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.

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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.

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?”

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”

Lederhosen in Lidl, Beer for Breakfast: Some Reflections on Munich

We’ve been to Munich several times, but rarely for more than a couple of days, and not often together.

This time we went with the spe­cif­ic inten­tion of real­ly being in Munich – not jump­ing on trains to oth­er near­by towns, or rac­ing from one beer des­ti­na­tion to anoth­er in pur­suit of ticks and tro­phies.

We began by find­ing accom­mo­da­tion in the sub­urbs, part­ly to save mon­ey, but also because the best times we’ve had on recent trips abroad have been beyond the imme­di­ate cen­tres of cities.

The neigh­bour­hood we end­ed up in was one where peo­ple live, walk their dogs, drowse on bench­es, smoke behind school bike sheds, and use ten-foot plas­tic pluck­ers to pick plums. The hous­es were post-war but con­ser­v­a­tive (Bavaria is not a hotbed of mod­ernism) with con­crete lions on their gateposts and plas­tic elves in their flowerbeds.

Every cor­ner had a polit­i­cal poster or two: BAVARIAN PARTYCHOOSE FREEDOM! ÖDPYOUNG, AND FIERCELY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS! The only AFD posters we saw in our part of town had been either torn down or van­dalised, the can­di­dates giv­en square black mous­tach­es with swipes of mark­er pens.

We drank our first beer in Munich at a pub-restau­rant above the tube sta­tion, on the main road into town, as rain ham­mered the para­sols in the emp­ty beer gar­den.

Ayinger Helles beer.

Ayinger Helles isn’t from Munich, it’s from Aying, and after a twelve-hour train trip, tast­ed great.

The pub was some­how both a bit too posh (table­cloths and orna­ments) and noth­ing spe­cial – limp sal­ad, ser­vice on the SCREW YOU! end of brusque – but the beer was served with all due cer­e­mo­ny. The glass, a sim­ple Willibech­er, was so clean it sang at the touch of a fin­ger, and had plen­ty of room for a crown of foam.

Look at the room through the beer and every­thing seems clear­er than with­out. It cer­tain­ly looks warmer.

A touch sweet, a touch of corn, almost watery, and yet… Yes, anoth­er, please.

After all, as every­one knows, sev­er­al thin coats rather than one thick leads to a more even, con­sis­tent fin­ish.

A good start.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Leder­ho­sen in Lidl, Beer for Break­fast: Some Reflec­tions on Munich”

Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

This post was writ­ten for #BeeryLongreads2018 and made pos­si­ble by the sup­port of our Patre­on sub­scribers. Do con­sid­er sign­ing up if you enjoy this blog, or per­haps just buy us a one-off pint.

For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remem­ber, if you’re a long-time read­er, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer cul­ture in 2013, but that was a set of bul­let points. This post expands on those ideas with anoth­er five years’-worth of evi­dence, expe­ri­ence and think­ing.

We should con­fess that our start­ing point is one of mild frus­tra­tion at the per­va­sive idea that British beer – and beer cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly – is ail­ing. We see var­i­ous wor­ries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and arti­cles, each one dis­crete and per­son­al, but adding up to a mass of anx­i­ety. If you’re in this bub­ble it can feel like the end times.

To pro­vide fuel for this spe­cif­ic blog post we asked our Twit­ter fol­low­ers to tell us what, if any­thing, made them wor­ried for the future of British beer. Some state­ments echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while oth­ers flagged issues we had not con­sid­ered. Quite a few effec­tive­ly can­celled each oth­er out, high­light­ing the absur­di­ty of think­ing about British beer as a mono­lith. There is no sin­gle idea of what healthy looks like, and no vic­to­ry that won’t feel like a defeat to some­body else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most com­mon­ly expressed fears, ques­tion whether they have a basis in real­i­ty, and con­sid­er the the like­ly impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a sta­ple of beer com­men­tary for the past 25 years or so: the  per­ils of the pur­suit of nov­el­ty.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Don’t Wor­ry, Be (Most­ly) Hap­py”