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.

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.