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!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Tap Takeovers - crafty fad or natural successor to the tied house?

Whether you believe that 'craft beer' is a product that can be clearly and reasonably defined, an abstract and flexible concept, or a steaming pile of pretentious poo (and, no, we're not going to resurrect that protracted and painful debate here) it's hard to deny that that the craft movement has given us some great, life-enhancing new things.

Innovation. High prices. Black IPAs. Pop-up bars. Breakfast Stouts. Canned beer that isn't bland and metallic. New and exciting hop varieties with big fuck-off citrus flavours.

All good stuff, apart from the high prices,  and one of the latest, and possibly most significant additions to the 'what have the crafterati ever done for us?' list is the Tap Takeover - another concept imported from the USA that could change the way we drink.

I have very little time for the craftwank debating society, but I know I'd rather be going out for beers in 2014 than in 1999 when the only people who had ever heard of a tap takeover were three bearded Oregonians called Josh. (And, being American, they probably called it a 'Faucet Appropriation' or 'Diaper Sidewalk' or something.)

Free as a Beard

Back in the old days, post-CAMRA but long before the other C-word, you had your tied houses - which sold a range of beers from the brewery that owned the pub (and possibly an occasional guest beer from somewhere else) - and you had your freehouses which had the freedom to sell whatever beer they liked. Simple.

Obviously there are still tied houses - you'll find plenty belonging to (Wells &) Youngs in South West London, for example -  but these have become notably fewer in number over the last quarter of a century, following the beer orders legislation.

Thornbridge taking over the taps
Without going into a vast history lesson, many breweries got out of the pub-owning business and giant PubCos took over their estates, which means that oftentimes your friendly local landlord's hands are still tied in terms of what beer they can sell, but not necessarily to one particular brewery. If that makes sense.

And, of course, there are now more genuine freehouses than ever, selling whatever beer they choose. Most pubs that make the BV Pub of the Year will be in this category.

Now, as we all know, most good free-of-tie pubs like to put on an ever-changing range of beers from lots of different breweries, which is all well and good.

But the 'tap takeover' concept turns everything squarely on its head, essentially turning the bar into something resembling a tied house of old, but only for a few days.

The Rake in Borough Market, a finallist in the inaugural BV Pub of the Year awards, has bought in to the concept with great enthusiasm and regularly showcases single breweries in cask, keg and bottle.

They were almost certainly the first pub in London to do so, hosting a Brewdog tap takeover back in 2009, when the Brewdog name still meant something. More recent takeovers have included Tiny Rebel, St Austell (the 8.5% Big Job IPA was excellent!) and even the Brooklyn brewery, where I bought the most expensive pint of draught beer of my life (Blast - 9% and £13.20!)

The phenomenon isn't just confined to the trendiest hangouts in central London now either: The Red Lion in Leytonstone, an Antic pub and another former PotY contender, recently allowed Thornbridge to take over their taps, featuring both the standard range and some rare specials, like Beerkeepers (5.3%), a summer fruits and honey ale.

(And personally I always find it hard to turn down their 5.2% Kipling, a fantastically fruity American Pale Ale, bursting with luscious, citrussy New Zealand hops).

I can see tap takeovers becoming all the rage over the next couple of years, and yet, for all its shiny-and-newness, going to a taken-over bar is strangely reminiscent of the olden days.

When I first started drinking in pubs about 20 years ago, I mostly frequented Young's houses, and I'd often start with a couple of pints of Ordinary, then move on to the Special, and finally to the Winter Warmer, if it was in season, possibly ending the evening with a bottle of Old Nick Barley Wine.

There is something reassuringly purposeful about 'drinking your way through the range', and now that things have almost come full circle, it's possible to do it all over again.

Maybe one day a former Young's pub will end up as a freehouse, and choose to host a Young's tap takeover...

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