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.

Patreon’s Choice: The Irish Set

These days, Irish beer isn’t all about Guinness, as demonstrated by this interesting bunch which ranges from rye ale to ‘ice cream IPA’.

Of course we used that awful, cliched opening line purely to troll the Beer Nut whose suggestion it was via Patreon to try some of the Irish beers in stock at Honest Brew.

  • Yellowbelly Castaway Passionfruit Sour, £2.79, 330ml can
  • Boyne Brewhouse Vienna Lager, £2.39, 330ml can
  • Kinnegar Rustbucket Hopped Rye Ale, £2.49, 330ml bottle
  • Whiplash Scaldy Split Ice Cream IPA, £4.59, 500ml can
  • Galway Bay Solemn Black DBIPA, £3.69, 330ml bottle

We drank them over the course of a couple of nights while we were tied to the house for one reason or another, tackling them in ascending order of ABV, except that we got Rustbucket and the Vienna Lager the wrong way round because we weren’t paying attention.

A glass of flat, orange beer.

Yellowbelly’s passion fruit sour, at 4.2% ABV, fizzed like e a bonfire night sparkler then went completely flat in about four seconds. It had a great passion fruit aroma, billowing and beguiling, and, crikey, did it taste sour. Ray found it less heavy going than Jessica because he drinks soft drinks and she doesn’t (tea, please!) and what it resembled more than anything was some new variant grown-up version of Fanta. In fact, we picked up two types of sour — the citric acid of fruit and the kind of sweaty funk we associate with Gose. On balance, though we found plenty to enjoy, we both wanted it to taste more like beer, and would probably rather have a can of Rubicon at a fifth of the price.

Kinnegar Rustbucket glowing in its glass.

Kinnegar Rustbucket, at 5.1%, was more our kind of thing. It smelled wonderful, taking us back to those days of a decade ago when Goose Island IPA was considered Way Out There, all orange and pine. Red-brown in colour, it tasted like a well executed, tongue-coating, jammy IPA of the old school, and gave the impression of being a much bigger beer. It was perfectly clean, nicely bitter, and just a touch peppery by way of a twist. What a breath of fresh air, and good value, too. We’d drink more of this.

Boyne Brewhouse Vienna, at 5%, had the sexiest graphic design of the lot with its black and purple can, and looked great in the glass, too, being a gorgeous gold with a cap of thick white foam. But unfortunately it tasted weird — bad weird — in a way we’ve never encountered. Some banana, maybe? Apple? Gritty, grainy, unfinished. As if it was a little unwell, and threatened to send us the same way. We couldn’t finish it. Sorry!

Whiplash Scaldy Split had about it the air of the main event: it came in the biggest can, cost the most, and is billed, rather excitingly, as an ice cream IPA. The ingredient list included multiple malts, vanilla and lactose (milk sugar), as well as reliable old Citra hops. The beer was a sort of queasy, homemade custard yellow, cloudy but not soupy, with an attractive, stable head. The problem is — and this does happen from time to time — we each perceived it quite differntly. Jessica found it a mess, from the petrol aroma to a flavour so excessively dank it seemed to have gone through hoppy and come out the other side at student bedsit carpet. Ray, on the other hand, used words like smooth, subtle, tasteful, and fun… Again, we wonder if his relatively sweet tooth might make him feel warmer towards this kind of beer. Or maybe that long list of ingredients combined to create particular unusual flavours and aromas to which we might be respectively more or less sensitive. Anyway, if you like thick, hazy, hoppy beers, you’ll probably enjoy this one; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

A glass of black beer with a huge head.

Finally, there was Galway Bay’s Solemn Black double black IPA at 9%.  Phew, what a mouthful, and that goes for the description and the beer. From the first sip, we just straight up liked this one a lot. (Both of us, thank goodness — much simpler that way.) Thankfully its supposed status as a black IPA didn’t mean lots of clashing, clattering hops tripping over dark malt flavours, as is too often the case, and it struck us as an imperial stout to all intents and purposes. We found it a silky beer that was all melted milk chocolate upfront, and turned to port wine the longer it sat on the tongue. And it sat on the tongue for a good long time, reverberating almost forever. When we left it long enough, and it’s not a beer to rush through, some grassy hop character eventually suggested itself, along with a burnt-toast black malt note. A happy place on which to conclude this whirl through the world of Irish beer.

Belgophilia Unlocked

Illustration: Belgium and Belgian beer.

Last year we wrote a piece for CAMRA’s BEER magazine about British beer drinkers obsessed with Belgium and Belgian beer.

It was great fun to write and involved interviewing and corresponding with some fascinating people, pondering some intriguing questions — what part did Eurostar play in all this? How will Brexit influence it in future? What the heck is ‘Burgundian Babble Belt’?

It was in the magazine last autumn and in February this year we made it available to our Patreon subscribers. Now, a couple of months on, we’ve unlocked that post so everyone can read it.

If you’d like to get advance access to this kind of stuff (we write two or three things for the Patreon feed every week), and want to tell us which beers to taste, among other perks, then do consider signing up. It’s dead easy and really does give us an enormous boost and encourages us to keep this madness up.

Patreon’s Choice: Beers from Orbit

We asked our Patreon supporters which beers we should order from Honest Brew earlier this year and Paul B suggested we try bottled beers from Orbit.

We bought one of each available from Honest Brew at £2.59 per 330ml bottle and sat down to try them, paired with some trashy TV, on Sunday night.

We had no particular preconceptions about Orbit and couldn’t recall if we’d ever tried any before. We definitely hadn’t heard any of the trusted London beer commentators raving about them which made us suspect they might not be in the top rank but the packaging was smart and the choice of styles interesting so we went in feeling mildly optimistic.

Now, a confession: once again time slipped away from us and Ivo, the pale ale at 4.5% ABV, had slipped past it’s best before date. It was bottled in October and had a tight six month BBE so it doesn’t seem fair to offer any notes, except to say that it neither delighted nor appalled us, and we aren’t averse to the idea of trying a fresher bottle or draught half some time, especially as the new head brewer at Orbit has tweaked the recipe.

Altbier in a glass on a knitted beer mat.

Neu, a take on Düsseldorf Altbier at 4.7%, intrigued us. Alt is a somewhat elusive style about 80 per cent of the appeal of which is the culture and history surrounding it. Take that away and you have a fairly low ABV, straightforward brown beer that sits, in terms of character, somewhere between British best bitter and German dark lager. This example was brown but with flashing highlights of gold and orange, pleasingly clear and bright under fluffy white foam. In our one surviving souvenir Altbier glass it looked, at least, utterly convincing. The flavour, too, was impressively clean, with a crisp bitterness. There was a suggestion of roastiness in the flavour but no sticky toffee which made us think the colour was from black malt rather than the caramel-crystal family. Overall, we liked it, even if — true to type — it was a fundamentally simple, unthrilling beer. If you’re learning about Continental beer styles and want a solid example of Alt, this would certainly do the job, and tastes better, we reckon, than most of the readily available big name imports.

A chalice of golden beer.
Peel is a Belgian-influenced blonde ale at 4.3% — an emerging sub-style in UK brewing which we tend to like, with Belgian yeast adding welcome extra layers to otherwise simple, low ABV beers. This one was a clear, bright gold, and gave off a powerful Witbier aroma of citrus and the spice cupboard. The dominant flavour was a big squeeze of strangely artificial-tasting lemon, beyond which was something like an English golden ale with the bite of honey. It felt thin and watery rather than light and dry; harsh and jarring where we wanted soft and funky; and cacophonous rather than complex. In other words, we couldn’t tell you exactly why it didn’t work for us, but it didn’t, and we can’t imagine buying it over many actual Belgian beers.

So, two beers in, one solid, the other not to our taste, Orbit go on to the Benefit of Doubt list rather than Avoid.

Patreon’s Choice: Bottled Beers From Siren

Oat Couture

This is another in an occasional series of posts about beers suggested to us by our Patreon supporters. Tim Thomas (@timofnewbury/@UllageBeer) wanted us to try some bottled beers from one of his local breweries, Siren, so we did.

First, though, we want to set out where Siren sits in our mental rankings of UK breweries. We’ve encountered its beers fairly frequently over the last few years in cask, keg and bottle, and have sometimes enjoyed them. Most recently we were delighted by Kisetsu, a ‘Japanese Saison’, and had a very pleasant night on QIPA, a barely boozy cask-conditioned ale at 2.8%. Some of the bigger, stranger beers aren’t quite to our taste — we found Caribbean Chocolate Cake too sweet, and Limoncello too intense to drink in any great volume — but we can tell they are basically decent, properly made beers constructed around interesting ideas.

And the middle-ground, core range pale ales and IPAs have always seemed fine, if perhaps a bit rough and oniony, with not much to commend them over many other examples of the same style.

When we walk into a pub or bar and see a Siren beer on offer, we often order it, but, at the same time, they’re not a brewery that springs to mind when we’re asked to name favourites, which we reckon puts them somewhere in the second division.

The four beers we looked at this time were all ordered from Beer Ritz back in October:

  • Oat Couture, 33oml, £2.72
  • Cerealist Manifesto, 33oml, £3.38
  • I Love You Honey Bunny, 33oml, £3.89
  • American Oak Brown, 33oml, £3.47

Oat Couture is billed as a hazy American pale ale at 4% ABV and was brewed in collaboration with beer retailer Clapton Craft. It poured with only a slight mist and a pleasing gold glow. The aroma was good, all green leaves and orange fruit, suggesting some sweaty greenhouse at Kew. The taste was initially soapy and husky, more tonic than pleasure, but seemed to improve as it went down. It is essentially a light, rather dry pale ale, defined by bread-crust malt flavour and lingering bitterness, with a twist of lemon zest to liven it up. The bit of suspended yeast, we think, softened the edges and added a savoury hum we’d rather wasn’t there. Overall, we liked it without quite being impressed. A good-natured shrug of a beer.

American Oak Brown -- off-white foam.

American Oak Brown, being a big, dark beer at 5.8%, made a stronger impression. In the process of constructing its stack of off-white foam it threw out grassy aromas and vanilla scent, like a cinema bucket of Coke. We expected it to be thin after all that fizz and fuss but it was actually mouth-coating and sticky, like chocolate buttons. The flavours you might expect from a dark beer are there, especially coffee, but also more of that raw, green hoppiness which on this occasion really worked with the carbonation to lift the beer. We really enjoyed this one and would happily drink it again.

We’ll only give a brief note on I Love you Honey Bunny a 6.3% honey and oat IPA brewed in collaboration with The Other Half, because we let the bottle slip past its best before date. We wouldn’t say anything at all except that, BBE or not, it tasted like perfectly good, fresh and zesty bottled pale ale. (Perhaps if we’d got to it sooner there’d have been more of the advertised fruit smoothie quality.)

Cerealist manifesto was the biggest beer of the set — a 9% imperial stout brewed on collaboration with Slim Pickens using Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal — and a hit for us, just about. It’s a fat, beefy beer that smells of girders, cherry and rum. There’s something of root beer or botanical cola in the flavour, followed up by a distinct but subtle spicy burn, and some background earthy dirtiness acting as a mild spoiler. It’s somehow buttery without tasting like butter — Werther’s Originals? It’s certainly a strange, exotic dessert of a beer that’s a bit loud and could easily be obnoxious, but in the right mood, is just great fun. Perfect for the Midway at the State Fair, if you can find a way to fry it on a stick.

Overall, this leaves Siren about where they started in our eyes: a brewery that throws a lot of mud, some of which sticks, and some of which even glitters.