When The Ship Comes In – The Past, Present and Future of Burning Sky

As explored by Communications Manager Chris Hall

Few modern brewers have made as much of a lasting impact as Mark Tranter. The former head brewer of Dark Star and founder of Burning Sky is as understated and hype-averse as the beer he produces. Yet, along with a handful of others, such as The Kernel’s Evin O’Riordain and Lost & Grounded’s Alex Troncoso, Tranter’s name is a byword for quality. He, brewer Tom Dobson and their (very) small team produce the UK’s most consistently impressive and accomplished farmhouse ales, at a brewery just turning five years old in September.

Tranter was almost his own worst enemy, though. In 2012, whilst still at Dark Star, he shared a batch of saison yeast with O’Riordain, which then got into the hands of brewers at Partizan, Brew By Numbers, and a few other breweries. Tranter single-handedly kickstarted 2012’s saison trend, but in doing so, felt that he almost scuppered his own chances of success. He didn’t want to launch a brewery with a farmhouse focus to a market that would see his own saisons as, in his own words, “has-beens”. In the end, nothing could be further from the truth.
My own early memories of Burning Sky beer from five years ago are still pretty clear: trying a handful of well-defined, near-flawless IPAs and saisons at the Euston Tap. These beers - Aurora, Arise, Plateau and Saison L’Automne (later adding Le Printemps, L'Été and L’Hiver varieties) - built a reputation (and cashflow) to sustain the gradual growth of Burning Sky’s barrel-ageing and blending programme. This was led by Saison a la Provision, a foudre-aged, mixed-fermentation saison (actually the first beer they brewed) which quickly became, and remains, the leading example in the UK.

On my recent visit to the brewery, in the village of Firle in East Sussex, it was quite eye-opening to see just how few people are involved in creating beers from such a well-known brewery. That day alone, they were brewing Arise, racking Aurora into casks, and dry-hopping another batch of Arise with a hop gun. Twelve Sauvignon Blanc barrels arrived that morning, for ageing a collaboration with Two Roads Brewing Co. Dozens of other beers slept nearby in a variety of barrels and foudres, biding their time. Whilst the hoppy beers make up most of day-to-day work, about 20 per cent of Burning Sky’s output spends time in barrels at one point or another. This might be the blended, foudre-aged saisons like Provision or Petite; or the lazier, longer-aged leviathans like Monolith or Imperial Stout.

Whether fast and fresh, or special and slow, these are beers that brewers rhapsodise about, and I urge anyone with an interest in becoming a professional brewer to buy four of any of Burning Sky’s core beers to learn why. Tranter and Dobson design and build very steady beers. They aren’t just balanced, they’re as even and immovable as the land itself. They are far more than just labels and hop varieties: they are well-drawn recipes, resulting in beers with poise. Each one pours and drinks as brilliantly as the one before it.

It’s difficult to capture the duality of consistency and excitement in beers like these. “Finesse” is one of those words I’ve tried to reduce in frequency in my descriptions of brilliant beers, but it leaps into my head every time I taste Saison a la Provision. Those oh-so-delicate notes of tart fruit, vanilla and coconut are the ancestral heritage of the first ever brew, each time imparting some learning to the fresher batches, just as the brewers themselves do. They have brewed their story.

From the very beginning, Burning Sky aimed to recreate historic brewing methods, bring them into the present and take them into the future. Now, with the forthcoming release of the brewery’s first beer from its coolship project, that future has arrived.

In early 2017, the brewery’s coolship (or koelschip) was installed in the Grade 2-listed barn adjacent to the brewhouse. The kind of wide, shallow tank used to cool beer in the days before refrigeration, these vessels are now associated with the spontaneously-fermented beers of Lambic producers – something Burning Sky has long hoped to emulate. Being able to produce beers using ingredients from across the world is one kind of accomplishment, but giving your beer a sense and shape of the place from which it originated is an older artform, one both simple and deeply complicated.

Being able to produce these kinds of beers, on timelines that last years instead of days, gives a new sense of perspective to production, and a huge amount satisfaction to those who have followed the brewery’s journey, never mind the brewers themselves. I jumped at the chance to try some of the first coolship beer, still in oak at the time, and the quietly pleased smiles of the brewers spoke volumes. This was truly spontaneous fermentation and skill to rival anything in the Pajottenland. Layers of tart apple peel, sharp acidity, oak and dry earthiness mark this as a beer to taste both young and aged.

The coolship also opens doors to even more exciting opportunities. Beer geeks were left both shocked and excited when, like the surprise appearance of a supergroup, Burning Sky collaborated with The Kernel, Mills Brewing and Oliver’s Cider & Perry to create a highly complex, multi-faceted blending and ageing project. The results, using beer aged in each producer’s own barrels, will be released individually, as well as blended.

It does feel like anything is possible in this picturesque corner of the countryside. Whilst Thirle and the Sussex Downs are beautiful, it’s clear that their role in the production of these exceptional beers is more passive than active. Tranter aims not just for the exciting, but the exacting. Though he shrugs off some tasting language (is the beer “complex”, or do to you just not know what it is? Is it “nuanced”, or vague and bland?), Tranter takes the tasting and quality of his beers very seriously, as the ultimate gatekeeper in what is good enough to leave with “Burning Sky” on the label.

At the end of my visit, Tranter joins me as I leave the farm – I’m heading to the station (via The Ram for a pint of Arise), he’s heading to the shop. Sunshine filters between breezy leaves, and the calm is unspoiled by many vehicles, or even that many people. It’s an idyllic English countryside village, and where else could Burning Sky be but here? Not because their beers reflect some old-fashioned notion of time and place and identity, but the serenity that total calm presents. Without the peace and quiet in which to dream them, these beers could not exist. Because of that space, atmosphere, and the dedication of the whole team, Burning Sky continues to brew its future.

We are excited to announce that BottleShop:Bermondsey will be pouring Burning Sky's first coolship beer on Saturday 29th September at midday alongside a stellar line-up of their beers. We are proud to be Burning Sky's chosen London partner for the first pours of this momentous beer occasion! We are also planning a raucous event in December as we welcome Mark's band to play at The Arch alongside another thrilling beer launch from Burning Sky!

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