Dark Star are the second largest brewery in Sussex, after Harvey's, but they have humble beginnings which can be traced back to the Pitfield Brewery in the Shoreditch area of London. Back in the mid-1980’s, Pitfield’s brewer Rob Jones, developed a porter, which he called Dark Star. The name came from the title of a track by his favourite rock band, the Grateful Dead; the legendary laid-back West Coast counter-culture, rockers. In 1987 the beer was voted Champion Beer of Britain. The beer is still brewed and is now known as Dark Star Original.
Rob took the recipe with him in 1994, when he moved to the Evening Star pub in Brighton where, in the pub cellar, on a brew plant only marginally bigger than an oversized home-brew kit, the Dark Star Brewing Company was born. As well as continuing to brew the original porter-style beer, Rob and his colleagues developed the characteristic style of hoppy beers which the company is renowned for today.
In 2001 the brewery relocated to a new purpose-built brewery at Antsy, near Haywards Heath, and then in 2010, they moved again to their current home, a 16,000-square-foot unit in the village of Partridge Green. The new 45 barrel brew-house was officially opened by veteran beer writer Roger Protz, and straight away led to a fourfold increase in production,
I first visited Dark Star, back in 2011 with my local branch, West Kent CAMRA, and last Saturday the branch was privileged to visit the brewery again. I of course went along, and the first thing which struck me was how much the brewery has expanded since that initial visit. Six years ago there was a significant amount of empty space, but now virtually every square foot appears to have been utilised.
Our party of twelve travelled down to Partridge Green by mini-bus, through the attractive Sussex countryside. Our journey down from Tunbridge Wells took us first to East Grinstead, and then across to Turners Hill. From there we travelled in a south-westerly direction, towards Handcross and then Cowfold, through what I always describe as “rhododendron country”. Although a non-native and rather invasive species, these rambling plants which originated in the Himalayas, have a beauty, which really comes into its own at this time of year.
On arrival, we were ushered into the main brewery where a table, set out with jugs of several varieties of Dark Star beer, was waiting for us. We were met by Matt Gayley, who is one of several brewers at Dark Star. After introducing himself, Matt told us to help ourselves to the the beers. He then went on to tell us some of the history of the company, before introducing us to Dark Star’s Head Brewer, Andy Paterson. Carrying on from where Matt had left off, Andy told us all about the brewery before showing us round the place. Both our guides were very knowledgeable about the brewing process and also extremely passionate about the brewery and the roles they perform there.
We climbed up on the gantry to view the large, stainless-steel brewing plant which, despite the Bavaria name-plates on the four main vessels, was actually built in Hungary. It is a typical continental-style plant, with a mashing-in vessel and a Lauter tun. As hop separation is achieved by means of a whirlpool, hop pellets are used, rather than whole leaf hops. One interesting fact which came out was that far more hops go in at end of boil, than at the beginning. This is to ensure those lovely hop aromas remain in the beer without all the volatiles disappearing up chimney. Some beers are also dry hopped
Dark Star crush their own malt, which comes in palletised in bulk bags from Simpsons Malt. The company are looking at installing a malt silo, which will be cheaper in long term and will take up far less space. There had been talk of a further move, but with these sorts of better space utilisation, they should be able to stay where they are, although they are considering moving the beer maturation and storage facility, to one of neighbouring units on estate.
Another improvement they are looking at is to switch from the use of dried yeast, which has to be added fresh to every brew, to “wet slurry” yeast, which can be re-pitched several times. The company have own laboratory, and also a small, pilot-scale plant which enables them to develop new beers. At present, Dark Star brew between seven and ten times a week, with the capability of turning out two brews a day.
We saw the impressive rows of fermentation vessels as well as the aforementioned maturation area. Dark Star are still primarily a cask-ale brewer, although they do also package their beer in key-kegs as well as bottles and can. Most of us bought some bottles from the well-stocked shop at the front of the brewery.
We also partook further of the generous range of beer supplied, which included Hophead 3.8%, American Pale Ale 4.7%, Revelation 5.7%, Festival 5.0%, American Brown 5.0%, plus of course Dark Star Original 5.0%. There was also a special brew in the form of Six Hop Ale; ABV unknown, but as hoppy as its name suggests. I sampled all the beers, apart from Festival which I am not particularly keen on, but before people’s imaginations start getting carried away, the glasses were only third of a pint.
The tour of Dark Star was definitely one of the best brewery visits I have been on for along time, especially as we had the opportunity to chat with and ask questions of the head brewer. I would put it on par with the tours I made a couple of years ago, in the Low Countries, where I visited Rodenbach, De Mollen and the La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven.
If you can’t afford the time for a tour, then a visit to the brewery shop is also well worth while. Alternatively, Dark Star’s excellent beers can be purchased on-line.