The Distributed Brewery: Simon G and Zero Degrees

Simon Gueneau is a Parisian trained in Belgium, based in Bristol, and brewing Continental-style beer on Italian kit – how could we fail to be intrigued?

We’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by Zero Degrees, the brew­pub chain that pre­dates the craft beer craze of the mid-2000s, with bars that nev­er quite click for our taste. Since mov­ing to Bris­tol, though, we’ve come to real­ly appre­ci­ate the beer, which, if you can ignore the is con­text, is clean, clas­si­cal and bal­anced across the board.

We had ques­tions, nat­u­ral­ly: who devis­es the recipes? Is the beer iden­ti­cal on every site? And so on.

When vet­er­an beer writer Tim Webb, who lives in Bris­tol, men­tioned that the brew­er at Zero Degrees was a pro­tege of Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne, our curios­i­ty boiled over: we had to know more.

Simon met us at the bar after his shift, wip­ing down the final sur­faces and pour­ing him­self a beer before join­ing us on tot­ter­ing stools in the main pos­ing are­na.

He has a dry man­ner, sig­nalling jokes only with a slight twitch of the eye­brows. He shrugs and purrs, waves fin­gers that sure­ly ought to have a cig­a­rette between them, and occa­sion­al­ly curls a lip, or pouts. You should see the qui­et dis­dain with which he says the word ‘Pros­ec­co’.

The Q&A that fol­lows is light­ly edit­ed for clar­i­ty and brevi­ty.

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And we’ll take a quick pause here to thank Patre­on sup­port­ers such as Nathan Hamer and John Bris­tle whose gen­er­ous back­ing makes it seem less daft for us to spend our evenings and week­ends work­ing on this kind of longer post. Please do con­sid­er sign­ing up.

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B&B: Let’s start with the biog­ra­phy – where are you from, and how did you end up brew­ing in Bris­tol?

I did a lot of sci­ence at uni. I did mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy. I stud­ied immunol­o­gy, went for a mas­ters in immunol­o­gy, didn’t like it so much in the end, so I applied for a food engi­neer­ing course. Which was strange.

It was spe­cial­is­ing in fer­men­ta­tion – wine, beer and cheese. Wine in Bur­gundy, I did that for three, four months; beer in Bel­gium; cheese in the north of Italy. There was an intern­ship so I did it at Can­til­lon.

Then a big sci­ence project at the end which I did at Brasserie de la Senne.

B&B: We heard that Yvan de Baets was in Bris­tol and came to see you recent­ly.

Yes, it was nice. I hadn’t seen him in, like, three years. I spent six months as an intern at de la Senne, with my project to reduce the yeast deposit in bot­tle-con­di­tion­ing, four days at the brew­ery and one day at the lab, every week. I wasn’t doing every­thing – just clean­ing fer­menters, bot­tling, you know… It was a very small team at the time, in around 2012. They’ve got much big­ger since. Yvan and Bernard were still brew­ing back then.

B&B: Are you a fan of de le Senne beers?

Oh, yes, but I can’t find them much round here.

B&B: At the Straw­ber­ry Thief, maybe?

Well, yes, but last time I was there it was four months old. I’m not pay­ing £8 a bot­tle for old beer. If it’s fresh, of course I don’t mind.

B&B: We’ve real­ly enjoyed the banana milk­shake IPA here recent­ly.

Ah, I didn’t make it! The spe­cial beers, we swap them. The five core beers, every site makes them. Each site makes on spe­cial every month. I keep, say, two thirds of it. The last third, I keg it, and a dri­ver takes it to all the four Zero Degrees. That’s what I did today, I kegged the Fruit Pick­ing at Dusk, a, black cher­ry porter and Thurs­day, it’s going to be in Cardiff, Lon­don and Read­ing, and I’ll receive theirs.

For Feb­ru­ary, it’s black cher­ry porter; in March, Eng­lish IPA

B&B: How often do the brew­ers from the four sites get togeth­er?

Every two or three months we have a brewer’s meet­ing, usu­al­ly in Read­ing. The boss, Nick [Desai], lives in West Lon­don.

B&B: The core beers – are those the same at every site? Is there a spec you work to, or is there some room for cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion?

There’s a recipe, which we agree at our meet­ings. There’s orig­i­nal and final grav­i­ty tar­gets, ABVs, and stuff like that. If you don’t treat your water, Cardiff lager is going to be bet­ter. Welsh spring water! Well, not spring water, but it’s soft­er, is what I mean.

But then you’ve got the touch of the brew­er. And how much they respect the recipes… [shrug]

B&B: It’s the same malt and hops bill?

Yeah, tech­ni­cal­ly.

The beers are all pret­ty sim­i­lar now. The beers ought to the same on all four sites these days.

Three kits are the same – Cardiff, Read­ing and Bris­tol are real­ly, real­ly sim­i­lar. Lon­don is very dif­fer­ent. Our kit is Velo-Bier­ing, so a blend of Ger­man and Ital­ian, most­ly Ital­ian. It’s com­put­er con­trolled but the automa­tion doesn’t work any­more.

The brewing kit at Zero Degrees in Bristol

B&B: Do you have an assis­tant, or do you do every­thing your­self?

Yeah, every­thing. Five days a week, eight, nine, ten hours a day.

B&B: If we came in on a Wednes­day lunchtime, we’d see you work­ing, would we?

Yes. You get the odd per­son look­ing in. But the brew­ing is not extreme­ly obvi­ous, it’s well con­tained – the odd bit of steam, some of the smell, it doesn’t make much noise. I’ve found the odd kid try­ing to get into the brew­ery as well. It’s not great, huh? Bar­rels of chem­i­cals… [shrug]

B&B: As you know, we par­tic­u­lar­ly liked the Vien­na Lager you brewed last year.

Ah, yes! I brewed it with Marc [Muraz-Dulau­ri­er] from Lost & Ground­ed. He’s French, too, but he’s left now. He want­ed to brew a beer on my kit. It was a good beer. Vien­na malt, and then just Ger­man aro­mat­ic hops.

B&B: Despite being dry-hopped, it seemed a pret­ty clas­si­cal, well-bal­anced take on the style.

Well, the crowd here is pret­ty nor­mal, let’s say. So if you do a dou­ble-dry-hopped 9% IPA, it’s nev­er gonna work.

B&B: The Bohemi­an… If you’re not inter­est­ed in beer, it’s lager. If you are, it’s a good exam­ple of the style, the Czech style–

Well, I wouldn’t call it Czech. They want to call it Czech. To me, it’s Ger­man. It’s a lit­tle too bit­ter. I drink Pils. Or pale ale, it depends… Nev­er the man­go.

B&B: If they phoned you up tomor­row and said they want­ed to scrap the man­go beer, you wouldn’t object?

I’d be hap­py. But it makes mon­ey, it’s a busi­ness, I need my wages. It’s a pale ale base with nat­ur­al man­go extract. It sells quite big. It was the sec­ond biggest sell­er but now the Amer­i­can pale ale has over­tak­en it. Pils, gold­en lager, is always going to be the best­seller.

B&B: By a sig­nif­i­cant amount? Twice as much?

Yes.

B&B: What’s your local here in Bris­tol?

Usu­al­ly the Old Stil­lage in St George’s, more for the mood than the choice of beers, but they’ve got Moor on tap usu­al­ly. Or, well, I don’t mind, I drink Carls­berg or what­ev­er they’ve got. It doesn’t kill any­one, it doesn’t taste of very much, but it’s fine. The Dark Horse is good, too. Open fires, dogs, cider.

B&B: Do you plan to open your own brew­ery one day?

No! No. I won’t be open­ing any brew­ery. I am just hap­py to offer my pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices to any­one who’s inter­est­ed.

B&B: Is there enough cre­ativ­i­ty in it?

As long as the cost­ing is not com­plete­ly crazy, any­thing I come up with gets accept­ed. I could put plen­ty of hops in a beer if I want­ed, but beers are pret­ty cheap here, £3 in hap­py hour, so… [shrug]

B&B: Do you use dif­fer­ent yeasts for dif­fer­ent beers?

Yes, two: lager yeast for the dark lager, the lager and the Vien­na; Amer­i­can ale yeast for every­thing else. Dried yeast, but I har­vest and repitch. I use a keg with con­nec­tions on it so I can sani­tise, har­vest, refrig­er­ate. I intro­duced that last year because we were using a lot of dried yeast – like, 200 pounds for a batch of lager. We were try­ing to save mon­ey by reduc­ing a lit­tle bit here, chang­ing this or that, and I said, no, no, malt is peanuts – let’s be more effi­cient with our yeast.

I need a micro­scope. I know how to do it, but where would I put a lab where I wouldn’t find peanuts or slices of piz­za? With the deck across the top, peo­ple get drunk and drop glass­es, ash­trays…

Cost con­trol is very impor­tant. It was a tough cou­ple of years, but we have con­tracts for all the big Amer­i­can hops. The Amer­i­can pale ale has new Amer­i­can hops, because two years ago we were still using Cas­cade, Chi­nook, Cen­ten­ni­al. Now, rev­o­lu­tion! We’ve got Mosa­ic, Cit­ra, Amar­il­lo. Still old fash­ioned, maybe.

B&B: A final ques­tion – what would be your three desert island beers?

Orval. Yeah, that’s it.

Three? This is dif­fi­cult.

Maybe de la Senne Taras Boul­ba.

Is there water? If not, Bud­weis­er.

I can’t choose three Bel­gian beers… Oh, why not, some­thing dark, Rochefort 10. Or maybe a pil­sner like Flens­burg­er. It’s well-made, it’s bit­ter, and not skunked like Jev­er in the green glass.

* * *

With all this infor­ma­tion, we paid a return vis­it to Zero Degrees in Bris­tol to see if it changed our per­cep­tion of the beer. It did not, except that we realised that part of its appeal to us might sim­ply be it’s rel­a­tive con­ser­vatism, and the fact that the recipes are a year or two behind the curve. We are, after all, chil­dren of the Cas­cade gen­er­a­tion.

Simon is on Twit­ter @Simonggggg. Zero Degrees Bris­tol is at 53 Col­ston Street, BS1 5BA.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 16 February 2019: Beer Duty, BridgePort, Brussels

Here’s everything in writing about beer and pubs from the past week that struck as especially noteworthy, from colonialism to brewery closures.

For the Guardian Dutch jour­nal­ist Olivi­er van Beemen offers an arti­cle based on an extract from his book Heineken in Africa: a Multi­na­tion­al Unleashed. It offers a glimpse into the prac­tices of a Euro­pean brew­ing giant oper­at­ing in Africa, and how, despite the rhetoric of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty, it can­not help but echo the behav­iours of the colo­nial era:

Fur­ther research [into pro­mo­tion girls] in DRC, the coun­try where the most abuse was report­ed, revealed that unwant­ed advances came not only from cus­tomers but also from Heineken staff. “The enor­mous uncer­tain­ty of keep­ing a job com­bined with the absence of employ­ee rights of legal sta­tus makes PW [pro­mo­tion women] vul­ner­a­ble for mis­use from sev­er­al stake­hold­ers,” the inter­nal report notes. Often, the women, who earned very lit­tle, had to sleep with man­agers if they want­ed to keep their job. But if they need­ed to see a gynae­col­o­gist or get an abor­tion, which was often ille­gal and dan­ger­ous, they had to sort every­thing them­selves, and pay for it. They also had to drink five to 10 large bot­tles of beer every work­ing day, in order to per­suade cus­tomers to con­sume more.


Sighing bar staff.

This week’s big viral sto­ry, for quite under­stand­able rea­sons, was this expres­sion of right­eous fury by Cana­di­an beer writer Robin LeBlanc in response to a bizarre sex­ist ram­ble in an Amer­i­can brew­ing mag­a­zine by its pub­lish­ers, Bill Met­zger, who has since resigned:

That’s right, folks. He man­aged to take a piece about cask ale and turn it into a whiny, self-indul­gent, sex­ist, heav­i­ly misog­y­nist, and creepy as hell work. In fact he did this so expert­ly that it actu­al­ly broke my brain and I need to break it down and go over most of the par­tic­u­lar­ly offen­sive quotes with you all because if I don’t I’m going to keep think­ing about it until I have a brain aneurysm.

Alright. Let’s start with the very first sen­tence of the arti­cle.

Like most men, I strug­gle with my my pri­mal self.”

Oh boy, strap in folks, because we know exact­ly where this is going.


De la Senne beers in Brussels.

For Brus­sels Beer City Eoghan Walsh pro­vides a run­down of the his­to­ry of cult Bel­gian brew­ery de la Senne, con­struct­ing his tale around five spe­cif­ic beers:

Before there was Brasserie de la Senne, there was Zin­nebir. Bernard Leboucq was home-brew­ing in the base­ment of a cen­tral Brus­sels squat in 2002, and he was invit­ed to brew Zin­nebir as the offi­cial beer for that year’s Zin­neke parade. Yvan De Baets, already pas­sion­ate about beer, was a social work­er work­ing along­side youth groups on the parade. A meet-cute was inevitable.

I saw this guy pulling a big trol­ley of beer,” says De Baets, “and I told the guys work­ing with me to take care of the kids, I have to meet him. He offered me a beer, a sec­ond, a third.” Two years lat­er De Baets joined Leboucq as unof­fi­cial brew­ing advi­sor in their first iter­a­tion of Brasserie de la Senne.


The Quest for the Perfect Pub

The Pub Cur­mud­geon has dis­sect­ed a large­ly for­got­ten book from 1989 in which broth­er Nick and Char­lie Hurt report on a three-month Quest for the Per­fect Pub:

The thir­ty years since the book was pub­lished have, not sur­pris­ing­ly, not been kind to the pubs list­ed. Some, for­tu­nate­ly, are still in exis­tence in lit­tle-changed form, such as the Yew Tree at Cauldon in Stafford­shire and the Traveller’s Rest at Alpra­ham in Cheshire. Oth­ers, such as the Stagg at Tit­ley in Here­ford­shire and the Durham Ox at Shrew­ley in War­wick­shire, have very much gone down the gas­tro route and can no longer be regard­ed as com­mu­ni­ty booz­ers, while many, such as the Horse & Jock­ey at Delph in the for­mer Sad­dle­worth dis­trict of York­shire and the White Lion at Pen-y-Myny­dd in Flintshire have long since closed. Indeed, I doubt whether either of those long sur­vived the pub­li­ca­tion of the book, and the Horse & Jock­ey has long been a roof­less, crum­bling ruin.


Abstract illustration of pubs.

Roger Protz has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece about the spe­cif­ic issues faced by those run­ning hous­es owned by giant pub com­pa­nies:

My agree­ment meant I could buy wines, spir­its and min­er­als free of tie but I was tied for beer and cider. The main Ei beer list had Dark Star Hop­head. Jack had sold three 18 gal­lon casks a week of Hop­head but Ei said I couldn’t have it as it was out­side SIBA’s deliv­ery area – SIBA has a 25-mile radius for beer orders.”

Courage Best is a pop­u­lar beer among reg­u­lars. Har­ry found he would have to pay £30 a bar­rel more than Jack had paid – and Jack had sold 100 bar­rels a year.


Carling Black Label beer mat.

At Ed’s Beer Site Ed pro­vides some fas­ci­nat­ing details of how Car­ling lager is actu­al­ly brewed:

Very high mal­tose syrup is used in the ket­tle to give 20% of the grist. For those not famil­iar with high grav­i­ty brew­ing very high mal­tose syrup is impor­tant because it reduces the amount of esters pro­duced dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion, some­thing which high grav­i­ty brew­ing rais­es.


Jim at Beers Man­ches­ter is angry about the weasel­ly ways of the UK’s larg­er brew­eries which are lob­by­ing for changes to Pro­gres­sive Beer Duty from behind the facades of var­i­ous organ­i­sa­tions, such as the Inde­pen­dent Fam­i­ly Brew­ers of Britain:

Let’s look at the IFBB in more detail.

Richard Fuller. Sec­re­tary of The Inde­pen­dent Fam­i­ly Brew­ers of Britain.

Hang on. Fuller. As in that brew­ery that is no longer “Inde­pen­dent”? Hmmm.


A notable brew­ery clo­sure: Bridge­Port Brew­ing of Port­land, Ore­gon – one of the first of the mod­ern IPA brew­ers, launch­ing its flag­ship hop­py pale beer in 1996 – is shut­ting up shop after 35 years. Jeff All­worth offers con­text and com­men­tary here.


And final­ly, from Twit­ter:

For more links see Stan Hieronymus’s blog on Mon­days and Alan McLeod’s on Thurs­days.

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Wat­ney Mann, or Wat­ney Combe Reid) was the Evil Cor­po­ra­tion which sought to crush plucky small brew­ers and impose its own ter­ri­ble beer on the drink­ing pub­lic. It acquired and closed beloved local brew­eries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clum­sy makeovers.

Its Red Bar­rel was par­tic­u­lar­ly vile – a sym­bol of all that was wrong with indus­tri­al brew­ing and nation­al brands pushed through cyn­i­cal mar­ket­ing cam­paigns.

This, at least, was the accept­ed nar­ra­tive for a long time, formed by the pro­pa­gan­da of the Cam­paign for Real Ale in its ear­ly years, and set hard through years of rep­e­ti­tion.

But does it stand up to scruti­ny? What if, con­trary to every­thing we’ve heard, Red Bar­rel was actu­al­ly kind of OK?

This long post was made pos­si­ble by the kind sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like Matthew Turn­bull and David Sim, whose encour­age­ment makes us feel less daft about spend­ing half a week­end work­ing on stuff like this. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Watney’s Red Bar­rel – how bad could it have been?”

Brewery Life, St Helens, 1920s: Free Beer and Vitriol

What was life like in a large regional English brewery in the years between the wars? Fortunately for us, Charles Forman asked someone, and recorded their answer.

We picked up a copy of Indus­tri­al Town, which was pub­lished in 1978, from a bar­gain bin some­where and have pre­vi­ous­ly flagged its com­men­tary on spit­ting in pubs.

The obser­va­tions of a name­less brew­ery work­er, born c.1902, are no less inter­est­ing, describ­ing life at Greenall Whitley’s St Helens out­post:

In the brew­ery the day turn used to be on at six in the morn­ing. You had to get malt out, which came in hun­dred­weight sacks, and put it in the dis­solv­ing tanks. You got a dip­stick out which stat­ed the quan­ti­ty of water that was want­ed to dis­solve the malt in. When you go that quan­ti­ty you let them know on the mash tuns where the malt is left. The mix­ture is pumped up to the cop­pers, where they used to put the malt and hops to boil. There were three cop­per boil­ers alto­geth­er – the biggest one held 500 bar­rels.

When they’re sat­is­fied they’ve got enough hops, they shut that man­hole and put the steam on to get it to a cer­tain heat for boil­ing the brew. They’re sup­posed to boil it just over an hour, but some­times you were wait­ing for emp­ty ves­sels, so you had to boil it longer. There were only two of us there, so you couldn’t go away and leave it.

There is a bit more detail of the brew­ing process giv­en – the brew­ery employed hop­backs, and sent the beer into ves­sels at 70°F before fer­ment­ing for a full week.

One espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing detail (well, to us; well, to Jess) is a brief dis­cus­sion of excise inspec­tions:

There’s a cer­tain grav­i­ty to work to in the beer. Once they get it to the grav­i­ty they want, you can’t do any­thing till the excise offi­cers come along and check it… On the job, if you got it wrong, there’d be an enquiry about it. If it was too high, they’d break it down with boil­ing water to make sure it was the right grav­i­ty that they’re tied down to.

Clean­ing is the less sexy side of brew­ing but, by all accounts, takes up a huge amount of most brew­ers’ time. The sub­ject of this oral his­to­ry recalls clean­ing vats as a job for brew­ery juniors: “It was rep­e­ti­tion work – just do the job till it’s done. We used sand and mixed it up with with vit­ri­ol…”

But what was Greenall Whitley’s beer like in the 1920s? It’s always excit­ing to find his­toric tast­ing notes of any kind, but this one is only brief and vague: “The beer was all right”.

[They] had dif­fer­ent strengths. They don’t brew any stout now – it’s only bit­ter and mild. We used to get beer free at half past ten and half past two in the after­noon. The chap dished it out in the cel­lar. You’d have to take a can with you. Two pints a day, that’s what it used to be. One chap got sacked for pinch­ing it – they were very keen on that.

You can pick up copies of this book for very lit­tle and if you’re inter­est­ed in St Helens, indus­tri­al his­to­ry, or work­ing class life, it’s cer­tain­ly worth a cou­ple of quid.

Main image: the St Helens brew­ery in the 1930s, via the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety Wiki.

The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

This post was made pos­si­ble by the sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like  Nick Moyle and Sue Hart whose encour­age­ment jus­ti­fied us spend­ing sev­er­al days of our free time research­ing and writ­ing. If you like this, and want more, please do con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

How did a beer born on an industrial estate in Cornwall in 1995 become a ubiquitous national brand in just 20 years? And what about it inspires such loyalty, and such disdain?

A few inci­dents made us real­ly start think­ing about Sharp’s Doom Bar.

The first was a cou­ple of years ago on a research trip to Man­ches­ter, hav­ing trav­elled all the way from Pen­zance, when we walked into a pub – we can’t recall which one – to find two cask ales on offer: St Austell Trib­ute, and Doom Bar.

The sec­ond was at a pub in New­lyn, just along the coast from Pen­zance, where we met two exhaust­ed cyclists who’d just com­plete the John O’Groats to Land’s End run. They want­ed one last beer before begin­ning the long jour­ney home to the Home Coun­ties. When we got talk­ing to them, one of them even­tu­al­ly said to us: “You’re into your ales, then? I’ll tell you what’s a good one – Doom Bar. Do you know it?”

Peo­ple love this beer. They real­ly, gen­uine­ly, unaf­fect­ed­ly find great plea­sure in drink­ing it.

Sales sta­tis­tics sup­port that: from some­where around 12 mil­lion pints per year in 2009, to 24m in 2010, to 43m by 2016, Doom Bar shifts units.

So what is, or has been, Doom Bar’s secret? And is there some­thing there oth­er brands might imi­tate?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Suc­cess”