Critical Mass returns this winter

By Head Brewer Henry | 07/12/20

Pint of Dark Star Critical Mass in person's hand

Dark Star Critical Mass is available now! 5L Mini Kegs can be ordered online here or picked up in the Brewery Store.

But what exactly is it? Head Brewer Henry Kirk gives his take on this Dark Star classic…

Cambridge University English Dictionary gives a secondary definition of Critical Mass as ‘the size that something needs to reach before a particular change, event, or development can happen’. When Rob Jones one of the legendary founders of Dark Star back in the early 90s (and now Gentleman Landlord of the equally legendary and excellent Duke of Wellington pub in Shoreham by Sea) first brewed Critical Mass in 1995 in the cramped confines of the cellar at The Evening Star pub in Brighton it was a statement of intent. By brewing this stellar intoxicating brew Rob and his fellow partners in brewing were saying loud and clear that this was a brewery with big ambitions that knew how to have fun. Qualities we like to think still hold true today.

But how to describe a beer like Critical Mass?

Beyond the playful pun on Christmas, it is chestnut in hue so not quite dark enough to be considered a Porter, strong in alcohol at 7.4% but that’s too low to be in Imperial territory and we are a long way from an ESB. And then there is the unusual aroma- rich in stone fruit esters approaching plum alongside coffee notes from the roast barley all leading us to the taste. A flotilla of complex flavours- spicy hops, warming alcohols, dark fruits and even a reappearance of that coffee that all coalesce to give a smooth rich mouthfeel. So what is it?

The answer is pretty much even more mysterious and unhelpful to the modern drinker- perhaps it can be called any one of three styles- a barley wine, winter warmer or a stingo? The truth is it is the descendant of all three. A type of traditional strong English Ale that can be traced back to Burton Ale, a full bodied malty brew that was initially pale that darkened over the years and was especially popular in the later Victorian era. The now long forgotten sister to Burton Upon Trent’s more illustrious come-back kid, India Pale Ale.

While Winter Warmers (Youngs version being the most well-known) occasionally make an appearance as a cask seasonal- usually under another name- for the Family Brewers and Burton Ales are just starting to be resurrected thanks to the sterling research of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell amongst others, Barley Wines with their high ABVs still hold a fascination for craft brewers. Examples can be widely found around the world- a couple of examples being Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and BrewDog’s Russian Doll. Perhaps Rob Jones and his team were inspired to create Critical Mass by some of the classics of the English Barley Wine tradition Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale or Whitbread’s Gold Label? More on Prize Old Ale another time…

I hope this helps answer the question, what is Critical Mass...Well if not, why not just kick back with a pint and solve the mystery for yourself?

Until next time

Dark Star Critical Mass 5L Mini Kegs can be ordered online here or picked up in the Brewery Store. for the facts


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Many Thanks,

Team Dark Star