Maverick brewer Mark Tranter’s new venture Burning Sky has been in operation less than a month but his beers are already setting wet tongues wagging. Tranter’s artisan brewery, situated in an old barn in a secret location at the heart of the Sussex Downs, will produce a core range of signature beers as well as seasonal specials and one-offs. The first kegs of Plateau, Burning Sky’s debut pale ale, are already emptying quickly at nearby pubs like The Snowdrop Inn.
I am fortunate to be shown round Mark’s new home a day after his specially commissioned oak ageing barrels arrived and as the first of his seasonal brew Saison de L’Automne is being kegged. Some of the equipment is yet to be unwrapped and Mark keeps apologising for the state of ‘chaos’, but I don’t see it. I’m just impressed with the look of the kit, and Mark’s enthusiasm for his supremely tasty beer.
Showing me around, Mark tells me he first got into brewing when he was an art student. What began as a cheap means to get drunk became a passion and then a career, when in 1996 Mark found his way to a job at the newly-formed Sussex brewery Dark Star.
At the time, the now mainstream trend for ‘craft beer’ was a little bit punk. ‘No-one in my age group was brewing,’ says Mark, ‘fifteen years on that has completely changed; there are loads of young people brewing exciting beers, but back then we were kind of ahead of the game.’ Mark and Dark Star’s founder Rob were (and are) ‘making beers we wanted to drink,’ and at the time they started this wasn’t common either. Luckily, plenty of other people shared their tastes.
In 2001 Mark became one of four partners in the business but as Dark Star grew, he began to miss the experimentation smaller-scale brewing allowed him. ‘I was the youngest of the directors and the most flighty,’ he tells me, ‘I thought “oh sod it, I’ll buy a brewery.”’ Mark sold his share and used the proceeds – not to buy a house, which he tells me firmly he does not possess – but to realise his long-term ambitions in Burning Sky.
Mark is quick to point out that his decision to go it alone is not because he thinks small producers make better beer. ‘I don’t like the way big divisions are drawn between cask and craft beer,’ he says, ‘The only important difference to me is between good beer and bad beer. I chose to call Burning Sky ‘artisan’ because I think that best suits my intentions.’
It seems a fitting title to me too. I like meeting people with an oddball art school mindset who turn their imagination and heart to build businesses away from the perceived glamour of the art world. Mark definitely has this bent. He tells me he employed his best friend of fifteen years to design his labels because ‘I want everything to be beautiful. It’s not just about the product,’ he says, ‘it’s about creating a frame of mind.’
An artistic temperament is also what led Mark to set up shop in an old barn rather than on some industrial estate. He wants to make beers inspired by his locale, so he has chosen an environment that speaks to him, or in his words, “is better than Wolverhampton”.
It looks a lot more complicated to me, but Mark says brewing English beers ‘is like making a cup of tea.’ Mark’s preference, however, is for hoppy, effervescent pale ales or Saisons, a method originated in Belgium and popular in the US. His hops are sourced from the UK, USA and Europe but the beers are lifted with flavours native to the Sussex Downs, such as the rosehips that lend a subtle aftertaste to his Saison L’Automne.
‘The beauty of being a small producer is that variability is par for the course,’ he says. ‘When you have your whimsical head on you can afford to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.’ It’s hard not to be inspired by Mark’s attention to the little things: from working with engineers to create a mash tun that enables him to alter temperatures and simulate old-fashioned brews to collaborating with lab techs to create unique yeast cultures that lend the flavours he wants. He tells me the most challenging aspect of creating this venture is that ‘if it doesn’t work out, I’ve got nothing left!’ but he has a confidence in his beer and scale of set up that makes me think this isn’t much of a risk.
When I ask what the next year has in store for Burning Sky it seems like a stupid question. ‘I’m going to make a bit of beer, sell a bit of beer…’ says Mark. ‘I’ve only just started but I want to be a niche within a niche and I think as long as I’m not being preposterous with what I do, there will be an audience for that.’
Burning Sky cask beers are fast becoming available at destination pubs in Sussex, nationwide and further afield. Look out for Mark’s limited edition bottled brew that will be on sale in time for Christmas. More details on the Burning Sky website.
Disclosure: I have not received any financial compensation or freebies for writing this post, it purely reflects my honest opinion and experience.
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