Tuesday 19 November 2013

Burning Sky gets its timing right

Mark Tranter
Morning has broken in the East Sussex village of Firle and at the brewery Burning Sky the working day has began. The bells in the flint-faced church opposite sound the hour and the muffled clang of metal casks banging together beyond the wooden doors of the brewery entrance reach out as if in friendly response. Brewer Mark Tranter looks at the clock as if to confirm where he is at this stage of the day. It’s time to go to work.

Time, indeed. Time will be the fifth ingredient (or the fifth element if you will) in the beers produced by Tranter’s new brewery Burning Sky. Within the old barn with its brand new concrete floor, assemblage of shiny stainless steel vessels and a boiler whose tuneless humming puts me in mind of an elderly guy who’s a regular in my local, there is also a quartet of 2500-litre oak barrels. Two of them sit on their side, formerly filled with red wine, while the other two, upright, pot-bellied, are newly made; medium toast French oak I’m told. A further 16 225-litre wooden barrels gather in the corner, with another four on order. Someday soon these barrels will hold plenty of beer that will sleep the sleep of the just.

‘These barrels are a statement of my intent,’ says Tranter, who made his name as the head brewer at Dark Star, the creator of beers such as Hophead and Revelation, a former home brewer who started working with Dark Star’s founder Rob Jones in the 1990s (there’s an irony that Tranter’s current assistant Tom is also a home brewer — the wheel turns full circle).

‘I was proud of the part I played in what I achieved,’ he says of his time at Dark Star. ‘It was a real wrench to leave, but one of the reasons for getting out was that I didn’t want to look back and regret not doing things. I had an itch I wanted to scratch. I also wanted to do this brewery properly and didn’t want to sit in a van dropping a nine here and there. I wanted a decent sized brewery (this is 15 barrels) and everything has to be good.’

He left Dark Star in the spring, went over to the States and then having secured the building, undertook the alterations and got hold of the kit, the first brew was at the end of September. Three cask beers are regularly brewed: Plateau is a 3.5% pale winsome beer that is juicy and fruity (mandarin, peach, pineapple, hop sack pungency) and finishes with a dusty, dry bitterness; Aurora is 5.6% and is, as Tranter insists, ‘a strong pale ale not an IPA’ — it has a Cointreau-like orange character, a husky dryness that demands another taste and a slate-like dryness in the finish; finally, there’s the 7% IPA Devil’s Rest, which is almost red in colour and has a fragrant cherry/cedar nose (with a hint of amaretto), a nutty, stone-like centre, sensuous citrus and ferocious dry finish. This is a rugged IPA, Mount Rushmore with stubble perhaps.

And then we come to time, Tranter’s fifth element, fifth ingredient, burning passion perhaps. He’s always been interested in what breweries outside these isles do, there’s a restlessness about his creativity, which I recall from a trip we made to several small Czech breweries a couple of years ago. Then I recall the first time I tasted Dark Star’s exciting, extravagant Tripel, a gorgeous beer that possessed the fatness and ringing, chiming, jellied fruitiness of some of the tripels I’ve had in Belgium. Then there’s saison of which he is a devotee.

Burning Sky currently brews two saisons. At the moment there is Saison l’automne, a beer for this time of the year, complex, dry and spicy, and a reflection of what is available in the hedgerows of Sussex. For this beer, Tranter collected a load of rosehips and after steeping them in boiling water added the juice to the fermenting beer. ‘I love saisons and I love the countryside,’ he says, ‘this saison’s base recipe will remain the same all the year round but its seasonal ingredients will change. I had this idea that my seasonal saisons would reflect the seasons and whatever was in season at the time would be added to the beer.’ Saison l’hiver will feature hawthorns.

Then there is a Saison à la Provision, which is a different beast altogether. Though it has the same recipe as l’automne (lager malt, spelt, wheat, carahell, East Kent Goldings, Saaz, Styrian Goldings and Soriachi Ace), it’s accordingly amped up to 6.5%, has no rosehips or anything from the hedgerows but instead Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus are added towards the end of fermentation. The glass I drunk in the fabulous Snowdrop Inn in Lewes was hazy orange in colour, with a leathery, lemony, bitter, orange, dry, bracing character while the large long dry finish reminded me of one of those long endless runs that I seem to vaguely remember on Ski Sunday. I drunk it with the ferocity of a wolf coming down on the fold — I wouldn’t mind a barrel of this permanently on tap at home. It’s also a magnificent food beer, being a wonderful companion to the Snowdrop’s magnificent battered gurnard and chips.   

This would be the last time I drink it this way. On the following morning when I was at the brewery, Tranter was brewing the Provision and from now on it would be transferred to one of the 2500-litre oak barrels, and time would take over for the next two to three months. There will also be a 6% stout that will go into wood and a Flemish Red Ale, which Tranter reckons will need 18 months in wood.

There is a calm concentration about the way Tranter is going about his business. He can do the PR with meet the brewer nights and getting writers to visit his brewery but he’s not going to be using the word awesome any time soon. He’s a brewer first and foremost, inclined to the creative side of making beer but hasn’t forgotten that brewing is also a business. ‘Yes I’m nervous about it all,’ he says, ‘there’s a lot riding on what I am doing — what if it doesn’t work out, people have been kind, but if it doesn’t work out, what is there?’

I don’t think he has to worry. On the basis of the beers I’ve tasted and the skill and invention of the brewer I think Burning Sky is here to stay — after all it’s got time on its side.

a statement of intent


  1. Can't wait to get my hands on Mark's new stuff. It's been too long. One of my UK Brewing heroes.

  2. Cheers Leigh, it’s good stuff, you should try and get to see Mark.