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, July 18, 2015

BV London Pub of the Year 2014-15 - part one

What's your favourite thing about the Summer?

For some it's the scalding hot weather; for others, the sensation of sand in their footwear that lingers long after they've left the beach.

But in a recent survey 98.8% of people said that the best thing about Summer was finding out which pub has won the BV Pub of the Year trophy. No, really. That's what 98.8% of people said.

And here we are, it's that time. That special, magical time. 98.8% of peoples favourite time.

As I explained recently, we're playing by some slightly new rules this year, but the principle remains pretty much the same: Last year's top five pubs compete against five new contenders and we'll reveal the winner some time next month.

Today we'll check up on the first batch - the best of the best from the 2013-14 competition...

Last year's Winner: Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell

A pub that has arguably done more for London's beer scene than any other, the Craft Clerkenwell has finished 1st, 4th and then 1st again in this contest, wiping the floor with the competition while simultaneously encouraging them to up their own games.

It's a hugely impressive record, and the PotY Champion has wisely chosen to leave its winning formula unchanged. But can it stand up to the competition? (Why, yes. Yes it can!)

Can Clerkenwell win it for a third time?!?
Range of Draught beers: Massively extensive. With something like 18 handpumps and 21 keg lines, the phrase 'wide range' doesn't do the place justice. Only a couple of taps are occupied by the house beers (Kent brewery craft pale and Thornbridge Tsara) with the remainder given over to a hugely varied selection from breweries near and far, often with clusters of  beers from the same brewer showcased at any given time.

Premier League breweries like Siren, Rooster's and Thornbridge get plenty of bar space and rightly so, but you'll see plenty of International craftwork too from the likes of Evil Twin and Birra del Borgo.

You'll typically find sub-4% session beers happily sharing bar space with those in double digits, and while there are always plenty of hopmonster IPA-type beers, a range of styles is always represented. Whether you feel like a kolsch, a berlinner weisse or an imperial stout, they probably have something for you.

If I had one teensy criticism it might be that the cask range can sometimes be a little conservative compared to the keg, but they can only sell what the breweries release, and it's not going to deny them the maximum 3 points in this category.

Quality of Real Ale: I wrote a piece for London Drinker magazine earlier in the year on the theme 'For great cask beer, follow the keg', highlighting the fact that pubs with lots of craft keg lines tend to be better at looking after casks than perhaps more traditional, cask-oriented pubs. I can't think of anywhere that makes this point better than the CBC chain.

Theoretically a pub can score anything from -2 to 2 in this category, but as a mainly cask-oriented drinker it's important to me and a pub would have to excel in other categories to get anywhere near this competition.

That's not an issue here, obviously. The real ales are always cool, bright and enticing - just as they should be - and full of character and definition. Hoppy ales are assertive, milds that you'd expect to be subtle, are subtle. There's none of this muddying of flavours that you get in some rubbish pubs and clearly the staff know exactly what they are doing. Of course it's a full 2 points.

Je Suis Craft
Food: This is not a foodie pub and it doesn't pretend to be. It's also in Leather Lane which has no shortage of delicious street food, particularly in the daytime. Occasionally you do see tourists wandering in here thinking it's some sort of restaurant. I like it when they stay for a beer instead of walking out!

Such as they are, the snacks available - pies and Scotch eggs - are very good. This isn't somewhere you'd bring your incredibly hot date for a seated gastropub meal, but that's fine. It's not supposed to be that kind of pub.

Bonus points: The aforementioned snackage is worth a point, while the rather impressive bottled beer selection (available to take out at a 33% discount too!) lands them another. Daily beer lists on every table are a great feature, given the sheer distance along the bar from the first beer to the last, and I could also give them a point for the helpfulness and knowledge of staff which goes far beyond most pubs (I have to admit, when I see a new staff member I sometimes test them by asking an idiot question!)

The one black mark as far as bonus points go would be the crowdedness at busy times, which can make it an unpleasant, heaving place to drink - but given that there are at least four positives to counter this, the bonus points tally stands at a maximum 3.

And that is a massive, mighty gauntlet lain down by the champion right there!

Last year's Runner-up: Craft Beer Co. Clapham

Dominance. Sheer dominance.

I've introduced a new rule this year that among the new contenders, any one owner or chain can only be represented once. You can think of it as a 'Craft Beer Company' rule simply to allow other pubs to have a cats chance in hell!

The Clapham branch made its debut in the competition last year and shot straight to the No. 2 spot, great news for a part of London that for too long was full of wanky high street style bars, glum back street locals and little else.

Just a tiny fragment of a Craft 100 cask lineup!
Range of Draught beers: 10 handpumps and 16 keg lines provide an extensive choice, though admittedly not quite as wide as the range in some of the other CBC pubs.

The breadth of styles cannot be faulted, with traditional pale ales and porters rubbing shoulders with modern sour fruit beers and peanut butter brown ales. As in other Craft outlets, breweries tend to be represented in clusters, particularly on cask, while formalised tap takeovers are also commonplace.

A few years ago, you'd give this place maximum points for the everyday range. As it is, it falls just short purely because of the standard set by places like, err, Craft Clerkenwell! 2 points.

(This does not apply during Craft 100 festivals, obviously!)

Quality of Real Ale: Much of what I say about the Clerkenwell branch holds true here. They know how to handle cask, they know what the beer should taste like, and they know that nobody wants to drink warm London Murky (and if anybody does, they probably won't be darkening the door of anywhere with 'craft' in its name!)

The last Craft 100 also had wicked Cheesesteaks!
I've not had a poor pint in this pub this year, and I'm not even sure I've had an average one. So a full 2 points.

Food: While it's good that the CBC chain haven't changed their beer ethos over the last year, it's also  true that they haven't changed their food concession from Forty Burgers. Everything I said last year still stands. They're not terrible, but they fall well short of burger perfection. And that means a neutral score.

Bonus points: Since opening, Clapham has held 'Craft 100' beer festivals twice a year. These have been absolutely superb, featuring rare, one-off and downright demented cask beers, including some of the best drinking experiences of my entire life. That's worth a point. The outdoor drinking areas which make the festival possible offer plenty of space for al fresco drinking and that's another point for the Clapham branch. Needless to say the bottled beer range makes it a maximum 3.

(I'm getting worried there won't be an Autumn Craft 100 as the company are promoting their London Beer Carnival - all keg, £50 admission, unlimited 90ml samples - which is, shall we say, not entirely aligned 100% with my personal values and drinking objectives! Hopefully Craft 100 will still happen as the two are surely different enough from one another to coexist?!?)

Last year's #3: Rake, Borough

London's original micropub, the Rake featured in the inaugural PotY contest, then surprised everyone, me included, by storming back last year and notching up an impressive third place finish.

Range of Draught beers: Given its diminuitive size, the Rake is always going to struggle to compete with the bigger boys. But what it lacks in sheer quantity, it usually tries to make up in variety. Three handpumps (on which any given beers usually lasts only 24 hours) usually focus on the best of British, while seven keg taps are concentrated on the continent and US, with UK craft keg making an occasional appearance. You'll usually find something hoppy, something dark, something saisony... and occasionally a real rarity (like a 9.8% stout from De Molen on cask).

'No crap on tap' is the philosophy, and generally the cask beers come from the most highly regarded small-ish breweries - Dark Star, Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Celt Experience... The high turnover of beers keeps things interesting, and all in all it's worth 2 points.

The Rake - where beer celebrities like me drink
Quality of Real Ale: In the early days there were some quality issues at the Rake, but these appear to have been long banished. It's in an area blessed with pubs and quite likely you'll be visiting as part of a Borough Market pub crawl. This gives you a perfect opportunity to taste the difference as other notable pubs in the area might well be scoring -1 or 0.

The Rake, like any pub hoping to pick up the BV trophy, is of course a 2. Cask turns over so quickly here, the beer won't have time to go off in any way, and if it's no good it'll never get put on. Win-win.

Food: Fairly obviously, it's not about food.

Bonus points: The Rake are fairly creative with their snack offering, including beer sticks, possibly the finest charcuterie on the planet, and pork scratchings from one of the Borough Market butchers. Another point comes their way courtesy of the bottled selection in the fridge. There are also beer festivals every few months, usually focussing on beers from a specific area.

As a couple of people have pointed out to me, the Rake's toilet facilities are, in the words of the Damned, grimly fiendish. Probably to the extent that I have to reluctantly deduct a point. This still gives them 2 bonus points in the bag, however. 

Last year's #4: Catford Constitutional, Catford

It was all a bit complicated, wasn't it? The Catford Bridge Tavern won the 2012-13 award, then promptly closed its doors, with the staff decanting to two spiritual successors, one of which then scooped fourth place in last year's competition.

But what has happened since then?

Range of Draught beers: I share with many others the view that Antic pubs are, on the whole, going downhill. The shabby chic and boardgames remain, but the beer ranges have suffered in many of their pubs, including this one.

Typically five or six cask beers will include the house beer Volden 'Vim' (a very bland beer from Antic's own brewery that they took over from Clarence & Fredericks) as well as Dark Star Partridge and Caledonian Deuchars IPA as regulars. This fairly uninteresting selection leaves little room for guests, and while there might be the occasional gem, it's just as likely to be the ubiquitous Doom Bar. Ugh.

On the keg front many of the taps are standard mainstream lagers, though there is some space for craft - Hopcraft's Graveyard Eyes was a notable guest a few months back and anything from Kernel is always welcome when it shows up. I don't know why things have taken the turn they have and it might be more to do with Antic head office policy, but, taking the competition into consideration, I can only given the place 1 point this time around.

Quality of Real Ale: It may be all in my imagination, but I don't think it is. As the range of beers available at the Cat Con have become less exciting, it seems as though the quality has dropped just a notch as well.

Antic pubs can still do good food
The beer is still well kept, but not always particularly inspiring (and they're making this task harder for themselves by stocking uninspirational beers!) so it scores a respectable, but uninspiring 1.

Food: One area where Antic pubs, particularly this one, continue to impress is the quality of the menu. And to be brutally honest, given some of the nondescript beer, this place has relied on filling my tummy with stunning food to make my evening not feel like a disappointment.

The steak and chips - now rather garlicky and herbal, but please bring back the big fuck-off mushroom - is a pub classic, while new dishes like the crispy salt and pepper squid and a charcuterie board are all executed impeccably and reasonably priced. Clearly they get the point for the food offering - it's just a shame that one now has to look to the bottle selection to find a beer worthy of playing accompanist.

Bonus points: One of the things I've noticed over years of surveying pubs is that generally the bottled beer selection is far better than it used to be, pretty much everywhere. As befits a pub with such fine food available, this place also has a rather nice wine list and can pick up a point for that as well. The sense of community engagement, including the famous quiz night, is still high and the multi-room layout means that quizzes, gigs etc. don't disturb those who value peace and quiet. It all means a maximum of 3 bonus points.

Last year's #5: Craft Beer Co. Islington

Completing a mammoth three entries in last year's top five, the Islington branch is facing an uncertain future (sound familiar?) with the current lease set to expire and the owners looking to sell - though the buyer may end up being the Craft Beer Company chain. Hopefully.

Range of Draught beers: It's a similar deal to the Clapham branch, with about 9-10 real ales and 15-ish keg beers typically on offer, most of them tasty and interesting, obviously.

I'm going to stick my neck out here - it might just be down to the sheer happenstance of what beers were available on my visits, but I feel that the selection here is just a bit more conservative than in some of the other Craft pubs. More pale ales, fewer sours and saisons. Maybe. I could be mistaken. It also seems that Islington offers beers that were on at the other pubs in the chain a couple of weeks later than them. Again, I could be mistaken.

And let's recycle an old photo of the Craft Islington, shall we...
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and a score of 2, because, whatever my issues, there is still an undeniably solid selection of beers available at any given time. But I'm keeping a beady, slightly suspicious eye on the situation...

Quality of Real Ale: The Islington Craft was runner-up two years ago, even beating other pubs in the chain, and this victory was built on a foundation of cask beer quality. Since then other pubs have undeniably caught up and I do feel a slight, hesitant guilt in wondering if Islington maybe isn't quite as good as it once was.

Around the turn of the year I had a pint of Northern Monk 'Bruno's Cossack', a smoked ale, which struck me as being maybe slightly off - but then it may just have been a poor beer in comparison to the excellent Dark Star Creme Brulee that I'd just had, which was in storming condition.

All things considered, it's another beady eye situation, and as I gave them the benefit of the proverbial a few paragraphs ago, I'll be stricter this time. But 1 is a still a good score in this category.

Food: Burgers: Forty; Points: none.

Bonus points: They're not always available since Forty burgers came along, but the snacky pies and other nibbling morsels are good, as in the rest of the chain. They also get a point for the bottle selection, but beyond that it's hard to find anything that makes the Islington Craft stand out above the competition these days. 2 points.

And there we go - that's the lowdown on last year's top five. Come back in a few days when we check out the five spanking new contenders to see if anyone can make a run for the finish line.

Where to find it...

Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell
82 Leather Lane,
EC1N 7TR (map)
Craft Beer Co. Clapham
128 Clapham Manor street,
SW4 6ED (map)
The Rake
14a Winchester walk,
Borough Market,
SE1 9AG (map)

Catford Constitutional
Broadway Market
SE6 4SP (map)

Craft Beer Company Islington
55 White Lion Street
N1 9PP (map)


  1. YAWN so the craft beer company wins again, same old boring beers if you ask ne

  2. YAWN no one asked you!!

  3. On Stonch's beer blog recently the Rake came up as one of the pubs people think of as the most overrated in London. I don't mind it myself. Not sure it's top five though.



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