In a modern beer scene where those who shout the loudest stand out from the crowd Dark Star sits in a quiet corner of Sussex, on an industrial estate in Partridge Green; a village nestled in the green space somewhere between Horsham and Brighton; and continues to work towards building a reputation for quality without the need for abstract marketing or, it seems, much marketing at all.
After being set up in the Brighton basement of The Evening Star pub in 1994 by Peter Halliday, Rob Jones and Peter Skinner, it has remained a constant, well regarded name in an ever changing industry, becoming a go-to for traditional real ale advocates and modern ‘craft’ drinkers alike, there is no difference really, when it comes to Dark Star it’s just really great beer.
I, like many beer drinkers, am a fan of Dark Star. I have the sticker on my car, magnet on my fridge, I don’t have the t-shirt yet, but I do consider the likes of Hophead and APA to be go-to beers when I see them at the bar, especially APA on cask, and recently I had the fortune of having three vintage bottles of another of the Sussex stalwart’s key beers, Imperial Stout, sat in my cupboard. A 2010, 2013 and 2015 were lined up waiting for a moment of calm so I could prise them open one-by-one for a vertical tasting, so I found that moment and I did just that. In doing so I discovered flavours and characteristics in a beer I’ve long been a fan of and I subsequently rediscovered my love for it when, honestly, I’d neglected it for a little too long, longer than I care to remember.
It’s all too easy to overlook the beers you fall for initially when there’s a wealth of choice to be had from the modern market. A beer scene which rightly or wrongly moves at what can sometimes seem like an unsettling pace, limited edition after limited edition to feast your eyes on, reach out for and gulp down along with what often seems like a wagon load of hype on the side. Will you see those beers again? No, probably not. Those beers will clog up your social media news feeds for a couple of weeks at most, maybe find their way into a few end of year round-ups and then drift off to join the other beers which came before them in the sea of old beer memories, but not Dark Star’s Imperial Stout. This one’s a keeper.
First brewed in 2006 it has remained a perennial beer ever since, it’s recipe never changing since that first commercial brew which soon found favour within the beer scene. Speaking with James Cuthbertson, MD of Dark Star, he says of the Imperial Stout “[it’s] a beer we always keep in stock in bottles but we’d normally brew it ready for Xmas, so those pubs that wanted something a bit tasty at Christmas could have it on cask, and lots did. Some would also buy it and cellar age it.”
Ageing beer is a gamble as it depends on so many factors; the style of beer, its ABV, the heat and light levels it has been subject to. Generally any bitterness will mellow whilst any sweetness can increase and the nuances and complexity of the characteristics in between will vary, it’s like fiddling about with levels on a stereo; bass down, treble up. The beer will certainly change but will it improve?
The 2015 is a Gold award winner, beating competition to win in the stout category of CAMRA’s Beer of Britain event for London and the South East (the beer’s most recent award). I open my bottle and a smell of booze instantly escapes, rich, warming and dangerously inviting. This beer is brewed to 10.5% ABV, using Target, Magnum and East Kent Goldings hops with a grain bill that includes roast barley. There’s a minimal amount of off-white lacing which clings to the glass as aromas of orange, booze and spice begin to stray. It drinks thinner than I had expected but has a red wine character which comes through when paired with dark chocolate; dark fruits light up my palate. The beer warms as I take my time with its export strength; a sweetness develops; banana and liquorice.
It’s so easy for the characteristics of a favoured beer to put those who choose to indulge on a path of nostalgia; the aromas, the flavours; they can transport drinkers in an instant. Aged beers don’t have that ability in quite the same nature when the beer’s profiles change over time, but with a vintage stamped on the label they take on a time capsule-esque essence, the date becoming the object which brings up any reflections of days and years of recent history.
The 2013 vintage pours considerably dissimilar to that of the 2015, with just two years on the previous bottle this version has much more carbonation resulting in an enthusiastic fizz and mocha-white head. The aroma is noticeably different too; strawberry. It’s almost all strawberry. That heavily carbonated body drinks thicker and fuller too and carries with it a strawberry milkshake characteristic which fizzes with a sweetness; the treble is turned up to the max. Caramel fleetingly stops by but there’s a Marmite character from the yeast that creeps in toward the finish and cuts through the sweetness which was making moves towards being just a little too dominant.
The brewery moved to this site back in 2010, a significant new step for the brewery as capacity grew and the team had to concede that this really wasn’t a hobby any longer. The oldest vintage in this line-up has taken on a significance of its own and proves to be the most complex of the trio. This vintage lacks the effervescence of the previous pours, with very little head to show, but it carries a huge aroma; big Marmite qualities coming from the yeast, almost masking the fruity booze character underneath. The beefed-up yeast character is a prominent flavour with each sip but gradually becoming more tame as the beer warms and my palate adjusts. The balance is provided by liquorice, black cherry and a brown sugar sweetness that is far more mellow than that of the 2013. Just as you think you’ve got to know all that the beer has to offer a blue cheese flavour develops and lingers, similar to that of another mighty Sussex stout; Harvey’s Imperial Stout, although the blue cheese isn’t as prominent in this Dark Star vintage. The whole thing is smooth, dry like some red wines can be and is mellow, subtle and nuanced compared to the boozy nature of the 2015 and the riot of sweet flavour in the 2013. Age has worked in its favour.
Something which hasn’t been quite so favourable among a few die-hard fans of the brewery is the recent buyout by Chiswick based Fuller’s. Announced earlier this year many drinkers saw it as a death knell, with unfair comparisons to the Fuller’s buyout of Gale’s being drawn. This buyout, however, is different and more about mutual benefit than shutting down competition. With this in mind, the future of Dark Star’s much loved beers is called into question, in this case, will Imperial Stout continue to be brewed and if so will there be an increase in production and are there any variants of the beer in the pipeline? “Very much so”, says James, “we love the beer and we’d be lying if we didn’t say this place was all about brewing beers that we want to drink. We’re adding a barrel ageing room at the brewery, so I expect the next time we brew it we’ll lay a quantity down in barrels of various types.” Music to my ears.
Dark Star could plausibly be seen as the original punks of the modern UK beer scene. Ahead of the curve, Hophead was once strikingly hopped compared to other beers at the time and whilst although it’s now quite timid when sat next to today’s trendy releases it still retains that cult status and is synonymous with quality. The Sussex brewery may be best known for Hophead, arguably a pin up of modern British pale ales, but for me, with its once a year release it’s the bold, assured and consistently enjoyable Imperial Stout that best mirrors the qualities of Dark Star.
Disclosure: These beers were sent to me for free, however, I do not believe that has affected my view of them.