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.

* * *

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.

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.