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!

Friday, August 1, 2014

BV London Pub of the Year 2013-14 - part three

OK, so, it's the first batch of the new contenders. Can they challenge the early pacesetters and defending champions?

Given the choice between coming up with a hilarious and thought-provoking intro and diving straight into the pubs, I chose the latter. Enjoy!

Contender #1: Hope, Carshalton

Carshalton. Not the sort of place you find yourself simply passing through, is it? I think they've got a pond or something, and I know I've rung the bells at All Saints a couple of times in the dim and distant past, but the only real reason anybody ever goes there, clearly, is this pub.

Owned, run, and lovingly caressed by the local community, the Hope's stand-out reputation is stonkingly, almost embarassingly priapic.

And despite its location on the southern fringes of the capital, the Hope has been named CAMRA Greater London Pub of the Year in each of the past two years. No pub ever won consecutive awards before.

This all means that it needs to be taken very seriously indeed and the Hope's place in this competition is long overdue. (Mainly because I didn't get to Carshalton often enough to give the place a fair assessment, admittedly. My bad.)

Quality of Real Ale: The local investors who took over the pub and turned it around a few years ago had a couple of clear objectives in mind, and these have remained the same ever since. One was to make the Hope a genuine community local, and another was to appeal to a wider audience by becoming a bit of a cask flagship. The CAMRA awards speak for themselves, and the quality of the beer is very good indeed. If every pint was as good as the truly excellent Twickenham 'Nooksack' I had here in March, they'd pick up full points, but I'm a tough critic and their overall score is a strong 2.

Range of Real Ale: Getting the balance right isn't always easy, but the Hope does it pretty well. There's a minimum of six or seven cask beers on at any one time, sometimes more, and they try to ensure that at least one is a dark beer and one is 'a bit of a hop monster' - a policy that should keep most drinkers happy. London breweries certainly aren't overrepresented here, though South of England mainstays Downton and Binghams are common sights on the bar. If I was nitpicking on behalf of the ticking community I'd say that they could maybe include a few more one-offs and seasonals, but 2 points is still a decent score.

Food: With no pretensions to be a swanky wanky gastro pub, the Hope has a very sensible food policy to stop hungry punters wandering down the road to Wetherspoons later in the evening. Simple, cheap 'pot meals' that they can heat up and serve with a bit of fresh bread and butter. Available all day. Chilli, Chicken and Chorizo casserole, that sort of thing. And the truth is, they're actually not bad at all. A large lunchtime menu is available (and I have to admit I've never tried it) but for about £5.50 right through until 10PM, you really can't go wrong with their pot meals. No, it's not fine dining and it's not really going to earn the point, but I'd be deducting a point if it were actually poor. 

Misleading dispense on the Hope website
Misleading dispense - does the local CAMRA branch know?

Bonus Points: They run a fairly good beer festival every month (+1) though this often runs out early, so try to get there before the last day. I'll also give them a point for the other drinks available - there are usually some interesting keg beers available, often at the extreme end of the scale, as well as a decent cider or two.  

I do, however, have a strong bone of contention with their website. It lists the beers currently available (which is all good, assuming it's up to date) but every single beer and cider, including keg, is shown against the image of a handpump, with a tooltip saying 'Drink Real Ale in The Hope', so you could easily be mislead into thinking they had Magic Rock 'Cannonball' or Lindemans Kriek on cask, and only realise after a long journey to Carshalton, that's they're the far less rare keg versions. It's just lazy UX design and could be easily fixed, so for now they lose a point for this.

So overall, it's 1 bonus point.

I know there is a certain kind of pubgoer that would give the Hope maximum points all day long, and I sorta feel bad that it's not me, but, well, tough love and all that.

Contender #2: Craft Beer Company, Clapham

Ooohh, they're here again. The chain with the craft in their beers...

Or something. Probably not the best Kate Bush adaption ever. But the CBC do run some of the finest pubs ever, which is why they've scored yet another entry in this year's Pub of the Year competition.

The Clapham branch only opened last December but it's already become the go-to drinking hole in that part of London. I have to admit to some initial scepticism, given how trendy Clapham has become over the last few years, but they've largely gone down the well-trodden road of 'traditional pub' styling here, with a few contemporary touches. There's a substantial outdoor drinking area (of which more, later), a light and uncluttered interior, and, of course, shitloads of great beers on tap at all times.

Quality of Real Ale: I had a feeling - quite an uncomfortable feeling actually - that when the Craft empire began to expand, the quality of their beer might start to tail off, particularly in their newer outlets. I'm delighted to say that I've been proven completely wrong, and Clapham lives up to the stupidly stratospheric standards set by Clerkenwell. I've drunk 8.5% old ale here, and I've had sub-3% boys bitter. It's all been up to the usual high standard and I'm really starting to think that nowhere can compete with the Craft chain on quality right now. 3 points.

Range of Real Ale: With 10 handpumps, it can't quite match Clerkenwell for range (apart from when certain special things are happening the aforementioned garden) but they maintain an ever-changing selection from top-tier breweries. It's worth 2 points, and my only real complaint is that sometimes you'll see clusters of beers from just a couple of breweries, or repeats of stuff you drank to death the previous night in another branch. But that's a minor, ticker-centric complaint.

Craft 100 beer festival
Craft 100 - Probably the best beer range ever seen in one pub
Food: Like the Islington Craft and some other branches in the chain, the catering is provided by Forty Burgers. I won't regurgitate the reasons why I find them disappointing (though not so disappointing that I actually regurgitate them!) but it doesn't win any points.  

Bonus Points: I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew I just had to include the Clapham Craft in this year's competition: Their 'Craft 100' beer festival back in April. For a pub festival to include a bladderbusting 100 beers, loads of them one-offs and rarities, is just astonishing. They plan to do this twice a year (can we make it twice a month please?!?) and it's the easiest bonus point anyone will pick up in this competition. If only every pub with a garden used it this effectively!

As with any pub bearing the Craft name, the range of keg and bottled beers, both domestic and international is truly awe-inspiring if you're not in the mood for cask. Evil Twin, Kernel, Stone - it reads like a World Atlas of craft beer and, naturally earns them another bonus point. Conequently I can't think of any reason to deny them the maximum 2 here.


Contender #3: Tap East, Stratford

They're Ba-ack! I can never remember if that's Poltergeist 2 or Ghoulies 2, but on this occasion it's the Tap East. Too.

I've been feeling slightly guilty over the last couple of years as the Tap East was very unlucky to narrowly miss out on the final of the inaugural PotY competion; Consequently according to the rules (my rules, hence the guilt!) they weren't in last years contest, so hopefully their return here will be a glorious one. Or at least, passably good make-up sex.

Ben drinking in Tap East
The only reason to go to Westfield...
The brewpub, on the edge of the Westfield Shopping Centre (just across the road from Stratford International Station if you fucking hate walking through shopping centres) offers something a little different to your everyday boozer. Very different, if you drink beer out of an Easter Egg, but that's only applicable to me. Probably.
Quality of Real Ale: In theory, beer served directly from the brewery should be immaculate. If a brewpub can't get it right with their own beers then what hope for the rest of humanity? Indeed, the Tap East beers are almost always in excellent condition, just as God and the brewer intended.

I just can't give the Tap East a maximum though, simply because the guest beers just aren't in such good condition most of the time. 2 points.

Range of Real Ale: While their own beers feature strongly, a couple of the six handpumps are always given over to guest ales, which could come from literally anywhere, though Brewster's, Roosters and Mallinsons all make regular appearances on the bar.

Generally the guests come and go quickly, while the in-house beers stay on the bar for a while (well it's not as though they'd only do a one-cask brew run, is it?!?) but this isn't always a bad thing as it gives you time to get all the limited editions or enjoy the really good beers on multiple occasions. (Tap East 'Saxon Invasion Sour' is quite possibly the most surprisingly beautiful ale I've had this year!)

There's never anything from the big, boring breweries, and it's enough of a mix to earn a solid 2 points.
Salty Dog crisps
My new favourite crisp

Food: For a somewhat American-style brewpub, food is surprisingly de-emphasized here, but then it's on the edge of a big fuck-off shopping mall with plenty of places to eat, and they don't have the table space or kitchen capacity to compete. Besides, housing a brewery is an infinitely better use of their limited real estate, no? They do fairly standard (small) burgers and fries which aren't all that great, but not quite bad enough for negative points, because they are priced cheaply so you know what to expect.

Bonus Points: I've found a new favourite crisp this year. Salty Dog Jalapeno and Coriander flavour, and it's all thanks to the Tap East. Initially I was disappointed when they changed suppliers as it meant no more Tyrrell's Salt and Black Pepper, but I soon got over that when I tucked the fuck into these bad boys. (The only other place I've seen them was at Queen's Club for the tennis a few weeks ago.) So, epic snack win and a bonus point.

I'm also hugely impressed with their use of social media to let folks know what beers are on at any one time. Are you listening, almost every other pub in the world? You could learn a lot from these guys!

The Tap East can also pick up bonus points for their annual beer festival, which highlights the fruits of collaborative brew days with co-conspirators ranging from established breweries like Thornbridge to local Coffee producers. Then there's the internationally-focussed range on keg, often including hard-to-find lagers and fruity delights. Yes, I should probably dock them for inadequate toilet facilities that sometimes descend into Valhallan levels of unpleasantness, but the four positives cancel out any wayward piss puddles. 2 bonus points.

And so, we've now visited 75% - or, in the old money, nine - of this year's Pub of the Year contenders, with just one last batch left to be reviewed.

Business end, my friends, business end.

Where to find it...

The Hope
48 West street,
SM5 2PR (map)

Craft Beer Co. Clapham
128 Clapham Manor street,
SW4 6ED (map)

Tap East
Lower Ground Floor,
Westfield Stratford City
E20 1EE (map)

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