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?


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.

The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s

The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.

We found the pho­to in the autumn 1957 edi­tion of the Hopleaf Gazette as shared by Ray­mond Simonds on his web­site – a won­der­ful trove of archive mate­r­i­al from his fam­i­ly’s brew­ery. It accom­pa­nies a brief pro­file of the Archi­tects’ Depart­ment which men­tions Reg Nor­ket­t’s name in pass­ing.

With­out any great expec­ta­tions we Googled him and found his address on the web­site of a pro­fes­sion­al organ­i­sa­tion for archi­tects; we wrote him a let­ter and have since exchanged a few emails. What fol­lows is a light­ly edit­ed ver­sion of his respons­es to our ques­tions with a lit­tle com­men­tary from us here and there.

First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?

I was born in Read­ing in 1936, edu­cat­ed at Red­lands Pri­ma­ry School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Read­ing Blue Coat School at Son­ning near Read­ing as a board­er from 1948 to 1953.

Dur­ing my time at school I realised I was inter­est­ed in a career in the building/construction indus­try as, e.g. a sur­vey­or or archi­tect. I man­aged to obtain the required num­ber of O lev­els to com­mence pro­fes­sion­al train­ing and was ini­tial­ly employed in the Bor­ough Archi­tects Depar­ment at Read­ing Bor­ough Coun­cil, as Junior Assis­tant in the Clerk of Works Sec­tion. I com­menced train­ing in part-time study for a Nation­al Cer­tifi­cate in Build­ing at the local Tech­ni­cal Col­lege.

How­ev­er I was keen to be involved in the Design and prepa­ra­tion of draw­ings and so on, which I dis­cussed with the Bor­ough Archi­tect. He  approached the Chief Archi­tect at H&G Simonds, Mr Regi­nald Southall, who is shown in one of the pho­tographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you for­ward­ed.

I was offered a junior posi­tion in the Archi­tects Depart­ment, join­ing the com­pa­ny in 1954, and com­menc­ing study part-time at the Oxford School of Archi­tec­ture.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Life of a Brew­ery Archi­tect in the 1950s”

An Insider’s Memories of Brewing in Bolton

A few weeks ago we visited Bolton which prompted us to write about the apparent revival of the Magee & Marshall brewery brand. That in turn led Anne Edwards to email us:

I was very inter­est­ed to read about Magee Mar­shalls Brew­ery on your blog as both my hus­band and I worked there in the 1960s.’

This is the kind of thing that gets us a lit­tle excit­ed. After some back and forth by email, here’s Anne’s sto­ry, with some small edits for style and flow.

B&B: First, what’s your back­ground? Are you a native Bolton­ian?

I was born in Bolton in Sep­tem­ber 1943 and was edu­cat­ed at St Paul’s, the local pri­ma­ry, Bolton School (thanks to the 11 Plus), Sal­ford Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, where I took my A lev­els, and Sal­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, where I took an inte­grat­ed course in Micro­bi­ol­o­gy, Par­a­sitol­ogy, Ento­mol­o­gy and Bio­chem­istry.

B&B: How did you get into micro­bi­ol­o­gy and the brew­ing indus­try?

I worked in the Co-Op Tech­ni­cal Research Labs in Man­ches­ter while I was doing my course at Sal­ford. Then, in 1966, I answered an adver­tise­ment for a micro­bi­ol­o­gist at Magee’s. I was inter­viewed by Mal­colm Don­ald and giv­en the job. I always felt des­tined to work in a brew­ery. Brew­ing is in the blood of some of the Set­tle fam­i­ly.

Anne has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about her fam­i­ly his­to­ry and at this point direct­ed us to sev­er­al arti­cles and papers she sent us by post. Here’s a sum­ma­ry: William (W.T.) Set­tle was born in 1868. His par­ents, Rachel Set­tle and Robert Booth, were not mar­ried at the time. It was Robert Booth and his wife who estab­lished The Rose & Crown in Bolton as a home­brew house; when his wife died, Rachel mar­ried him, and took over run­ning of the brew­ery. When he was 13-years-old, William effec­tive­ly became head brew­er, and took over the firm com­plete­ly in 1891 when his moth­er died. Under William’s lead­er­ship, the brew­ery expand­ed, gain­ing a small estate of sev­en pubs – The Rose & Crown, Rope & Anchor, Red Lion, Skenin’ Door, British Oak, Alfred the Great, and The Bri­tan­nia. After a dis­pute with a half-broth­er, the beers ceased to be Booth’s Ales and became Set­tle’s. Anne’s father, also called William, was born in 1910 and took over day-to-day run­ning of the brew­ery from 1931, hav­ing grad­u­at­ed from Man­ches­ter Brew­ing School. Anoth­er branch of the fam­i­ly were bak­ers and W.T. Set­tle invest­ed in that busi­ness, ensur­ing that its Ful­lomeat pies were also sold in Rose & Crown Brew­ery pubs. In 1951, W.T. Set­tle died and for a brief moment, the younger William became co-own­er with his sis­ter Ivy. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Ivy want­ed to sell up, and so the Rose & Crown Brew­ery and its pubs were bought by Dutton’s for £30,000 and the brew­ery closed. William nev­er brewed again.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “An Insider’s Mem­o­ries of Brew­ing in Bolton”

A Disruptive Influence?

One of the most critical and questioning voices in the world of British beer is not a writer but a brewer: Jon Kyme of Stringers.

When he blogs, it is usu­al­ly because some­one has pro­voked him by, for exam­ple, mak­ing a claim in mar­ket­ing mate­r­i­al that does­n’t stand up to scruti­ny, and he often adopts indi­rect­ly the per­sona of ‘The Pro­fes­sor’ to deliv­er lec­tures laced with eco­nom­ics, sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy.

On Twit­ter, he often posts acidic sub-Tweets pick­ing up on fac­tu­al errors, grandiose claims, or even just typos. In com­ments on var­i­ous blogs, he is sim­i­lar­ly sharp, in both sens­es of the word.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “A Dis­rup­tive Influ­ence?”

The Wirral is not Enough

Mike McGuigan with some hops from the North West of England.A lit­tle while back, Mike McGuigan, the own­er and head brew­er of the Wirral’s Betwixt Brew­ing Com­pa­ny, dropped in to com­ment on this post. We were intrigued by his busi­ness mod­el and we took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask him a few ques­tions.

B&B: First­ly, a self­ish one – when and where might we be able to get your beers down here in Lon­don? Any fes­ti­vals com­ing up? Or should we get off our ars­es and come up to the North West?

We cur­rent­ly work as a ‘cuck­oo brew­ery’ – using spare capac­i­ty at a decent local micro – North­ern Brew­ing, Cheshire. The eco­nom­ics of this mean we cur­rent­ly don’t sell much beer in cask at all (instead main­ly sell­ing bot­tled beer at local farm­ers’ mar­kets).

We’re in the process of set­ting up our own brew­ery on the Wirral and, once up and run­ning, we plan to sell a lot more cask beer. How­ev­er, as a small com­pa­ny, with a lim­it­ed num­ber of casks and a wish to con­cen­trate large­ly on local sales, it means that I’m afraid we prob­a­bly won’t be send­ing a lot of beer around the coun­try.

We are look into deal­ing with select­ed whole­salers (those who will look after our beer, pay us fair­ly prompt­ly for our and beer and return our emp­ty casks in rea­son­able time!) so we might indeed occa­sion­al­ly pop up in a pub near you.

That said, if any of you fine folks do make it up here, you will be wel­comed with free tast­ings at any of the farm­ers’ mar­kets we attend! – see our web­site for more info. And don’t for­get all of the oth­er delights that Mersey­side has to offer dur­ing this Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture year.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Wirral is not Enough”