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 © 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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