“A very happy accident.” – That’s how Mark Tranter, a former fine art student with a penchant for punk rock and tattoos, describes getting into the beer industry. Twenty years on, the former Dark Star head brewer is the proud owner of his very own successful brewery, Burning Sky, and he has some exciting news to share. We’re sat in the cellar of Fuggles Beer Café, where eleven of the Sussex brewery’s beers are pouring from the taps and down the gullets of a considerable number of the Tunbridge Wells pub’s clientele. “We’ve got some quite interesting stuff going on at the moment,” Mark says coyly, “We’ll be releasing a batch of Flanders Red that has been ageing since 2014. We’ve also got some Table Saison in Chardonnay barrels, and we’ve resurrected and revamped our Devil’s Rest IPA.”
“When’s this piece going out again?” He asks, pausing as if weighing up a decision in his head, “Oh, and we’re installing a coolship in Janaury.” Exhaling deeply, he leans back in the rickety wooden chair on which he is sitting. “That’s the first time I’ve told anyone that.”
Make no mistake; this is huge news. The excitement on Alex's (the owner of Fuggles) face is palpable. After keeping quiet and behaving himself throughout the majority of the chat, he is unable to resist interjecting. “Really? That’s batshit exciting!” he squeals. “We’re trying to keep it relatively in the background for now until its set up,” Mark replies, “so don’t start tweeting about it!”
The installation, thought to be the first in the UK since at least the 1930's, will allow Burning Sky to create beer fermented with wild yeast from the South Downs. This naturally occurring yeast will be let into the brewery and allowed to mix with strains cultivated in their own oak barrels, which Mark intends to break up and hang over his coolship.
“We will hopefully be doing wild fermentations that will be reliant on a variety of barrel cultures that we have,” Mark confirms, “and the way we’re going to get those in is… well, you’ll have to come and see it when its done!”
Up until the middle of the 20th Century, many British breweries used large, shallow metal trays called coolers to reduce the temperature of their wort ahead of fermentation. However, as new methods of cooling were introduced and the importance of having a sterile brewing environment was realised, coolers dropped out of use and are rarely used in modern brewing. Elgoods brewery in Cambridgeshire are the only other British brewery to use them, but theirs are older models, put back into action in 2013. For traditional Belgian producers such as Cantillon and Lindemans, however, coolships are an essential part of the production of the beer style known as lambic.
Their wide surface area provides the perfect environment for spontaneous fermentation by wild yeast strains in the air to take place, and this, mingled with natural bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces in wooden barrels after fermentation, creates a distinctive sour taste when aged. One to three year-old lambics are often blended to create complex and highly sought-after Gueuze, something Burning Sky will soon be able to create in rural Sussex (although legally it cannot be referred to as such).
Although reluctant to compare Burning Sky’s new venture to the work done by Cantillon, Mark acknowledges that Belgian brewing traditions have influenced his brewery in a big way. “Obviously we produce a lot of pale ales and hop forward beers as well,” he admits, “but they’re the kind of ones that pay the bills upfront. But the barrel-aged stuff is something I’d wanted to get into doing for quite a number of years.”
He cites Saison A La Provision, a 6.5 per cent farmhouse ale aged in oak foudres for three months, as the beer he is most proud of creating. “It proved that I could,” he says emphatically. “We had no actual physical hands-on knowledge of working with wild yeasts, but we created something that I’m just dead proud of.
“I love the way it tastes and I love the way it’s changing as the foudres get older and the yeast strains are evolving. ”
Of course, Mark hasn’t always been brewing barrel aged saisons and experimenting with wild yeast inoculations. Growing up in the West Country, he would pass the time drinking real ales with his parents and friends in local pubs. “I was surrounded by beer from quite an early age,” he admits, “My mum and dad both homebrewed and as a family we tended to go to the pub a lot… I guess its always been there, for as long as I can remember.”
After leaving Bradford-upon Avon, Mark’s days at college were mostly spent homebrewing, a skill that came in handy when he moved to Brighton after graduating: “I was working as a chef whilst running a record label and drinking in a pub called The Evening Star, which had a tiny brewery in the cellar.”
This brewery was of course, Dark Star. In 1996, on the back of his homebrewing exploits, brewer Rob Jones offered Mark a job. “It was just a pub brewery at the time,” Mark recalls, “and we didn’t really make very much beer at all – a few hundred litres a week. Beer was not popular at all, or at least it wasn’t trendy back then.”
Nonetheless, the brewery soon took off, and Rob and Mark quickly found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for their beers. In 2001 they relocated to a new purpose-built brewery in Ansty, where Mark took on the role of head brewer. It is this time at Dark Star that Mark recalls most fondly: “I remember when Rob and I moved the brewery out, brewing Hophead (the brewery’s 3.8 per cent pale ale) with him and then drinking it with him two weeks later. It was just fantastic.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the industry was beginning to catch on to what Dark Star were doing. “There was no real one event or brewery that really made it take off,” Mark says, “people just started to pick up on certain flavours… and then with the internet becoming widely available, suddenly there was all this information out there, and breweries like Thornbridge and Brewdog started springing up and it really started to take off.”
Eventually, after 17 years at Dark Star, Mark decided it was time to do his own thing. According to rumours at the time, he became fed up with brewing the same recipes and, feeling constrained by the commercial side of the brewery, he handed in his notice and left in 2013. I ask him if this is an accurate description of what happened.
“That sounds harsher than how is actually was,” he responds diplomatically, “I was really proud of what we achieved at Dark Star and really proud to be a part of it. It wasn’t because I was bored so much as I was too comfortable - and getting a bit too fat!”
It was a desire to experiment and create something totally different that eventually forced Mark’s hand. “Dark Star wasn’t the place where I was going to be able to do the kind of things I wanted to do because it would conflict with that company’s approach to brewing,” he laments. Despite this, he and Rob – who ironically left the brewery six months later – still have a good relationship. “Rob was my mate. Yeah, he employed me but we were friends and still are.”
After leaving Dark Star behind, starting up his own brewery seemed like the only option. “I’d never thought about doing my own brewery at all. It’s actually quite a scary thing,” he admits, “I don’t own a house, I don’t own a car, but I own a brewery! Every single penny that I got out of 17 years of working went into setting up this brewery.
“It could have fallen flat on its face, but if it did it would have been better for that to have happened than to have never even tried.”
As it so happens, Burning Sky has been a huge success, reflected in the number of people who have swamped to Fuggles to try their full range of Belgian-inspired beers, including the first pour of their brand new 8.5 per cent Imperial Stout. The brewery was voted Brewer of the Year 2014 by the British Guild Of Beer Writers and was rated the 4th Best New Brewery in the World in 2014-15 on ratebeer.com. They now produce up to 7500-10,000 litres of beer a week, and are currently installing a new barn for barrel ageing, where their new coolship will also be housed.
In light of this success, is Mark concerned that he may soon find himself constrained by the same limitations that led him to leave Dark Star in the first place? “Not really, no,” he replies, “it’s true that the types of beer’s we’re making are relatively fashionable at the moment, but I’m a firm believer that if you do something to the best of your ability and you really believe in it, then other people will eventually follow. So my view is just to do the things and make the beers that I love and not be swayed by market trends.
“At the end of the day I’m a stubborn punk rocker who just wants to do his thing and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else.
“Actually that’s not true,” he adds, “I do give a shit about a lot of people, but I don’t give a shit about being told what we can and can’t do. We do what we want to do, and thankfully other people like it as well.”
Given this stubborn approach, its unsurprising that Mark doesn’t have a lot of time for the whole controversy that surrounds keg vs. cask beer in the UK. “Ten years ago, twenty years ago, today. My answer is the same: Good beer is good beer. It doesn’t make any difference,” he says, “there are certain beer styles that would be wrong in cask and there are certain beer styles that would be wrong in keg… when we approach beers we design them for how they’re going to be dispensed.”
Another debate he’s not keen on being drawn into relates to the current bitterness being expressed by certain breweries in response to the amount of investment and attention the likes of Cloudwater and Lost & Grounded have received. “When people talk about investment and where the money comes from I don’t really care. I don’t think it’s any of my business, and I don’t think it’s the business of anybody else’s.”
Nonetheless, he’s keen to stress that investment isn’t always an indicator of success. “Look at what Kernel produced their first beers on! It was essentially like a shiny dustbin,” he points out, “regardless of investment you’ve got to have good beers, good recipes and good brewers in place.”
“Sure, if people have got a million pounds to put into a brewery they’re going to have money to put into marketing. But there’s room for everyone I think.”
As we finish our conversation and head back upstairs to enjoy some more beers in the slightly warmer and vibrant surroundings of the pub, I’m left in no doubt that Mark, Burning Sky and their new coolship won’t be being squeezed out of the market anytime soon.
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