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How I Created … Burning Sky Saison à la Provision

Burning Sky Saison à la Provision, 6.5%
by Mark Tranter

A few years ago, I rekindled a love affair with Belgian beers, marvelling at the subtle complexities and diversification of styles that this small country quietly brews.

Mark Tranter Burning SkyBack in early 2009, I brewed a saison for Dark Star and was pretty happy, not only with the result but with the drinking public's warm reception for a style that was not at all popular in Britain at the time.

Since then, I have been on some very memorable road trips/research missions to Belgium with my friend Eddie Gadd (Ramsgate Brewery), breathing in the atmosphere and practices of many brewers and blenders.

When I left Dark Star in 2013, I headed to the States to visit breweries that, with no long-standing tradition or 'hand-me-down' knowledge of brewing 'wild' beers were still turning out exemplary brews.

How did they approach things? I really wanted to find out and, with the help of legends such as Doug Odell, I gained a brief but intuitive insight.

Before leaving, I headed round to local homebrewer Tom Dobson with a template recipe for a 'keeping saison', i.e. a stronger beer that, traditionally, would have been aged and sold to local taverns in Wallonia.

I also had three different yeast strains, so the 20-litre batch (my first foray into homebrewing since 1996), was split equally to see what the results would be.

Whilst I was away, Tom (who is now the second brewer at Burning Sky) kept me updated with the progress of our beer and, on my return, we had three different bottles to try. We also had a clear winner.

So we brewed it again using the winning yeast strain and, with the help of Chris Giles at Surebrew, added (what is now our house blend) Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus to the mix.

Clear Vision

When I set up Burning Sky, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to be brewing (both long- and short-term), how big the brewery would be and how the hell we would make it work in an ever-more competitive market.

There had to be difference, intent and commitment on every level so, in a fashion that would make an accountant wince, I decided that some of the beers we would brew would not only be beers that I loved but also beers I had only been able to dream of brewing until now – beers that could take months, or even years to make, with no guarantee that they would not end up down the drain.

We would be brewing in a way that I had not done before and this was exciting! Of course, it should be noted that we make a lot of hop-forward beers (my other love) that turn around relatively quickly and bring money in to facilitate their sleeping siblings.

Saisons are strange beasts. Due to the nature of their origins (farmhouse breweries), and lack of historical recipe documentation, there is no hard-and-fast rule on brewing them, both in terms of practice and of ingredients. Whilst most people see Saison Dupont as the benchmark, they have been left open to all sorts of fashions and interpretations, some good, some not so.

For Saison à la Provision, we use a standard infusion mash with a grain bill made up of pilsner malt, spelt, wheat and Carapils. The spelt gives a slight nutty character that works well with the peppery yeast character.

The beer is bittered at a low level with East Kent Goldings, then a mix of Saaz, Celeia and a small portion of Sorachi Ace take care of the aroma additions.

Sorachi Ace may be a bit of a wild card but, at a low level, the lemon quality comes through and is really complementary. The beer is fermented at 24–25ºC, a lot lower temperature than for most saisons, but I like a cleaner, less phenolic flavour profile in our saison.

The Journey

And so begins a journey...

What I originally referred to as our 'statement of intent', landed at the brewery in the shape of four 2,500-litre oak vats, or foudres. Two were second-hand and had previously been used for red wine; the other two were new that I had commissioned, solely to be used for à la Provision.

Each batch of à la Provision has a primary fermentation in stainless steel and is then transferred over to one of the oak foudres to age for three months with the wild yeast strains. These slowly work away, fermenting out the more complex sugars in the wort and imparting a rustic tartness to the beer. These yeasts also start to inhabit the oak, creating a microclimate of their own.

Having new oak was something I chose, despite the fact that the beer may not have been exactly as I wanted from day one. The first couple of batches had a coconut-like flavour that you get from new oak, which also imparts a level of apparent sweetness (not particularly desirable in saisons).

Burning Sky ProvisionThis has been worth riding out though, as the oak becomes used and takes on the flavour of the beer, creating a flavour profile of its own.

A year and a half in and the change is quite dramatic. The beer is crisp and zesty, slightly sour with a tart finish – everything I wanted from the beer, everything a true keeping saison should, in my opinion, be.

I see this beer as our flagship, a beer that from the outset hinted at what I would be aiming to achieve with Burning Sky.

Due to the time- and space-consuming nature of the beer (not many small brewers in this country have a core beer that takes over three months to make), production is limited to 20,000 litres a year, but I love it – the journey, the subtle changes over time and of course, seeing people enjoying it.

We were recently at the Festival of English Beers, held at Gueuzerie Tilquin, the day before the Toer de Geuze. I was so pleased with the compliments we received for our beers and for Saison à la Provision especially.

We were constantly told this is how a proper saison should taste and that it was rare to find. For me, there could be no higher praise.

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