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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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