Baron on Tour: Dark Star

I got in touch with the Dark Star Brewery a couple of months back (via their Twitter account @DarkStarBrewCo) mentioning that I would be down in Brighton over the Christmas period and wondered if I could pop in for a brewery tour and a taste of some of their cask ales.

They pulled out all the stops for the Baron, as James from Dark Star pulled up outside my parent's house on the 29th December to drive my father and I to the brewery.

They moved to Partridge Green in West Sussex (on Star Road of all places!) just over a year ago from their smaller brewery which was based in Ansty. They are based on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Partridge Green village.

James brought us through their brewery entrance which is a small room selling all sorts of Dark Star Brewery stuff - t-shirts, cycling shirts, glasses, bottled ales (including their excellent Imperial Stout and the newly bottled vintage Porter).

They also sell their cask ales in carry-out form in 2 & 4 pint milk-style containers as well as mini pins (17 pints) and poly pins (35 pints).

Through another door and we are into the brewing warehouse and James (their marketing guy) got us a pint of their excellent "Hophead" (a 3.8% crisp citrus fruity refreshing quaffer) before disappearing off to get their head brewer Mark & the MD Paul.

The new brewery has seen brewing capacity increase from a 15 barrel brewery to 45 barrel one which is currently running around 80% capacity. 60% of Dark Star's production is cask Hophead (brewed with Cascade & Amarillo) and less than 5% is bottled ale.

They have a range of around six permanently available beers (Hophead, Partridge Best Bitter, Espresso, Festival, Dark Star Original & American Pale Ale), twelve monthly specials and then around eight seasonal ales. All this along with one-offs and experimental brews means that Mark & his team are very busy brewers!

Mark explained that Maris Otter is the main malt but they use over twenty others types and all their hops come from Charles Faram (they use over twenty different types) both in pellet & whole leaf hops (for dry hopping).

They now mill their own grain so they can have the crushed malt as fresh as possible, it was quite a machine standing out in it's British racing green compared to the stainless steel brewing vessels. They get through ten tonnes of grain in a week's brewing - that's quite a lot of malt - bet the local farm animals are happy... (James confirmed where the grain goes - "local farms and we steal their elderflower for Hylder Blonde")

They dry hop with the use of a hop-infusion tank, it reduces the dry hopping time from around two weeks down to just three days! It's a custom built piece of equipment and looks more like something for undersea adventures rather than brewing, I think they should nickname it 'depth charge'!

Mark then showed us round the mash tuns and coppers including the shiny control panel and pointed out various other cool features of their brewing gear. Clarity is checked with the use of 'run offs' - Dark Star don't have one, they have six(!) so they can check the clarity from all areas of the tank.

Quite a bit of the room is dominated by a bank of large fermenting vessels and a cask washing/cask filling area.

By now we were getting pretty thirsty so James offered us some "American Pale Ale". It's a 4.7% golden ale which won Gold in the "Golden Ale" category at GBBF 2009, and is excellent - citrus & slightly sulphurous smells,piney juicy bittersweet taste and a nice US-style hoppy finish.

Mark suggested that maybe we should try something a 'bit more special' and came back with two jugs of special beers, one was their "Triple", an 8.5% sweetish ale with a massive hop finish (it was excellent and one that would be a great bottled ale).

We then talked about the various collaboration brews Mark has done with people like Evin (Kernel), Kelly Ryan (then Thornbridge), Mellisa Cole & state-side Odells. We then got to try the other jug, a sneak preview of Mellisa's collaboration brew "Mark & Mellisa Special Porter", a 6.5% sweet & smoky porter although the hops of the previous tasting of Triple had killed my tastebuds a bit! It was really interesting and very complex but you would only want a small glass of it.

Last up was Dark Star's Christmas ale - "Critical Mass", this 7.8% dark ale was smooth sweet & fruity with some spicy notes and drank exceptionally easily for a 7.8% - a very classy strong winter beer.

The tour and tasting had come to an end but I had to take some of the American Pale Ale home with me so James sorted out a 4-pint carry-out for me (I honestly tried to pay for it but he wouldn't have it!).

It was now lunchtime and James suggested that we go to one of his favourite local pubs for a spot of food, the excellent and rather quaint The Royal Oak. It's the first pub I've ever been in where there is not a single pump on the bar, the barman told you what beers their had and then went out the back to serve them via gravity direct from the cask (see the red box in the photo of the glasses being filled!).

The food was excellent and the pub was so warm and cosy that we could have stayed there all afternoon.

After lunch James then very kindly dropped us back home including handing over a lovely box of Dark Star Brewery goodies, t-shirts, glasses, bar towels and some samples of their new 2010 Vintage Porter as well as 2007, 2008 & 2010 vintages of their Imperial Stout.

I would like to say a massive "thank you" to Mark & James of Dark Star for an excellent day out, they are true gentlemen and really took good care of the Baron!

Dark Star Mark, The Ormskirk Baron & Dark Star James

Buy Dark Star ales here


Mark Dredge said...

Great write up from what looks like a great tour! It's always good to see inside one of your favourite breweries and DarkStar looks pretty cool. I love their beers and I hope to visit some time soon. Nice one!

Leigh said...

I have written, and read, a lot of post like this and can I say this is one of the best I've read! sounds cracking. And great pictures too - I gotta gets me one of those A&F style tees or hoodies. Baron Orm on tour more Often, please!

Kavey said...

Looks like a great day!

Ed said...

Great post, had everything for me, personal edge, brewing science, and what the beer tastes like!

Amazing Hophead takes so much of capacity, i've only seen it once! (a lovely beer)

Agree that the triple would make a great bottled beer, had it at the Rake and it was superb.

Baron Orm said...

Thanks for all your amazing comments,I didn't know I had them as I've turned off comment moderation (inspired by Tandleman) and so didn't get any comment emails.

Glad you liked it and yes I plan on more 'Baron on Tour' trips in 2011!

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