ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Sunday, August 12, 2012

BV London Pub of the Year - part five

When I visited last year's Great British Beer festival I gave it eight stars out of nine, which is about as high a rating as I ever give anything (on the basis that a maximum score signifies absolute perfection and there's always room for improvement).

Having enjoyed a couple of sessions at GBBF 2012 this past week, I've started to wonder if this is a little unfair of me.

Back at Olympia after several years at Earls Court (which was full of Olympic handballers or something), the GBBF layout felt a bit alien to me, and it seemed noticably smaller. What's more, none of the 15 beers I sampled were truly great - the relative highlights being Chiltern 'Wheelpower', a good session bitter, and Fuller's 'Brewers Reserve No. 4' - 8.5% Barley Wine aged in Armangnac casks.

Oh, and Des Geants 'Ducassis' - an eminantly quaffable Belgian blackcurrent beer, in my view all the better for not being pumped full of co2. The ever-increasing number of foreign beers available in cask form at the GBBF is hugely, hugely encouraging, even if, ironically, the people who live in the country of origin often don't get to try them.

GBBF 2012
So, it wasn't quite as good as last year, but I'd still probably have to give it eight stars, and if this is worth eight, why wasn't last years worth nine? (Which of course, it wasn't, because it could always have been improved by being even bigger, having a lower entry fee, cheaper beer, more seating and so on...)

But what if I surrender this idea that 9=perfection to the gods of Fallible Logic and apply some other criteria?

What if the GBBF were a pub, open all year round? How would it fare in my search to find the best pub in London?

Well, the beer range is the best you'll find anywhere in the world, ever, so even the maximum three stars doesn't seem adequate really.

And they'll get maximum points for quality because, well, it's the GBBF. If CAMRA themselves can't serve real beer in tip-top condition then who the fuck can?

There's a big choice of food, some of it rather good, so they'll get the foodie point. And bonus points could be awarded for pub games, reasonable beer prices, entertainment (that can be completely avoided if you don't like it) and the sheer GBBF atmosphere that is unlike anything else on the planet.

God, even if some of the bonus points were cancelled out because of the admission price and lack of seating, it would still be piss easy to argue that the GBBF - even in a bad year - merits nine stars.

Meanwhile, there are still ordinary pubs to be reviewed as we near the end of the competition...

Pub #11: Euston Tap, Euston

You could fit several thousand Euston Taps in the space occupied by GBBF, whether it's Earls Court, Olympia, or anywhere else the event is likely to be held.

Swift'un before the train to Stoke
Since opening a couple of years ago in the tiny, dwarven lodge outside Euston station, the Tap has been a key player in the emergence of the London 'craft beer scene'.

Yes, I'm talking about the 'scene' that is dominated by 'craft' keg and trendy fanboys who wouldn't be seen dead at the GBBF or anything else connected with CAMRA.

But the Euston Tap demonstrated very early on that this scene doesn't have to preclude cask beer. A long row of keg taps and a long row of cask lines underneath. Easy. It can be done without frightening the horses, and the Tap carved out the template followed to perfection by the Craft Beer Company.

Quality of real ale: With no handpumps, the exact method of dispense for the cask beers that come out of taps on the wall is a bit of a mystery - I've reasoned that it's some sort of assisted long-distance reverse gravity dispense - but this doesn't really matter because the conditioning is always very good.

In fact, it's consitently excellent, which is a big reason for their shortlisting. 3 points.


Range of real ale: Typically around eight cask beers are on at any one time, and they change frequently. You'll find rare one-offs, like beers from Thornbridge's experiemental Alchemy range, and the only reason they get a mere 2 is that the range of styles represented is often a bit narrow. I happen to like hoppy, golden ales, but sometimes they'll have seven of them on and little else.

Food: None whatsoever, and you wouldn't expect there to be a kitchen in such a tiny pub, so no points to add or deduct. You can, however, order in pizza from a local delivery place with whom they have an arrangement.

Bonus points: The crisps and pork scratchings are good, which yields a salty bonus point, and while this is a unique little place and a must-visit for anybody drinking in London it's hard to think of any other reasons for chucking points their way.

Travelling by train to and from Euston used to be fun because one got to drink in the Head of Steam (now the Doric Arch) which was an epic pub during its heyday. Now it's barely worth a visit and the Tap has inherited the mantle.

It's certainly the best pub immediately adjacent to a mainline station in London, but the best pub? Well... 

Pub #12: William IV, Leyton

One of the two Brodies tied houses and formerly home to the Sweet William brewery, the William IV has swiftly become something of a beacon in an area with very little in the way of good beer.

It's in an obscure, backwatery part of 'Leyton' which actually seems to be nearer to Walthamstow, at least for the purpose of getting there and back on public transport. I've never really understood East London though.

Quality of real ale: Pretty good, but not exceptional. It's the little things, like not serving blonde, hoppy beers cool enough and not allowing the stronger beers time to mature and round out. And that's why they get 2 points rather than a maximum.

Just a few of the many Brodies beers
Range of real ale: Brodies own beer range is incredibly varied with myriad seasonal and one-off beers ranging from 3% ABV milds flavoured with peanut butter to 7% American-style hop monster IPAS to 12% Imperial Russian stouts. And then there's a 22% Elizabethan Barley Wine!

Given that they also feature guest beers from other breweries, there will almost always be something new and interesting to try, and rather unusually for a tied pub, the beer range gets a 3.

Food: Standard, unexceptional pub grubby stuff with limited availability. No points to be gained here.

Bonus points: I've generally given points for beer festivals, but the William IV misses out here as their 'festivals' rather counter-intuitively involve stemming the flow of guest ales and having Brodies beers on every pump instead.

That doesn't make it a bad thing, of course, just a sort of neutral thing that cancels itself out. I actually enjoy going to the William IV during these events because of the vast number of new Brodies beers and old favourites that show up, but it's not going to earn a point for it.

However, they offer accomodation from a reasonable £55/night, and while I've not actually stayed there, I know from years of frequent travelling around the country that places where you can drink good, interesting beer and stay overnight are very few in number, so this will earn them a theoretical bonus point, which I reserve the right to deduct after staying overnight there if it turns out not to be up to scratch!

Pub #13: White Horse, Parsons Green

The 'Sloaney Pony', as it's widely known, tries to offer something for everyone.

Yes, they do a decent range of ales, but you're just as likely to find its inhabitants sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or a designer G&T.

There are beer festivals, and other special beery events (like the Cask Pilsner Urquell night a few months back) but they also host various themed food evenings and recently something called 'Pimms and Hymns'. Innovative, if nothing else.

The White Horse is basically a community local... except that the locals are overwhelmingly upper-middle-class types with Barbour jackets and daughters called Cressida taking a year out to work on a Kibutz before doing politics at Keele...

You get the general idea.

Actually I don't mind all that much, but if you're into class warfare like my friend Trevor, you'd be best off staying away!


Quality of real ale: Generally the beer is always well kept here - which you might not expect following initial conversations with the bar staff who frequently don't have a clue about proper beer.

But fairly obviously someone, somewhere (probably the cellar) knows what they are doing. A solid score of 2.


Range of real ale: Outside of beer festivals, the range is mostly standard beers - Harvey's Best, Oakham JHB, Adnams Broadside etc. - but usually with one or two more unusual guests. It's just enough to merit a 2, though only just, mind.

Rare beer!
Food: The menu here is rather splendid and is something they take very seriously. The piggy cuts on their Pork Board (yes, like a Cheese Board but with pork) make for an excellent accompaniment to beer, and they also do a nice line in quirky salads, upmarket pub classics and chocolatey desserts. Oh, and in the Summer the BBQ is normally in full swing.

It comes at a price, which isn't unexpected, given the context, but this is one of the best pub kitchens in London and earns them an extra point.


Bonus points: The beer festivals get them a bonus point, and the range of other drinks including keg and bottled beers is probably good enough for another. However, some of the prices are eye-watering - US cask beers here sometimes cost £7-8 when they can be had for a couple of quid less at, say, the American beer bar at the GBBF.

I don't like doing it, but feel it's expensive enough to lose a point. Look Trevor, I've come over all Burn the Rich! Die, Borgeousise scum! And so, on... now, where did I park the Range Rover?

So, it's sixes across the board - none of these three pubs are really in contention for the Pub of the Year award but in their own right, for various reasons, they're all pretty good drinking dens - even if White Horse regulars think of it more as a drinking boutique. 

We'll reach the final part of my search in a few days time, and then there'll be some tough decisions to be made about which pub is the best in London.

If only the GBBF was a pemanent fixture - it would make the decision a hell of a lot easier!


Where to find it...

Euston Tap
190 Euston Road,
London
NW1 2EF (map)
********* 

William IV
816 High Road,
Leyton,
London

E10 6AE (map)
********* 

White Horse
1-3 Parsons Green
London
SW6 4UL (map)

********* 

4 comments:

  1. Well, I am utterly honoured to be referred to in your esteemed column - and you're correct. There would be much muttering and glaring from me. Vive la révolution!

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  2. Strictly speaking the draught Belgian and Dutch beers at this year's GBBF weren't cask. Cask beer isn't just unpasteurised and served without extraneous gas pressure, it's also cask conditioned, completing its fermentation in the cask. The GBBF beers, though unpasteurised, most likely unfiltered and quite likely containing live yeast, were brewery conditioned and served from keykegs. With these the beer is in a plastic bag inside a rigid PET sphere protected by an octagonal carton. They're intended to be served by forcing CO2 or compressed air into the gap between the outer and inner containers, literally squeezing the beer out without the air or gas coming into contact with it. On the German bar at this year's GBBF they also had keykegs and an air compressor, but for some reason on the Belgian/Dutch bar we were using handpumps which aren't really designed for this at all, generating far too much foam from the more highly carbonated brewery conditioned beers, also not helped by the fact that it was difficult to keep them cool enough. Thus most of them, including the Géants Ducassis you enjoyed, had to be decanted into jugs first. Next year we're hoping to get an air compressor too.

    Forgive the technical lecture but I do think it's a shame that, thanks in some part to oversimplifications originating from CAMRA over the years, there are many people that make a big deal of "cask" beer without quite understanding what it is, and then project it onto the beer traditions of other countries without appreciating that there are many shades of grey between craft brewed cask and industrial keg. As a matter of fact many of the "craft keg" beers you're slightly less than flattering about in your pub reviews are also unpasteurised brewery conditioned beers packed in keykegs, and therefore materially no different from the Ducassis you enjoyed at GBBF.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the explanation, Des.

    You're right of course that 'cask' has become an all-too-convenient term of reference and that there are myriad shades of grey - a point that I have made myself when writing on the topic for the London Drinker.

    My reservations around modern 'craft keg' beers are entirely down to the fizziness, which I think is more of an issue than whether there has been a secondary fermentation or not.

    With an increasing number of keg beers being available in unpasteurised form and, as you say, probably containing live yeast the stuff in the keykeg isn't a million miles away from what you'd find in a cask.

    The crucial differentiator is that the Ducassis at the GBBF wasn't fizzing with tiny co2 bubbles in the way that keykeg beers served through regular keg founts tend to be.

    One final eymological point: It's considered acceptable for brewers to continue using the term 'keg' to describe beers which are unfiltered and unpasteurised and in some cases have far more in common with cask-conditioned beers than with the beers that led to the definition of the term 'keg' in the 1960s and 1970s.

    This being the case, is it really so wrong if the term 'cask' takes on a more flexible definition?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ben, what I think Des is saying is that even though CAMRA campaigned for years against "fake handpulls" and "misleading dispense" and excluded pubs from the GBG for using this practice, they've now started doing it themselves at their flagship beer fest. Ooops. Gazza.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.