside a variety of other ales from the wide-ranging Dark Star stable.

Dark Star started out in 1994 in the modest surroundings of the cellar of the scooper’s paradise, the Evening Star in Brighton. The lucky locals were given the task of testing out the brewery’s early concoctions. As its reputation grew in Brighton and beyond, Dark Star soon outgrew their humble abode. In 2001 the operation moved fifteen miles north to a purpose built 15-barrel brewery on Moonhill Farm in Ansty, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex. Now under the direction of head brewers Mark Tranter and Rob Jones, cask ales and keg beers are still supplied to the Evening Star and the other pubs in the Dark Star estate (the Duke of Wellington in Shoreham and the Stand Up Inn in Lindfield) as well as to beer festivals and discerning free houses nationwide.

Having set off from the pub shortly after 10am, we had built up quite a thirst during the hour it took the non-air-conditioned trundling minibus to reach its destination. The sweaty atmosphere tested the mettle of those in the group nursing hangovers from the night before. On arrival we were greeted by Paul Reed, very much the businessman behind the operation and very keen to stress that he didn’t know too much about brewing. His first action was to lead our 24-strong party towards an outhouse containing large aluminium brewing vessels and casually invited us to help ourselves to two full polypins, one of Hophead, one of Festival. Both were obviously wonderfully fresh. A man who knows how to make an impression!

Whilst keenly supping we listened intently as Paul gave us a run down of Dark Star’s history and guided us through the various stages of the brewing process. I was particularly interested to learn that they have suffered more than most with last year’s hop shortages, their characteristic punchy finish being achieved by a big helping of late hopping in the ‘copper’. A sizable stash of hops from the UK and abroad (especially US Cascade, the principal ingredient of Hophead) had been secured in 2007 at some considerable cost. I was, however, pleased to hear that they continued to make a profit despite feeling the pinch. I also discovered the extent to which Dark Star and many other microbreweries swap beers, in order to reach new markets and provide variety in their own tied pubs. Rather than transporting empty casks around the country, the breweries will fill each others' empties with their own beer and so the ingenious cycle continues.

With just a 15-barrel plant run by nine staff, they are unsurprisingly producing at full capacity and there are plans in the pipeline to expand again on the current site, which could see production tripled. When questioned, Paul was confident that such growth would not lead to an inevitable slip in quality, although I remain unconvinced. There was, however, a positive indication that the brewers would not entertain such a compromise. Paul told us that he had recently mentioned in passing to his colleagues an article where one of the larger breweries had admitted to leaving used hops in the wort, as they retained some of their flavour beyond the first mash. Although he hadn’t suggested that they should follow suit, he was still given the cold shoulder for some time!

We made sure to stock up on cases of Espresso Stout, Sunburst and a few bottles of the fantastic 10.5% Imperial Stout before bidding Paul and the brewery a fond farewell.

Before heading home, we took time to visit the Stand Up Inn in nearby Lindfield, a small commuter town which happened to be in the throws of a ‘village fate’. A hearty platter of pizza, garlic bread and Greek salad was provided to absorb the six ales and three real ciders on offer. We of course sampled the Dark Star Hophead, Best Bitter and the 6.2% IPA. Also on sale were Ramsgate Storm Warming and another local beer Custom Ales Smooth Mild, brewed on another farm just three miles from Dark Star, it was full-bodied and coffee-roasted and certainly got the thumbs up from everybody. The condition of the beers was very good, as was the company. This really is a pub that you wish you could have on your doorstep.

And so it was in high spirits that we limped back up the motorway to The Bull for a buffet dinner and yet more fine ale, including a first try of New-k-ham Puffin. A thoroughly enjoyable day out – it was great to see where the magic happens.

  • *The Bull’s website is currently offline but should be up and running again very soon. Garrett keeps a regularly updated list of the ales currently on sale, as well as a list of those 'coming soon’. Lynne’s locally sourced, home-cooked food is also a huge attraction in itself. The pub scooped the CAMRA Gravesend & South Darent Pub of the Year 2008 award in April.

  • Brewery tours can be arranged in advance through Dark Star. Email info@darkstarbrewing.co.uk or call 01444 412311 for futher details.

  • New-k-ham is a collaboration of Newby Wyke Brewery of Grantham and Oakham Ales of Peterborough. Beers are produced onsite at Newby Wyke.

1 comment:

  1. Absoloutely cracking write-up of the day ... Our website (www.thebullpub.co.uk) will be back on-line in a couple of days - I'm going to be using the time to complete a couple of improvements I have planned for it.

    I'm glad you appear to have enjoyed the trip as much as I did (well - at least till we got back to the pub and it became painfully apparent to all just how many pints of enjoyment I'd had!!).

    Jimbo is in serious danger of being barred by Lynne, who saw him surreptitiously handing me a bottle of dangerously-lovely Darkstar Imperial Stout (10.5% ABV) which, I reasoned, was a drink best enjoyed immediately. Suffice to say I've now got a lot of brownie points to earn before the Greenwich Jazz and Beer Festival!!

    See you soon.



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