Craft beer is one of the fastest growing trends in the food and drink world right now and shows no sign of slowing down. 2015 was its biggest year yet, with over 170 new craft breweries opening in the UK. In fact, although 29 pubs are closing every week in the UK, we now have more than 1300 breweries – that’s more per capita than any other country and the highest number since the 1930s.
So beer is having its moment – the revolution is real and we couldn’t be happier! But its unprecedented rise to dominance got me thinking: where did it all begin? Well, it’s true that the recent rise in popularity stems from the US. We adopted the ‘craft’ movement a few years ago and it has changed the UK’s boozie landscape unimaginably: craft beer bars are opening every week, traditional pubs are stocking the latest brews and supermarkets isles are now packed with the trendiest canned and bottled IPAs. But, look a bit further back and you’ll find one company that has been producing craft beer right on your doorstep for over 15 years: Zerodegrees.
Dipam Patel and Nick Desai, co-founders of Zerodegrees, launched their first microbrewery in Blackheath, London, in 2000. It was at a time when bars and wine bars were becoming more popular, Hooch and alcopops were still very much on-trend and beer was seen as a drink that only your granddad would order. So, the development of a pub and restaurant that specialised and produced its own beer was a rather ambitious undertaking.
The instant success of Zerodegrees in Blackheath was undeniable, and people would travel from far and wide to try the unique beers that are brewed on-site. Zerodegrees became the first craft brewery of its kind in the UK – although the word ‘craft’ wasn’t being used back then – and people loved it.
Not content with revolutionising the way people drank and discovered new types of beer, Dipam returned from a trip to American and realised that pizza in the UK was pretty blooming boring in comparison: a Hawaiian was the height of adventurous. And so a rather revolutionary pizza menu was launched, which showcased the likes of Thai chicken, Peking duck and garlic chicken; toppings that were completely new at the time.
The combination of bespoke brewing and peculiar pizza topping proved a huge hit, and within a few years Zerodegrees had opened branches in Bristol, Cardiff and Reading.
I’ve personally always been a big fan of the Bristol branch and have spent many afternoons on the terrace with friends, have enjoyed a work Christmas party, and regularly recommend it to friends and family. But it has been a while since I’ve been, so I was really excited when we were invited over last week to try some of their beers and pizzas and have a behind-the-scenes look at the microbrewery.
We sat down with Kani, the general manager, who explained that the concept for Zerodegrees had been dreamt up by Dipam while on holiday in Germany. He had been sipping on a well-known Belgium wheat beer when he decided there and then that he wanted to create his own version in the UK. Dipam arrived home a few days later and as luck would have it, the premises at Blackheath became available soon after. The rest, as they say, is history.
After a tour of the microbrewey – which didn’t take long, being a ‘micro’ brewery ‘n’ all – we sat down to sample the range of draught beers. We started with the Pilsner, which is their only lager and their most popular draught. It is a clean, crisp lager that is notably hoppier than your normal tap variety. Kani explained that it’s because they don’t filter any of their beers like other breweries do, therefore retaining much more flavour.
Next up was the American Pale Ale, which was my colleague Sam’s favourite. It’s a super-rich pale ale with lots of big flavours and dark gold in colour. At 4.6% it’s a perfect afternoon beer that you could enjoy a few of. Kani then handed us a glass of Black larger, which I’d never heard of before. It smelt of chocolate cake and had really rich chocolate and caramel tones. It was absolutely delicious and my favourite of them all. We then got to try the beer that started it all: the Wheat Beer. It has a real European taste to it, the kind of beer you drink on a nice city break in the sun. I can see why Dipam wanted to create it and why it has stayed on the menu for over 15 years. Continuing with the wheat theme, we were then given a glass of Mango Wheat Beer. It was really cloudy, very sweet and while it was delicious and I enjoyed every sip, I wouldn’t have wanted many more – it would be perfect as a dessert beer.
Now, I’ll be honest, the first five beers were starting to have a little bit of an effect. But it was time for the last taster and it was the one I was most looking forward to: the IPA. IPAs have been the key influencer in craft beer’s rise to fame, so this was a big one for me. I had high expectations but at the same time wondered how a 15-year-old recipe would stack up. I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. It is a solid IPA with a really hoppy and persistent after taste that, again, you could tell hadn’t been filtered as much as many others.
By this point I’d had six beers and I hadn’t eaten in five hours. I needed rescuing. I was far from drunk, but I was drowning in hopps and needed something bready to keep me afloat. Two pizzas please!
Kani brought us a menu and as Sam and I are both lovers of spicy food, we opted for the Piri Piri chicken and the Scotch bonnet pizzas. The Piri Piri chicken pizza was perfect, with the sundried tomatoes and sweetcorn levelling the kick of the fresh chillies and the dusting of chilli it had been given before being served. The Scotch bonnet pizza, on the other hand, was on fire. Stacked with pulled pork, coriander pesto, red onions and loads of sliced Scotch bonnets, it was delicious yet deadly.
We had such a great afternoon at Zerodegrees and I can’t wait to go back for another black lager – that stuff is seriously good! And as a lover of craft beer, we had a great time learning about the hoppy history.