Fuller’s plans to launch a slew of new craft beers over the coming year and rebrand its Extra Special Bitter (ESB).

The Chiswick brewery, which this week acquired West Sussex’s Dark Star for an undisclosed sum, is readying a second run of its Fuller’s & Friends collaborative six-pack for this autumn, as well as craft multipacks exclusive to particular retailers - with details to be confirmed.

Fuller’s & Friends launched in Waitrose last year with beer from the likes of Cloudwater, Thornbridge and Fourpure. It would see wider retail release in 2018 with new collaborators, Fuller’s MD Simon Dodd told The Grocer.

The initiative had “worked well because we have brewing heritage which a lot of these new guys don’t” he added. “These new craft brewers have got new ways of brewing that we don’t really understand, while we have the heritage. It helps us both with credibility.”

A major reimagining of ESB, meanwhile, will see the longstanding brand gain new packaging playing up its ‘craft’ credentials, tentatively scheduled to take place in September this year.

It would go through a similar process to London Pride, which was rebranded in 2017, said Dodd. “It’s an amazing beer and it travels brilliantly - it’s one of our biggest exports - but it is looking a bit traditional and a bit tired.”

An unfiltered version of Fuller’s flagship London Pride ale, which launched into the on-trade last year, is also poised for release into retail in a 330ml format in the spring.

The news comes as Fuller’s is to open a 10-barrel ‘pilot plant’ brewery in coming months next to its Chiswick home, where it will work on small-batch beers and test potential brews for its core range. Dodd hinted that the brewer may explore non-alcoholic brews - which would “really enable us to push on in terms of craft and innovation” he said. “We want to be pushing boundaries and flavour profiles.”

It marks the latest step into the craft arena for Fuller’s, which has spent the past four years repositioning itself. “A few years ago, we were slipping from ‘heritage’ to ‘old fashioned’,” said Dodd. “We relied too heavily on London Pride, which we hadn’t evolved, and we hadn’t really captured ESB and moved it forward. We didn’t have a seat at the craft table and our range wasn’t broad enough.”

Traditional-style bottled ales face a significant challenge from trendier, posher brands in the supermarkets, which have stolen share and fixture space over the past year. London Pride has seen its retail value sales drop 4.8% to £12.3m, with ESB down 2.7% (£35k) to £1.2m [Nielsen 52 w/e 9 September].

“The biggest thing that craft has brought to us is that we now have a balanced portfolio, although London Pride will always be our backbone,” said Dodd.