An in-depth interview with Mark Trant, founder of one of the UK’s most unique and creative breweries – Burning Sky.
First things first – how, when and why was Burning Sky founded?
Burning Sky was founded by myself, Mark, and started producing beer late 2013. I had been a head brewer with an influential cask beer producer for many years and felt like I had taken that job as far as I could and needed new challenges within my career. So, in a pre-midlife crisis, I left the safety of the steady career, took a few months out, visited breweries across Europe and the U.S., honed some ideas, wrote some recipes, spent all the money I could scrabble together and started a new brewery.
You were the first craft brewery in the UK to install oak foudres for ageing beers in, what led you towards this approach to producing beer?
We were always, and still are, cavalier in our approach to brewing. Whilst we do not lay claim to be the first brewery in the U.K. to do barrel ageing, or mixed fermentation beers, we did want to nail our hearts to our sleeves. So, spending money on vast oak vats that we had no experience with, seemed like a good way to do that. We were also keen to rekindle the brewing heritage shared between the U.K. and Belgium with vatted beers that, historically, weren’t necessarily intended to be mixed fermentation – but were so.
The brewery is located on a refurbished farm within the South Downs, and you’ve expressed an interest to never grow out of that space – why is this location so special to Burning Sky and what influence does it have on the beers you produce?
Whilst we never wish to grow out of our space and have to move, we have expanded in terms of buildings we occupy. At the end of last year, we took on a new building specifically for the ageing and packaging of our spontaneous and mixed fermentation beers; this enables us to concentrate better on all areas of production – having specific areas clearly defined.
The area we are is where I live. I was bored with commuting to dull industrial sites that hold little interest to myself and are certainly not conducive to creativity. It is a beautiful and gentle part of the world, everyone who works here lives locally and a couple of us are fortunate enough to be able to walk through the countryside to reach the brewery. Work can be busy, but it was important that we did not lose sight of our lives outside of that – being in this sort of location allows that.
Burning Sky is a rather unique brewery when you look at the range of beers it puts out; from oak-aged saisons in 750ml bottles to 440ml cans of pale ale and IPA, how do you balance these different sides to brewing? And why do you do both?
We do both because we enjoy both – the brewery produces beers that we like to drink! Aside from that, whilst we are a relatively small brewery, we produce more beer than we could sell if it were all spontaneous/mixed fermentation. On an economic level, spontaneous and mixed fermentation beers take a long time to make, take up a lot of room, need investment in oak barrels for maturing etc etc – so our ‘fast clean’ beers bring in an income to support their slower siblings.
As brewers, we learn a lot from both sides – with the pale ales, there is a lot of attention to detail with working practices to ensure absolute minimal dissolved oxygen etc. So, we get the science side here. With the barrel ageing, there is no definitive ‘how to’ available, we find we learn from our own practices, which takes years – for the most part we are caretakers for these beers. We can try to guide them but can never control them, so the process can throw up some surprises along the way and as human beings (curious creatures), this piques our interest. With both sides of our brewing practices, there is a lot of creativity involved – so we get a fairly rounded and varied experience at work. Which is nice.
We’re delighted to be featuring some cans that have rolled off your (relatively) new canning line, why was it important to install your own canning line and what can you tell us about some of those beers?
We like to keep control of all brewing and packaging ourselves – as opposed to contract or mobile packaging. With this in mind, whilst we were fairly late to the can party – we were able to install a far more technically advanced canning line than some of the early ones you see.
The beers that are currently featured with Flavourly show our approach to pale ales and IPAs – consistency and drinkability. For us, drinking beer shouldn’t be a chore – a beer should leave you wanting another one (even if you shouldn’t). So, ‘Arise’ is our workday beer – smashable after a day’s labour, clean but full of peach and pine aromas. ‘Easy Answers’, is a slightly dangerous IPA – drinks far too easy for its 6% ABV, soft malt flavours with some of our favourite U.S. aroma hop varieties. ‘Out of Vogue’ is a strong pale ale in the West Coast tradition – some coloured malts give a fuller mouth feel, with an assertive bitterness and floral/pine aromas. Finally, our first shipment to Flavourly features ‘Indecision Time’. This is a pale ale where the base recipe stays the same, but the aroma hops change to highlight different varieties. This time, it’s ‘692’, which is an experimental variety from America.
What does the future hold for Burning Sky, any exciting beers on the horizon you can share with us?
Well, we’ve just come to the end of a major investment program, which saw us move the brewery around, install a couple more fermenting vessels, put in the canning line, take on the dedicated barrel store and relocate the bottling line there – so, I think we will just take a few deep breaths and relax (whilst working hard!).
Beer wise, we have some interesting things ageing away – a couple of ex-cognac vats are holding promising beers! We have some Cuvée that was aged on grape skins from a local vineyard, which is ready to package. Then we are brewing more pale ales, IPAs and clean Saisons to package on the canning line. We may even do a low alcohol beer – because that would be a fun challenge for us!
Finally, is there anything you’d like to share with the Flavourly readers about Burning Sky?
We are a dysfunctional family of miscreants who wouldn’t know what to do without the brewery which pulled us together – a place where we can joke with each other. So, on that basis we would just like to thank everyone for their support through these challenging times.