Good Beer Hunting


Kick Up the Fire and Let the Flames Break Loose — Burning Sky Brewery in Sussex, UK

Sussex County forms part of the space that fills the gap between London’s sprawling urbanity, and where the English Channel crashes against mainland Britain’s southernmost edge. Amidst its cities like Brighton, and quaint historic towns such as Lewes, lies the rolling South Downs National Park. What the South Downs may lack in extremity—like, say, Yosemite, or the Rocky Mountains—it makes up for with gorgeous, gentle vistas across the Southern English countryside. It’s a perfect space to walk for hours before eventually finding a public house in which to rest weary legs and restore oneself with a couple pints of local ale.

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The village of Firle, within the South Downs, first appears to be as similar as the many that’re strewn throughout this idyllic countryside. There’s the local pub, The Ram Inn, outside of which is a sign indicating where the local cricket club meets for its matches. Thin, meandering roads lead you past a post office, a village shop, and the local church. Behind it all, hidden ever-so-slightly from plain sight, is a large old manor house—still the home of Firle’s custodian family. If you were playing English village bingo, you’d surely be close to a full house by now.

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And then there’s a brewery, housed in a pair of former farm buildings at the very end of Firle’s winding streets. This is not an uncommon sight either—we have 2,500 of them in the UK, after all. But this one, Burning Sky Brewery, is not quite like many others. Amongst the familiar glint of stainless steel and colorful lengths of hose, stand former wine barrels and large wooden foeders, their oaken hulls carefully nurturing steadily maturing beer. More barrels can be found in the second building, along with something else that’s unique for a modern-day British brewery. Atop a ladder in this former barn sits a coolship—the first of its kind to be newly commissioned by a UK-based brewery since the 1930s.

“I moved out of Brighton to be in the countryside, so that peace is the norm and that the noise and chaos of towns and cities is what I visit,” Burning Sky’s owner and founder Mark Tranter says. “It's incredibly good for calming the mind when things are busy, as well as for contemplating beers we are making. Or to just think of nothing—to replace a thousand thoughts with one.”

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At first glance, you may not immediately assume that Tranter is the owner of a brewery making some of the most well-respected beer in the United Kingdom. A brewery that describes itself as “Artisan Brewers and Blenders,” no less. He cuts a relaxed pose, dressed in skinny black jeans, matching Dickies jacket, and well-worn t-shirt bearing the logo of one of his favorite bands. (Saccharine Trust and Bikini Kill are a couple common examples.) Considering his attire and mop of short, spiky brown hair (Is it intentionally styled or lazily messy? You’ll never know for sure.), you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a veteran punk rocker, not a brewer.

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You’d be right, too. Despite the commitment to his business, Tranter still finds time to play bass in local punk band, People. However, it’s as a brewer that he’s made his reputation. Before he founded Burning Sky in late 2013, he spent 17 years working for Sussex’s Dark Star Brewery (which was acquired by Fuller’s in February 2018), eventually working his way up to become its head brewer in 2001, before finally making the bold choice—he describes the transition as “shit scary”—to head out on his own.

I wanted to make beers that would be difficult to do elsewhere in the UK due to the unpredictable and uncertain nature of them. These ideas just wouldn’t go away, so the only way that I could ever achieve them would be to start my own brewery.
— Mark Tranter, Burning Sky

“I wanted to make beers that would be difficult to do elsewhere in the UK due to the unpredictable and uncertain nature of them,” he says of his decision to leave Dark Star after almost two decades. “These ideas just wouldn’t go away, so the only way that I could ever achieve them would be to start my own brewery.”

For all the relative peace of the village and its surroundings, the scene inside Burning Sky Brewery itself is anything but calm. Although Tranter has but a humble staff of five, the brewery floor is a flurry of activity. While one person monitors that day’s brew (the house Saison, Provision, destined to spend three to five months in one of the nearby foeders), another patiently fills nine-gallon firkins with Aurora, a Pale Ale. In the office, someone is taking orders via phone and email. Meanwhile, the mechanical grunt of a forklift loading up pallets with freshly packaged beer can be heard outside.

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Tranter pulls me aside to walk around the village and to show me a picturesque trail that cuts through the South Downs, one on which he walks to and from work every day. He tells me that he chose the 25 hectoliter (21.3-BBL) system so that it could be large enough to be commercially viable, yet not so big as to stop them from pretty much brewing whatever they want.

“It’s also small enough that I am involved in every aspect of the brewery and do not find myself getting distanced from production,” he says. “Which often happens as breweries grow.”

Tranter admits that there is a little room to grow his brewery, and does plan to open a larger barrel store, which in turn will allow them to add a couple more tanks and increase the production of their clean, mixed, and spontaneously fermented beers. There’s a sense of contentment to his tone as he talks about moving at his own pace, with aims and intentions that differ somewhat from brewery owners in his position who constantly strive for expansion. He admits that’s not always the case, however.

Sure we work hard and it can be very tiring to do what we do with a small team, but the work is rewarding. We don’t work crazy hours with lots of split shifts and are mindful to everyone’s different personal lives and requirements.
— Mark Tranter, Burning Sky

“I've never thought about it in terms of contentment—I'm not sure that I'm ever content,” he says. “I do like to be able to turn the machine off, though, and have a life and interests outside of brewing. I don't want some kind of Frankenstein's monster that controls you.”

When we arrive back at the facility, brewer Tom Dobson is in the process of transferring his brew of Saison à la Provision to the kettle, ready for hopping. Sporting a pair of steel toe-capped rubber boots and slightly worn Cantillon t-shirt, he looks a little closer to the image of a typical brewer when compared to his employer. But as with Tranter, it looks like he too could easily form part of the band. (And his hobby happens to be tinkering with modular synthesizers.)

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“The brewery is a pretty special place to work,” he says. “The location plays a part in the beers that we produce, as it is such an inspiring setting. And it now plays a very literal role as an ingredient by providing microflora for our coolship beers. As a team of six people, we are a busy brewery, but our environment provides a nice counterbalance.”

One point that sets Burning Sky apart from other breweries is an ethos marking clear boundaries between work and life. The team arrives to mash in at 9am on Monday morning, and share a beer together at the end of a busy week at 5pm on a Friday. That’s not to say that, after these initial beers, the team here won’t then head down the road for pints at The Ram, or perhaps into the nearby town of Lewes for yet more still. But you won’t find them pulling 24-hour brew shifts in order to utilize capacity, or fulfilling orders by coming in on weekends.

“Quality of life is important to me, and I want everyone who works at Burning Sky to have that,” Tranter says. “We don't work crazy hours with lots of split shifts, and are mindful to everyone’s different personal lives and requirements.”

Despite being located in the countryside (and reveling in the peace that this environment provides,) Tranter hasn’t refrained from sticking his head above the parapet when industry peers manage to provoke his ire. This is a difficult move to pull off with grace. Tranter is generally soft-spoken, often only talking when absolutely necessary. He seemingly possesses a very high threshold for bullshit.

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Everyone has a limit, of course. In July 2017, after an incident involving multinational brewery BrewDog enforcing its trademark of the word “punk,” which it owns in relation to food and beverage, Tranter made the decision to publicly withdraw all Burning Sky beer from BrewDog’s then-fleet of 29 UK and 17 international bars. In Tranter’s view, BrewDog’s behavior went against the very ideology upon which the punk movement was founded.

“Whilst we understand that they are trying to protect a brand, their bully boy tactics over anyone using the word ‘punk’ in line with bars or beer is tedious and their attempt to claim legal ownership of the word is bizarre and insulting,” Tranter told me at the time. “This devalues something that they have no claim over. Punk was around before these guys were born.”

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Another example came in the wake of multiple breweries pulling out of the 2018 Beavertown Extravaganza, following the London-based brewery’s decision to sell a minority stake in the business to Dutch brewing giant, Heineken. Despite having well-established relationships with many of the breweries that chose not to take part, Burning Sky made a bold choice to remain involved with the event.

“We as a group of people may not agree with Beavertown selling to Heineken or whoever else, but that is their choice, not ours,” Tranter told GBH at the time. “We have personal friendships with people who work at Beavertown—this is not an easy time for them, either. We honor our friends.”

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One of those friendships is with Jonathan Hamilton, the manager of Beavertown’s Tempus barrel-aging and mixed fermentation program. Before he took control of Tempus, Hamilton was working as one of the London brewery’s senior brewers, regularly manning early shifts that started at 6am and serving as part of a large team that brewed around the clock. Shortly after he was offered his position at the helm of Tempus, he opted to spend a week in Firle working alongside the Burning Sky team.

They don’t copy what everyone else is doing and don’t follow the latest trends, which is one of their most admirable traits
— Jonathan Hamilton, Beavertown

Instantly, Hamilton went from working at a company that now employs around 90 people, to working alongside the six individuals that make up the Sussex brewery. He wasn’t just involved with exciting barrel or blending projects, either. His week required brewing, bottling, cask filling, cleaning, and kegging. At Beavertown, the Tempus Project is similar to Burning Sky in that it’s run by a small team that does everything themselves. However, it’s still part of a much bigger machine—one that’s now part-owned by Heineken.

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“The main thing I took away from my experience there was the attitude toward the product, which was somewhere between perfectionism and the minimal intervention approach of natural winemakers,” Hamilton says. “They don’t copy what everyone else is doing and don’t follow the latest trends, which is one of their most admirable traits.”

“I became a brewer by accident really,” Tranter tells me over a pint of Burning Sky Arise. The 4.4% Pale Ale bursts with notes of citrus, but is restrained enough that it’s easy to enjoy multiple pints without it becoming overwhelming. Before brewing, he studied fine art—and had hoped to make a career out of it. But when life threw him what he describes as “a little curve ball,” he ended up in Brighton. It was here, in 1994, that his attempts at homebrewing saw him land a job in a local pub called The Evening Star, at a fledgling brewery called Dark Star.

“Mark had a huge impact on Dark Star and really set us on the path we’re still on today,” Dark Star managing director James Cuthbertson says. “We were sad to lose him for lots of reasons, but sometimes things run their course and Mark saw an opportunity to do his own thing.”

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Along with the revered brewery, Harvey’s, which was founded in Lewes in 1790, Dark Star has grown to become one of the most impactful breweries within Sussex since it was established in 1994. Much of this success came after its expansion to a 40-BBL system in 2001, and from a tasty little 3.8% cask Pale Ale called Hophead.

The beer was developed by Dark Star founder Rob Jones, with Tranter working alongside him on a 3-BBL kit at the back of the pub. Such was its success that, since the acquisition of Dark Star by Fuller’s at the beginning of 2018, production of the beer was relocated to Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, West London. Now it’s brewed 160 BBLs at a time, and is a common sight in Fuller’s estate of around 400 public houses.

“At the time, 1998-ish until maybe 2003-2005, it was considered to be way too hoppy and out of balance, but we loved it,” Tranter says of Hophead. “It was good to be a part of it all and I'm glad Fuller’s bought Dark Star. I think this will give stability and longevity to the brand.”

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Tranter also expresses a deep fondness for Harvey’s, Sussex’s oldest existing brewery, located just five miles away from Burning Sky. He describes its flagship Best Bitter as “the quintessential English pint.” And he’s not alone: beer luminaries like Brasserie de la Senne’s Yvan de Baets and Jamil Zainasheff of California’s Heretic Brewing have expressed their own admiration for this particular beer.

Harvey’s appears to instill in Tranter—and indeed the entire Sussex beer community—a huge sense of local identity, as well as pride. He even collaborated on a beer—an IPA that combined both breweries’ house yeast strains—with Harvey’s head brewer Miles Jenner in 2017.

“His vital contribution is that he brings something new to the party,” Jenner says of Tranter’s own contribution to the Sussex beer community. “There have been plenty of new entrants to the industry who mimic well-established brands—Mark is not one of them. In so doing, he looks far beyond a local market and challenges both himself and the beer drinking public.”

There have been plenty of new entrants to the industry who mimic well established brands—Mark is not one of them.
— Miles Jenner, Harvey’s

When you taste a Burning Sky beer, the influence drawn from local brewers such as Harvey’s—and Tranter’s previous experience at Dark Star—is easily rendered. Take Plateau, a 3.5% cask-only Pale, which somehow expresses both restraint and zeal via its use of North American and New Zealand hops. The brewery’s Porter, only made in the winter months, feels almost like something of a tribute to Harvey’s own iteration of the style. Packing in comforting chocolate overtones, with a soft, almost creamy texture, it’s a beer worth hiking a few miles through the cold for.

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“In Sussex, if people see a Burning Sky label on a beer, they're likely to trust it and try it out,” Brighton-based beer writer and broadcaster Emma Inch tells GBH.

And with good reason. Not only is the beer behind the label well-trusted, but the labels themselves—designed by Tranter’s longtime friend Simon Gane—are eye-catching in that they often depict scenes of community and conviviality. They are also noticeable in that these scenes often depict minorities and people of color, perhaps a further indicator of the brewery’s open, accessible nature. That, too, is a reflection of punk ideology.

But it’s Burning Sky’s collection of former wine barrels and foeders, the map of Belgium pinned to Tranter’s office wall, and books such as Jef Van den Steen’s Geuze & Kriek: The Secret of Lambic Beer near that same wall, that tell the story of Burning Sky’s more deeply rooted influences. Perhaps its ambitions as well.

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When Tranter speaks of his favorite makers of Lambic beers, 3 Fonteinen’s Armand Debelder and Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy are not the first to be mentioned. Instead, it’s Frank Boon, whom he describes as “a visionary and a genius.” Boon is the world’s largest producer of Lambic, located in Belgium’s Pajottenland region. And in Tranter’s words, Boon creates “the perfect Gueuze, with enough oak and funk, amazing balance and consistency.”

Such is Tranter’s fondness for Belgian Lambic and Gueuze that, once a year, he will drive a van to Girardin, a family-owned brewery in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle, west of Brussels. While there, he will acquire several-hundred liters of its Lambic to be used for blending. The resulting beer—known as Cuvée—will see the Girardin Lambic combined with his own Provision Saison, aged in Chardonnay Barriques, at a ratio of approximately 30% Lambic to 70% Saison. Up until very recently, this spritely, tart beer is the closest thing Burning Sky has produced to a Lambic or Gueuze of its own.

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Somewhat surprisingly, Tranter had never before attempted to create any mixed fermentation beers—let alone embark on a barrel-aging project—until he began brewing at Burning Sky. It was something of a statement of intent, then, when the first beer through the brewhouse was the flagship Saison à la Provision. Simply referred to as “Prov” for short, some brewery employees insist it presents psychotropic properties when imbibed in great enough quantity. This could perhaps have something to do with its easy-drinking nature, despite a tart and complex character that presents qualities of the wood, the yeast, and the bacteria that guided it on its path. Oh, and perhaps its ABV of 6.5%.

“It fulfills that human curiosity, the desire to learn and create something unique,” Tranter says of his desire to create wild and sour beers. “There is an element of surprise to them, to the journey that they go on and, to an extent, that they take you on.”

If that first brew of Provision was an indicator of the path this brewery would take, then the beer Burning Sky would release to mark its fifth birthday in September 2018 was a sign of how far it had already come. Simply known as Coolship Release No. 1, this beer was brewed in early 2017 using traditional turbid mashing techniques, much like the influential producers of traditional Belgian Lambic. The resulting wort was then inoculated overnight in the coolship, above which hangs former barrel staves that are perhaps imbued with some leftover magic from the liquids they helped to mature in a previous life.  From there, it’s transferred into former wine barrels the very next day. It sat in those barrels for more than a year, until the resulting mono-blend—meaning it comprises a single vintage—was packaged live, in 750ml bottles.

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Although Tranter’s demeanor typically leans toward calm and reserved, his coolship, and the beer that he used it in part to produce, causes him to erupt in small-yet-noticeable moments of childlike glee. And it’s infectious. This beer is the start of a new journey within Burning Sky’s own—admittedly short—lifespan. Tranter is eager to send a bottle or two to his friends at Girardin.

Burning Sky’s intention is one that’s well-aligned with the British palate. Alongside these spontaneously fermented gems, the brewery is still producing modern takes on traditional real ales for the local market, and whatever hazy, hoppy, amber, or dark beers they feel like making in the meantime. Burning Sky is a brewery that hums along to its own tune, a tune which is probably something by The Descendents or Fugazi.

But after fulfilling that long term ambition of releasing a completely spontaneously fermented beer, what’s next? Do Tranter and his band of merry punksters do an encore and call it a night? Hop in the van and head to the next gig? Write the new record that redefines their career?

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“I never really think about the future too much,” he says. “I guess it would be nice to think that in time that the others will continue what I started and let me chill out a bit. Either that, or we just vanish into the cosmos.”

Words and Photos, Matthew Curtis