What’s Up With Zero Degrees?

Beer pumps at Zero Degrees, Bristol, 2009.
Zero Degrees Bristol, 2009.

Zero Degrees is still, as far as we know, the only chain of brewpubs in the UK. They make beer which is usually decent and often excellent, on shiny kit, in nice-looking, spacious bars. But, for some reason, they’re just not cool.

In the last six months or so, we’ve been to both the Bristol and Reading branches between us. Because no-one talks about them, we assumed they must have gone off the boil but, no, the beer was excellent on both occasions, notably a very clean, polished Rauchbier in Bristol, and a floral Pilsner in Reading which we’re calling ‘crunchy’, because it was more than crisp.

And yet both bars were mostly empty.

Having been brewing since before the ‘craft beer’ craze kicked off in earnest c.2007/08, and with those lovely city centre premises, they ought to be riding the crest of a wave. Instead, they’ve got a downtrodden, sad-sack feel, as if they’ve run out of puff not far from the finish line.

Perhaps their brand got derailed early on — more ‘style bar’ for people on the pull than beer geek destination — or maybe they’re simply lacking PR nous. Who exactly is behind it? We don’t know, and it’s not easy to find out. Not a problem for Brewdog, you’ll note, who are doing rather well with a personality-led brand.

Our feeling is that they need to re-brand (it’s all a bit corporate and very 2005) and expand, or they’ll wither away.

36 thoughts on “What’s Up With Zero Degrees?”

  1. I too really like Zero Degrees and don’t know why they don’t get more love, seen as old hat I expect. The German Lady who’s the brewer at the Reading branch produces some interesting seasonal beers and the standard Pale Ale is always excellent – always reminds me of really fresh Sierrra Nevada Pale Ale. It does get busy (or at least busier) at weekends – frankly nowhere is very busy during the week these days – and the resturant part seems to do a decent trade, but you’re right that the bar area is looking a bit tired, and also feels a bit of an afterthought tucked away round the back (often you have to wait for someone to come over from the reaturant to serve). I think its seen by many in Reading as a pizza place with good beer rather than a bar that also does food. Still, if in your Reading definitely worth a visit alongside more traditional real ale venues like the Nags Head, Ale House, Allied Arms or The Retreat.

  2. Never heard of them either – herein lies the problem perhaps? Do they do cask ale or just keg?

      1. Yes, that’s right. Whatever they do also seemingly meets with approval from CAMRA as they’ve been in the GBG a few times in recent years.

  3. I suspect if they were to sell to the free trade, the beer would do the talking, and their outlets would see more custom. They may have some of the best beer in the country, but it’s not much of a usp if nobody knows about it

  4. I suppose the question is, why would I have heard of them? Their beers aren’t nationally available – unlike Brewdog’s for example – and I don’t live in any of those four locations.

    Looking at the photos on their website it also looks more like a restaurant than somewhere you would go for a couple of beers on a weekday evening. Maybe they need to rebrand as a craft beer bar, maybe they’re doing just fine as a middle class circuit bar and don’t care what we think.

    They’d probably do well in Cambridge, they should open here, I like a nice black lager.

  5. But do they do anything served lukewarm and from a big handpump (which is what most non-beer-geeks understand real ale to mean, of course)?

  6. I reviewed the Blackheath one in 2010. The standard beer was only OK, but the special, a black lager was pretty good. The space reminded me of one of those US brewpubs, sort of stripped-out and industrial, and a US-inspired menu. They’re members of the London Brewers Alliance, and their former brewer Simon Siemsgluess (another German who is now making whisky, I think) did some collab stuff at Kernel, and they had a presence at the first London Brewers’ Showcase. The new kid came along to the 2011 event with a couple of tiny kegs, which looked a bit half-hearted.

    I dunno. The beer is well-made though not outstanding. I quite like the brand, but they seem a bit faceless…

  7. Featured the Bristol one in Great British Pubs and have blogged about it a couple of times, I do like their beers, and the pizzas in Bristol are fabulous; only thing I felt about the Reading one was the disinterested service, though it was a Sunday evening, when no one in their right mind goes out (I was flying early next day and needed a berth in the town they call Reading). For brewpubs, Graze is worth a look in Bath.

  8. been to Cardiff, Reading and Bristol ones. Like the food, beer makes a decent accompaniment but often too cold and sometimes bland. They were on cask at great welsh beer festival i think and the bristol bar collaborates on the annual bristol brewers release.

    I know when I was active in S Hants CAMRA branch they were due to be opening a pile more outlets (this was about 5 years ago now) but I guess they didn’t have the funds to do so/ the recession hit

  9. SE London, Reading, Bristol and Cardiff is a weird assortment of locations – not close enough together to build word-of-mouth, not high-profile enough to get much PR buzz. (Reading!) The name, and even the range of beers, seems calculated to alienate beardies, who should really be their core clientele by the sound of it; the Website seems to be mostly about pizza. I’m strongly reminded of Firkin, in the sense that Firkin did everything right that they’re doing wrong.

    Basically they look like they’re riding the tailwind of a nationwide explosion of craft beer bars and waiting to be bought out, which is a particularly dodgy strategy when there hasn’t actually been a nationwide explosion of craft beer bars – perhaps somebody read too many BD press releases at a formative age.

  10. I have been to both Reading and Cardiff branches. The beer is very good – the black lager particularly – as is the food. They are CAMRA-friendly but the beers are not widely available. This is mainly due to the fact that they have no casks. Getting their beers for a beer festival – as I have done once – is very difficult as I spent too much time finding someone to lend them some casks and ensuring they were returned.

  11. Alienating CAMRA types works ok for Brewdog because they make a specific point of it. But for your average beer bar not having a couple of decent handpumps on is commercial suicide. How many parties of guys have thought about going there but then didn’t because it only takes one traditionalist to say I’m not drinking that fizzy muck and everyone begrudgingly goes down the dog and duck instead.

    Its the choice, stupid.

    1. But the Reading one seems to be doing pretty well with its current model (its survived when a hundred other bars have come and gone) so I’m not sure it is “commercial suicide”. Certainly the local CAMRA group in Reading has had absolutely no problem with it, putting it in the GBG on occasion. I just don’t think that there are ufficient fundamentalists out there to have a commercial impact – they’re a tiny sub-set of a tiny sub-set of drinkers for whom any of these things matters one way or another.

  12. well yeah, because its not really a specific beer bar by the looks of it. Its a pizza restaurant/middle class circuit bar that happens to keep its costs down by brewing its own beer.

    1. If the beer wasn’t important, then they’d just shut the breweries, sack the brewers, and sell bottled Stella like every other pizza place. That’d keep costs down even more.

  13. It occurs to me, as a designer, that they branded the brew pub and not the beer. That might be why it has a corporate feel. That’s a risk that need to be assessed when franchising or establishing a chain. In fact, that’s the whole point of a chain—consistency of message. While that might work for burritos or pizza, the question remains, is that what the craft beer drinker is looking for? I think it depends on the drinker—but not knowing is big risk to take as a business owner.

    1. That’s a good insight. In theory Firkin had a similar problem – their own beers had no identity other than that of the chain – but the Firkin branding itself was so squarely aimed at real ale drinkers and beer monsters that the problem didn’t arise. And they did make a feature of their strong ale (Dogbolter), in the usual macho how-many-can-you-handle kind of way – a bit juvenile but very effective.

  14. I visited the one in Reading a couple of years ago (it may have been a year it was included in the GBG). From a perspective across the pond, Zero Degrees appears more like an American restaurant/bar than an English pub. This seems by design. As I recall, the beer was keg, served cold and not particularly remarkable; the food was certainly alright, but not outstanding. This combination did not call me to return, where therein, may lie the problem.

    1. Not keg at all, apparently, but if (a) it comes out of what looks like a keg font, (b) it’s cold and most importantly (c) they don’t make a big feature of the fact that they’re brewpubs, people are liable to get that impression and react accordingly. What are the beer prices like, btw? Another thing Firkin got right was having at least one of their beers priced below the going rate, creating the impression that you were getting a cheap night out. This was before JDW’s, of course – it’d be a bit harder to undercut them.

      1. Very reasonable for the area – not JDW prices but comparable with traditional town centre pubs rather than latterday craft beer emporiums.

      2. Interesting to know. I just took a look at their website, apparent just gas delivery for their kegs.

  15. whenever I’ve been to the Blackheath branch their prices have been very reasonable. And all beers are served unfiltered from tanks, not kegs. The Blackheath branch always seems to be doing OK whenever I go in there. I agree with Reading Tom’s point about fundamentalists too.

  16. off to Cardiff tonight and was intending to visit their branch, their american pale ale is particulaly good. They used to do tasting trays apparently but people took the piss, ‘ten tasting trays please mate’ so they stopped.

    1. Not really on-topic, but why do people do that? Were they not brought up properly? At a local pub’s beer festival once I got stuck behind a guy who was ordering six thirds and using the innovative method of asking the barman for suggestions for each one (Got anything with ginger, spices, that kind of thing?) and then tasting them all. I could have throttled him.

      1. I asked if they did them as I’d heard they did, but he said it was in their view being abused, last straw was a stag party coming in and mass ordering them, more of a speed drinking thing than a tasting one. Fair enough i said.
        But thinking back later I was a bit disappointed he didn’t consider the fact to offer us a tray as myself and friend were the only people in that lunch time, genuinely asking about them. Would have been good PR if he had.

  17. Maybe advertise more? Many pub chains do this in North America, e.g. at bus stands, in weekly alternative papers. I was at one a few years ago and thought it was excellent. Who will remember Mash on Great Portland Street? Excellent place too, ahead of its time especially viz. craft keg. All Bar One does the stylish and image thing very well, and I like it there too. It’s not a beer specialty house but there is always something decent to drink there. Perhaps the wine orientation puts in a different category?

    Gary

      1. Blimey, I’d forgotten Mash and Air. Only went there once, for a work do, and I nearly died – by which I mean, I got so drunk that I threw up in my sleep after going to bed. My wife was not pleased, not least because when it happened I was still too pissed to be any use clearing up. Good job she was there, though.

  18. Oh, another piece of news – Zero Degrees are quite far advanced in starting another one of their brewpubs in Oxford.

  19. So from reading the comments we’d conclude that Zero Degrees are in that awkward middle ground – appearing too sterile for the CAMRA crowd but not cool or publicity-hungry enough for the crafterati.

  20. I was a frequent visitor to the Blackheath one 10 or so years ago. The then-brewer Norman (African bloke, can’t remember his surname) was very friendly but the corporate entity was distinctly un-communicative. It seems the zero-PR policy still exists.

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