To Zero Degrees in Bristol for a beer tasting, brewery tour and dinner. On its fifteenth anniversary, Zero Degrees is launching a new range of bottled beers, while it has also been working on refreshing its venues. I was with Andy Hamilton, author of Brewing Britain and co-founding editor of Alderman Lushington, an online drinks magazine we’re launching shortly. We were guests of the management as part of a press group.
Probably the only thing I can remember David Cameron saying in ten years of unmemorable sound bites is ‘you were the future once’—to then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. It came to mind before the beer tasting at Zero Degrees. Not witheringly, as in the original, but rather sympathetically, and even appreciatively. It’s the lament of the early adopter. Fifteen years ago Zero Degrees was novel, unusual, a raiser of eyebrows and pulses. A microbrewery; beer made on the premises and piped directly from the serving tanks to the pumps; unfamiliar craft beers; an idiosyncratic menu; striking venues.
In 2000 this was a rare combination; now, not so much. This is by no means a bad thing, unless, perhaps, you were one of the pioneers. What do you do when you’re part of something so successful that you’ve lost some of your individuality? Well, if your idea is no longer fresh, your beer still can be.
Beer: more craft, less concept
Zero Degrees has always traded on the purity of its beer. It’s unfiltered, unpasteurised, carbonated naturally, doesn’t use additives, is vegetarian and brewed in accordance with the German purity law of 1516. The idea is to have cleaner flavours (it’s been likened to fresh orange juice versus carton) and a cleaner hangover. This is backed up by the way that it’s served on the premises—fresh from the brewery tanks to the bar. Now they’ve developed a way to retain this freshness in the bottle, while still having a reasonable shelf life. In tandem, they’ve put together an expanded range of beers.
The stock beers at Zero Degrees are an IPA (probably the most characteristic craft variety), a wheat beer (pleasant and easy drinking), a black lager (my favourite; a good clean bite of flavour) and a mango beer. I’m not a great liker of fruit beers, but was surprised by the mango. It’s subtler and crisper than you might think, while there’s no mango-unctuousness. I also liked the thinking behind it: with a presence in cider country, Zero Degrees wanted to cater for cider drinkers but, instead of doing the obvious thing and trying to make cider—which isn’t what they do best—they made a sort of cider tribute beer. It’s good, especially if you’re looking for something ciderish.
There’s another fruit beer in the new bottled range, and again this surprised me. It’s based on a sour Berliner weisse beer, but is made with strawberries to take the edge off. I looked at the red brew a little suspiciously and had to drink it to the end before I decided that I liked it. It’s an oddity, not a beery beer, but something good all the same. The sweetness and acidity of the fruit balance out the sourness of the beer to give it a nice balance, and it has an agreeable snappishness. I’d probably think of it as an alternative to pink fizz or for an aperitif, though I suspect there are probably some good food pairings—perhaps some Cantonese dishes.
There’s a continuing Germanic theme for the more beer-like beers. Here the emphasis is on experimenting with yeasts rather than hops, even if the hops remain integral. Again, I like this thinking. Craft beer can seem a little hop-centric, with some brewing reminiscent of the oak-obsessed New World wine-making of the 1980s and ‘90s; if some oak is good, then more must be better. Then again, that might be opinionated bullshit; I don’t have the technical knowledge to say anything about brewing with much confidence. Still, these beers generally seemed pleasantly balanced and some were complex and subtle.
My favourite of the Germanic beers was the Dunkel, a wheat beer brewed with dark malts; a full-bodied beer with sourness offset by round, toasty flavours and some bittersweetness. There was a hint of, say, toffee apple. The Vienna lager is unusually dark but mild: very easy to drink. The Gose wheat beer is seasoned with salt and coriander, but the effect is so mild that a thorough chilling stuns the flavour; I’d say it’s probably best drunk cool rather than cold. The most hop-centric beer is the Dark Hops Stock, a black India Pale Ale (BIPA), but even this is surprisingly creamy; an enjoyable hybrid using Pilsner, Munich, American and dark hop varieties. Finally, there was a chocolate stout, made with specially imported Italian chocolate; this was something of an eye-opener: complex, rich, pleasingly bitter, highly individual. I liked it plenty and thought it would make an excellent after-dinner drink.
At the end, slightly drunk in a reflective way, I thought about craft beer, what I’d just tasted, and Zero Degrees, and I tried to remember an Evelyn Waugh quotation about his generation of novelists:
The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance.
So there you have it. If you want to know about the brewery tour, you can watch this:
Food and venue: it’s the BFG
It’s possible that Zero Degrees is a little neglected among beer drinkers because it doesn’t fit the right stereotypes, and selling its beer via retail may well help bring them in. It isn’t an old real ale pub, and it isn’t a new-style faux-rustic craft beer gastro-ish pub serving artisan burgers, pulled pork and slaw on bits of wood and slate. Now, I like a lot of the older pubs and a good few of the new ones, even if I yearn for a plate when I’m eating, but it’s good to have some variety, and Zero Degrees provides that.
The echoing immensity of the Bristol venue, with its concrete and metal, couldn’t be more different from the template. When it’s quiet, drinkers can feel a little lonely or overawed, while given the restaurant’s dominance they might not be sure if they’re in a drinking spot. Having said that, it’s an impressive place and I’ve found the staff to be friendly, cheerful and knowledgeable, which helps to make the place likeable. There’s a pretty decent view from the towering structure, too. It’s not a local I go to all the time for a casual drink, but I do like to stop in for a jar, though I’m more likely to go there for food. I’m not sure what is being done to the bar, but the upstairs has been worked on to give a quietly stylish eating area; it’s more intimate than the downstairs, though when it’s busy down there, it has its own atmosphere. There’s also some outside seating with elevated views of the city.
The food is generally good, with the menu focusing on a slightly peculiar mix of wood-fired pizza, mussels and sausages; some of the pizzas are fusion-style, e.g. with Peking Duck. I’m not sure how much I go for fusion pizzas (I’ve written about these elsewhere), but I know plenty of people who enjoy them, and these are well-made pizzas. Zero Degrees has clearly thought about matching its beers to its food, providing suggestions, but the truth is that I wasn’t thinking about Peking Duck pizza to match my Vienna lager or Dunkel, I was thinking about schnitzel and red cabbage. Perhaps some of the Germanic influence will spread from the beer to the food. Still, that may be beside the point: Zero Degrees is different and people like it. And I could’ve had the sausages.
Zero Degrees is a small family-run chain of restaurant–bar–microbreweries, with venues in Bristol, London (Blackheath), Cardiff and Reading. It was established in 2000. There’s more information about their beer and brewing on the website. Zero Degrees is also holding #Brewmasters events over the course of 2015, “inviting diners to come and find out more about Zero Degrees beer and the brewing process”. There will be parallel Twitter Q&As, where the brewers can be quizzed. You can follow Zero Degrees on Twitter to find out more and stay informed.