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.

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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.