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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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.

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

Continue reading “Twenty-First Century Brewpub”

Vienna Beer at Zero Degrees

Graffiti outside Zero Degrees.

As part of our mission to visit every pub in Bristol* we popped into Zero Degrees on Saturday where, to our surprise, we encountered a beer of the year contender: a Vienna lager of astonishing perfection.

Something like fifteen years ago (wow) we used to swoon over Meantime’s Golden Beer, which was a kind of doppio malto affair, darker and heavier than a standard Pilsner but not sickly or sweet. It disappeared from Meantime’s roster more than a decade ago; thankfully, the Vienna Lager (5.3% ABV) at the Bristol branch of the Zero Degrees brewpub is a dead ringer.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Zero Degrees, a similarly lager-focused brewery founded at around the same time as Meantime in the same part of the world and targeting the same market, should sometimes produce beers that resemble Meantime’s. We haven’t dug into it but suspect some of the same staff have rotated in and out of those two breweries, too, over the years.

But, the Vienna… It was indeed golden — not quite amber, but definitely deeper than yellow — and balanced magically on the knife-sharp edge between all-about-hops and all-about-malt. It was advertised as dry-hopped but that didn’t translate into brashness. This is the kind of beer that stopped us shrugging about lager all those years ago — the kind of beer that makes us say, ‘Wow!’ without having any particular prominent feature to point at. (Further reading.) The wow factor is in the perfection of its structure, the precision with which each part does its job, the taming of weed and seed into perfume and biscuit when they can so easily end up all grass and mud. In the past we’ve had beers at Zero Degrees that lack life but this sparkled and glowed, and had a decent head, without being fizzy or like a bubble-bath.

An Oktoberfest beer also on offer was less successful (dense and dark, but sticky with sugar) and a sour cherry beer was almost brilliant except that the sourness had a faint suggestion of hangover sweat about it.

Overall, despite our ongoing problem with the chilly pizza restaurant vibe, we resolved to visit Zero Degrees again soon, and more often in general. Anywhere that is consistently brewing these Continental sub-styles, with only tasteful ‘twists’, deserves a bit of love.

We’re expecting this to take several years. We’re making the rules up as we go along, defining ‘pub’ as somewhere primarily defined by the availability of beer, and ‘Bristol’ as — gulp — the ONS definition. Visits made to pubs before we moved here in July don’t count; we both have to be present for a visit to register; but only one of us has to consume an alcoholic drink. We’re up to (checks) 72 so far.

What’s Up With Zero Degrees?

Beer pumps at Zero Degrees, Bristol, 2009.
Zero Degrees Bristol, 2009.

Zero Degrees is still, as far as we know, the only chain of brewpubs in the UK. They make beer which is usually decent and often excellent, on shiny kit, in nice-looking, spacious bars. But, for some reason, they’re just not cool.

In the last six months or so, we’ve been to both the Bristol and Reading branches between us. Because no-one talks about them, we assumed they must have gone off the boil but, no, the beer was excellent on both occasions, notably a very clean, polished Rauchbier in Bristol, and a floral Pilsner in Reading which we’re calling ‘crunchy’, because it was more than crisp.

And yet both bars were mostly empty.

Having been brewing since before the ‘craft beer’ craze kicked off in earnest c.2007/08, and with those lovely city centre premises, they ought to be riding the crest of a wave. Instead, they’ve got a downtrodden, sad-sack feel, as if they’ve run out of puff not far from the finish line.

Perhaps their brand got derailed early on — more ‘style bar’ for people on the pull than beer geek destination — or maybe they’re simply lacking PR nous. Who exactly is behind it? We don’t know, and it’s not easy to find out. Not a problem for Brewdog, you’ll note, who are doing rather well with a personality-led brand.

Our feeling is that they need to re-brand (it’s all a bit corporate and very 2005) and expand, or they’ll wither away.