Beer: The star of the South
For such a convivial drink, beer doesn’t half start a lot of rows. Seemingly trivial topics can cause the sort of schism that would have made the mediaeval church proud: of late, for example, there has been plenty of heat and a shortage of light on the subject of how best to serve it. Common ground can seem scarce, which is where the Sussex brewers Dark Star come in. Like all the best new brewers, they’re constantly trying new things – but they also have a deep-rooted respect for brewing tradition. In short, they’re beer’s unity candidate.
Just take a look at their beers. Hophead, perhaps their most well-known, has the citrus flavours associated with New World Hops but they also produce Partridge, a highly-drinkable, more classically-inclined Best Bitter. And that’s just scratching the surface: Dark Star, founded in 1994, has come a long way from its beginnings in a pub in Brighton. They make any number of beers in a dizzying variety of styles, which span the entire gamut from familiar to far-out.
“British brewing is something that we’re really proud of – but seeing as there’s so much going on, as a sort of professional tinkerer, I can’t help trying new things out,” says Mark Tranter, the chief brewer. “We don’t really like to be pigeon-holed. We don’t set out to be aligned with one particular thing.”
This independent spirit means, for example, that that they regularly use English hops at a time when some other modern British brewers have largely abandoned the native crop. “You don’t want to do one thing to the exclusion of everything else,” says Tranter. “That’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. I’ve never been one to try to be trendy and some people try to be a bit too en vogue at times.”
This is not to say they don’t set the trend themselves, every now and again. Over the past few months, more and more British breweries have been experimenting with Belgian beer styles, in particular Saison, a traditional ale brewed in the French-speaking region of Wallonia during the winter for consumption in the summer. Dark Star first made theirs three years ago.
“When I first did it, I was a bit tentative about it,” says Tranter (right). “But I think because the British drinking public is so much better travelled than it was 10, or even five years ago, it was possible to consider making it. In the last few months Saisons have become really popular. I wouldn’t say that I pioneered it – the Belgians pioneered it! – but I don’t know of another English brewery that did one before us.”
Another brewery to have produced a Saison is London’s The Kernel, with whom Tranter has produced a collaboration beer, an Imperial Marzen. The increasing prevalence of collaboration beers show that while beer can be divisive, it also brings people together. Tranter, who has also brewed with Thornbridge and plans to brew with Marble in the future, is clearly a fan of working with other brewers.
“The brewing scene is really open and friendly,” he says. “Most of these people are my friends – so [the attraction of collaborating on a beer is that] it’s hanging out with your friends for a day, and it’s a brilliant way of learning and sharing knowledge and coming up with something else that the two separate breweries would not have made. You’re going to learn more in a day than you would if you sat down and read a text book. Everyone has their own way of doing things, their own ideas.”
Tranter, now in his late thirties, began as a homebrewer. The British microbrewery scene, like its American counterpart, is as ‘punk’ as it gets: so many of the best brewers had no formal training. Tranter’s route to where he is now was as quirky as anyone’s. “I started brewing because I was an arts student and it seemed a good idea to make some beer. It was something my mum and dad had done,” he says.
“Then I was cooking in a pub in Brighton and drinking in the Evening Star [the pub where Dark Star was born] and swapping beer for food, taking them samples of what I’d made. I got offered a job there, that’s basically how I got into it. I had no training – in some ways that is a good thing. You don’t have any staunch ideas; you don’t even bother to pick up the rule book.”
Going hand in hand with this is a desire for fun. A recent Dark Star Twitter campaign is a fine example: they asked people to use the hashtag ‘Don’t Drink Hophead’, a clever way to publicise one of their flagship beers in a light-hearted manner. “I suppose we just want to have a bit of fun,” Tranter says. “The Hophead campaign (see below) is a laugh. Doing a job like this is not going to make you a millionaire – so if you can’t enjoy it, there’s not much point in doing it.”
These are not only enjoyable but also exciting times for Dark Star. Tranter is currently salivating at the prospect of a small pilot plant at Dark Star’s modern brewery in Partridge Green (which has been in operation for less than two years), which would give him greater rein to experiment. There’s also plans for more kegged and bottled beer, alongside their strong commitment to cask. “It’s a good time for Dark Star, it’s a good time for brewing in general at the moment,” he says. “There’s a lot more people getting into beer, and it’s enjoying the sort of renaissance that wine enjoyed, say, 20 years ago, and is still going on now.
“[I’m driven by] the creative urge, the passion for making something new and exciting and sharing it with other people. Still the nicest feeling you get is when you hear people talking about your beers – I prefer it when they don’t know you! –and saying ‘have you tried this?’ I’m really optimistic; it’s far better than it was 15 years ago when there was no-one in my age bracket who was drinking ale or craft beer, and there certainly wasn’t anyone making it in my age group. Beer in this country has changed beyond recognition, and all for the better.”
Follow @Will_Hawkes on TwitterTagged in: beer, brewing, Brighton, dark star, food, Sussex, The Kernel, Thornbridge, wine
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