“Are you on a farm because you wanted to brew farmhouse ales, or do you brew farmhouse ales because you are on a farm?”
It was a playfully awkward question to put to Mark Tranter, founder and head brewer at Burning Sky Brewery in East Sussex. I don’t recall his full answer, but I do know that it ended with the word “both”, which is of course the one that I wanted and expected to hear.
Mark was in London for Burning Sky’s “tap takeover” in Tate Modern’s Switch House bar. He had already explained that, when he left his job as head brewer at Dark Star, he ploughed his life’s savings into a farmhouse brewery rather than the usual railway-arch or industrial-estate set up because it would have more character – and because he loves the rural life.
From the beginning, in 2013, his ambition was to create a modern brewery specialising in Belgian-inspired “keeping” ales, and particularly the farmhouse Saisons of Wallonia. The last two years have seen Burning Sky expand its space for beer-ageing barrels and foeders, and it has even installed a new coolship for the development of spontaneously-fermented beers, perhaps the first to see the light of day in the UK since the 1930s.
Tranter says he left Dark Star because he wanted to create beers unsuited to the margin-conscious business of modern craft brewery. “The kind of beers that accountants don’t like,” as he put it during his talk at the Tate.
“Keeping” beers such as Saisons require space for, and investment in, barrels and vats. By definition, they take time to become ready for market and, as the truism has it, time is money. Moreover, Tranter invests yet more time seeking out yeast and bacteria strains for fermentation, and occasionally bringing a few thousand litres of Lambic over from Belgium for ageing and blending. At the Tate he mentioned that he had just returned from a trip to Girardin, a favourite supplier to Gueuze blenders, which he confirmed brews some of the best keeping beer available.
For all that effort and expense, Saisons are modest in their ambition. When I asked Mark what he thought the archetypal Saison should be like, he replied that it was a difficult question because a Saison is nothing if not idiosyncratic: they should have something “wild” about them, he said, because they would have been exposed to wild yeast strains and bacteria hosted by the barrels in which they age. That means each one would carry the distinctive character of its farmhouse brewery’s microflora, the beer’s terroir.
Most of all, however, he said that a good Saison should be “refreshing”. Today, “refreshing” is the sort of adjective we apply to unimpressive beers. Beers that you crack open at a summer picnic to keep the sun at bay and fuel the conversation. “Lawnmower beers”. Beers that no-one is ever going to describe as “complex” or “contemplative”. Beers that accountants do like.
Saison needs to be refreshing because it has to keep farmworkers going in the heat of a sun-drenched field in August and September.
It is a complex beer – how could it not be, having aged in barrels for six months or more? – but that complexity is an accident of practicality. Traditional Saison would be brewed in the run-up to Christmas, or in March, because these were the times when wild yeast and bacteria were most under control and when farmworkers could not work the land. Brewing was a productive way to use that idle time, and barrel-ageing for summer consumption was the way to make that work pay off during the farm’s busiest weeks. One might say that Saison was brewed on farms, not at “farmhouse breweries” – indeed, during the golden age of Belgian farmhouse brewing before the Second World War, many farms would not own any brewing equipment at all, but would take it in turns to use a communal brewery before taking their beer back to the farm for ageing.
Saison is a rough-and-ready beer, then. A proper workers’ beer. A spare-time brewing project.
And yet, while there are plenty of lifeless beers merely borrowing the name for a novelty-obsessed market, if the true spirit of Siason is to be revived in the 21st-century it requires some of the most capital, labour and time-intensive practices in modern brewing. That is the paradoxical challenge that Mark Tranter set himself when he founded Burning Sky almost five years ago.
At the Tate, we enjoyed six Burning Sky brews.
First up was Grisette, a 3.5% ABV, very light pale ale brewed for the fifth birthday of Beermoth, Manchester’s bottleshop and café. Restrained in its bitterness and sourness, its character was defined by a delightful perfume of flowers and camomile. A superb aperitif or picnic beer, and certainly one to enjoy fresh and young. I suppose the name reflects the urban and industrial heritage of Beermoth’s home city: Grisette was the cheap-and-cheerful pale ale brewed for Belgian mineworkers, a Saison-like beer for the post-agricultural age, possibly served to the workers by women wearing all-grey (“gris”) tunics.
The two IPAs on the list were also best enjoyed young, of course. We had Arise at 4.4% ABV, light in body and bitterness and focused on its peach and pine-resin aromatics – modest but well-made. This is one of Burning Sky’s “core” beers, the ones that pay the bills while the wild yeast and bacteria are at their work. Nonetheless, they are not undistinguished. Mark is the co-creator of Dark Star’s Hophead, after all, one of the great modern British hoppy golden ales. We got a taste of what he can do with well-known craft-beer flavours with Pretty Mess, a 7% ABV IPA, slightly hazy and copiously late-hopped but built on a foundation of serious bitterness, blossoming into a complex yet coherent salad of tropical fruit and orange aromatics.
Then we came to the Saisons. The first was Saison le Printemps, at 4.2% ABV, light and zesty with the wildness still restrained, characterised chiefly by the fruit-and-spice aromatics of the late- and dry-hopping. Second was Saison à la Provision, which is a year-round beer whose name suggests that it receives only a short secondary fermentation with Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces, and is designed to be aged in the bottle. It is also the base beer for Burning Sky’s special barrel-aged and blended releases. At 6.5% ABV, it is full-bodied, with a stunning balance of tartness and bitterness and a subtle backbone of barnyard funk and tannin. Served presumably quite fresh from a keykeg, I would expect this beer to become slightly sourer were it to age in a bottle. A fabulous “stock” Saison.
We finished with the aptly-named Cherry Monolith. This is the brewery’s 8% ABV Imperial Porter-style beer, which is aged for eight months in Chianti foeders, secondary-fermented on cherries. It has sweetness, sourness and woodiness in harmonious balance, with an undertow of chocolate, like a wild Black Forest gateau in a glass. With warming alcohol and just a hint of cherry in the finish, this was a wonderful end to a great evening of beer.
By coincidence, as I was talking with Mark Tranter at the Tate I had a starter of White Labs WLP655 Belgian Sour Mix metabolising in my conical flask at home. Mark’s beer and insights were the perfect inspiration for the weekend homebrew.
I had already intended to twin this funky-sour fermentation mix with some American-hop bitterness and citrus aromatics, and as I enjoyed the use of New World hops in Burning Sky’s Saison le Printemps I decided to stay with that plan and dial it up a little.
It is far from orthodox to deploy a high-alpha bittering hop like Chinook in a Saison. It is also slightly risky. The bacteriostatic properties of isomerised alpha acids can be useful for keeping beer unspoiled in barrels, but they are also at risk of unpleasant oxidation and they can arrest the development of the bacteria that lend the beer its refreshing sourness. Belgian farmhouse brewers tend to use low-alpha hops in copious quantities, instead, and often aged hops, at that – just one of the ways in which Wallonian Saison overlaps with Pajottenland Lambic.
Still, I pressed ahead: my Chinook was getting on a bit, I figured it was worth the risk to get its earthy bitterness in as a complement to the lactic sourness, and this style of beer is about nothing if it is not about idiosyncrasies and twisting the rules.
Moreover, unlike Mark’s, my beer isn’t going to sit oxidising in a barrel for weeks. Whereas Burning Sky enjoys a big, Grade 2-listed barn in which to harness the magic of its microflora, I brew in the kitchen of my snug little one-and-a-half-bedroomed flat in Clapham, Southwest London. The best feature of this flat is its cellar, which houses my beer collection, my brewing equipment, our bicycles and a growing family of tinned tomatoes. That will be the ideal place to store this beer for the summer and autumn months, and for further drinking into 2019.
I will style this beer a Grisette à la Provision, then: a refreshing urban stock ale, as it were. And in honour of the middle-class worker bees that populate this manor, it shall be named “Clapham Omnibus”.
Now all I need is some summer sun – and the lilting sound of humming lawnmowers.
“Grisette à la Provision: Clapham Omnibus” (April 2018)
In the mash:
- 3.0kg of Pilsner malt
- 200g of Wheat
- 200g of Crystal 100 malt
- 60 minutes of rest
In the boil:
- 50g of Chinook hops for 60 mins
- 35g of Chinook hops for 10 mins
- 40g of Amarillo hops for 5 mins
- 60 minute boil
Fermented with White Labs WLP655 “Belgian Sour Mix I”
Starting Gravity: 1.042 / 10.5° Plato
Finishing Gravity: 1.008