But what makes the competition fresh and interesting every year - and hopefully injects at least some element of surprise - is the arrival of the new contenders. Five lovely little pubs that weren't in the competition last year but are hoping to take top spot nonetheless.
And, unlike the General Election, there are no desperate retreads amongst our intake - these five are all PotY debutants! And one of them even does the world's best sausage rolls!
Contender #1: Crown & Anchor, StockwellOnce a very, rough boozer and music venue in one of the bleaker, grimier parts of London, the Crown and Anchor has undergone a transformation into the area's coolest drinking destination with an impressive commitment to beer. Both hipster- and CAMRA-friendly, the sister pub to the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington has arguably surpassed its sibling. But then we all know, South London is best, right?!?
Range of Draught beers: I'll never forget my first visit to this place. Half of me saw the list of beers on the blackboard and thought 'fuck, wow!'. The other half was suffering (unrelatedly) from severe stomach cramps and nausea and didn't feel like drinking anything much that evening. I still managed a couple and resolved to go back. Which I have, several times, hence its inclusion in this competition, obviously.
With eight, ever-changing real ales usually available, choice is good. Local breweries (Brixton, Hop Stuff, Anspach & Hobday etc.) are complemented by the 'it' crowd (Siren, SummerWine) and some unusual micros (Popes, Tonbridge). I've not seen much in the way of super-strong or outlandish beers on cask, but there's plenty in the way of stouts and porters.
|Looks like a tube of sick - actually a beer infusor!|
Quality of Real Ale: Basically very good. I can't say it's had the 'OMG' factor (apart from on one occasion when an American Pale Ale was absolutely perfect for the moment) but solid, nicely conditioned ale and on the scale of -2 to 2, 1 point is a decent score.
Food: A full menu is available and it's pretty good. There are more foodie pubs in the competition this year and it's an area where the game has been raised over the last year or so. Sunday Roasts aren't perhaps quite as good as Antic pubs, but still tasty and generously proportioned. Daily dishes like moules frites are well executed too - and nobody complains if you just want to eat a portion of crunchy, salty frites with your pint. Desserts are good too, and they qualify for the point here.
Bonus points: I'm going to give this place what may be a controversial point. I haven't deducted net points from any pub for being too crowded at peak times, but it's an undeniable truth that this can sometimes make them unpleasant. I've been here on Friday and Saturday evenings, and I've always been able to take a seat, a breath and a piss. That sort of stuff is kinda important to me.
Pubs don't get points just for having one token real cider on the bar these days. But this place often offers an admirable choice of 3-4 ciders and perries, which certainly is worth something. Like many craft-oriented pubs, the bottle selection is impressive and pointworthy too. It doesn't open until the afternoon, which costs it a point though, leaving a total of 2.
Contender #2: Royal Albert, New CrossEverybody in London knows that Antic pubs have gone downhill over the last couple of years. But every rule has an exception to prove it, and the Royal Albert is just such an exception.
The Albert has probably been a tad unlucky over the last three years. It's always been on my long list for consideration, yet never quite made the Pub of the Year shortlist - until now.
Range of Draught beers: Aside from the mediocre house beer 'Vim' - a Doom Bar clone, seemingly imposed by Antic across the entire estate - the cask and craft keg lineup is constantly changing. There is an emphasis on London breweries, often the hard to find ones, so you might see a Wheat beer from Canopy on cask, or an Orbit lager on the keg lines.
Popular favourites like Dark Star 'Hophead' still show up from time to time, but the management have a strong commitment to offering real choice in both styles and strengths. Typically 6-7 cask beers on, and 3-4 of the kegs are likely to be interesting. It's not the silly choice you get in certain places, obviously, but for a street corner local in New Cross it's pretty good. 2 points.
Quality of Real Ale: This is one area where the Royal Albert has notably improved. A couple of years ago it would be scoring a haphazard -1, with some cask beers served too green, others frolicking in the diacetyl playground, and some just stale and vinegary. Other times it would be fine, of course, but you never knew what you were going to get.
|Someone left their Charcuterie board lying outside the Albert|
Food: Antic pubs are known for their solid work in the kitchen, with simple but impeccably-executed menus making use of local produce. The selection changes frequently and there are daily specials, but I've enjoyed dishes like duck egg welsh rarebit and crispy pigs cheeks here, as well as traditional steaks and bangers'n'mash. All up to the usual Antic standard.
This is achieved without the pretensions of gastropubbery and they rightfully earn the foodie point. (Though the £10 charcuterie board is probably overpriced!)
Oh, and their sausage rolls, served freshly hot from the oven, are - no arguments, you fuckers - the best in the world. Really. The light, flaky pastry; the warm herby aroma; the thick, thick meaty sausagemeat; the salty, savoury flavours that go so well with a hoppy pale ale...
Bonus points: Tough love, but it loses a point for restricted opening hours, not opening its doors until 4PM most days, making a tasty lunch not an option. That's the bad news out of the way. They gain a bonus point for the snacks available over the bar including beer sticks and olives. Unlike most Antic pubs these days, they continue to hold beer festivals which earns them a point. They're also one of the few London pubs to boast a traditional bar billiards table, and that's worth another. Finally, the number of places serving decent beer and showing the football is very limited round here, so yet another example of the Albert's rariety value means that they end up with 3 bonus points.
Contender #3: Craft Beer Co. Covent GardenWell, whadya know. Here's a familiar name. The latest addition to the Craft stable only opened just over a year ago but has been firmly on the beer map since day one.
|Barely a year old...|
Range of Draught beers: I believe this may well be the biggest regular range in the whole of London. When all taps are pouring, a massive 45 draught beers are available, with 15 cask and 30 keg skewing the balance slightly more kegwards than in other Craft pubs.
As you'd expect, these come from all over the world and in every conceivable style. You can have a 3% sour fruit beer in one hand and a 12% Imperial stout in the other - and people do do that. (OK, by 'people' I mean me.)
Two of my top scoring beers of 2014 were found in here - Siren 'Calypso: White Peach and Pineapple', and Thornbridge 'Baize' - and both are beers I have never seen available on draught anywhere else. An ever-changing and ever-awesome selection, this might well be the best choice of beer in the world. 3 points, clearly.
Quality of Real Ale: As one would expect from the Craft chain, this is routinely superb. Delightful fresh, cool pints every time that make normal pubs look faintly ridiculous in comparison.
Don't get me wrong, I've had beers here that I haven't liked, but it's always been down to the style of beer and never the condition. If anywhere can challenge Clerkenwell's original Craft on beer quality, it's this place. The full 2 points.
Food: Sigh. I'm not going to have the Forty Burgers discussion with anybody ever again. Seriously. You come at me wit' that trash talk, I blow your momma. Or something.
Bonus points: As if the gargantuan range of draught beers weren't enough, choice is increased further with a bottled selection, and, uniquely among the Crafts, this place can also pick up a bonus point for the eccentric spirits and liqeurs on the top shelf (which may or may not be joined by a BV Trophy at some point in the near future). With plenty of space behind the long, long bar there are also some fine snacks available including pitta chips and spicy mexican nuts, not to mention various flavours of farm-produced pork scratchings. It's hard to find anything for which points can be docked, so the Craft, as they so often do, picks up the full quota of bonus points.
Contender #4: Pelt Trader, CityLocated under railway arches behind Cannon Street station, the Pelt Trader is a sibling of former PotY Finalist the Euston Tap and the Holborn Whippet. I also happen to think that, at this moment, it's better than either of those places.
Given the City location, it's inevitably popular with loud-talking twats in suits during the lunch and early evening rushes, but at night it empties out a bit and becomes home to the crafterati who have made it very much part of the circuit.
Range of Draught beers: There are typically at least six cask beers and about 12 keg available, with a focus on top British breweries. As with other pubs in this chain, Buxton and Bristol breweries both feature strongly, while there is also usually an Adnams beer on. There is a bit of a stylistic bias towards pale'n'hoppy while a good quality lager is often an option too.
|Great beer, great pizza|
There is also a tendency for the same beers to show up over and over again. Redemption 'Trinity' is great, but sometimes you want more, right? This makes the Pelt Trader a borderline 1/2 pointer. I'll give it a 2, simply for consistency as I've generally been generous with the benefit of the doubt when assessing this years competitors.
Quality of Real Ale: There is a certain standard set by exceptional pubs like the Craft chain that few others can match. I have to sit and think carefully when considering how close to that benchmark any other given pub is (and almost always decide that, no, it's actually not as good.)
On this occasion, I just can't fault the beer at the Pelt Trader. It's telling that at the British Guild of Beer Writers pre-GBBF bash last Summer, a large number of members left the event early, passing up free beer in order to adjourn here to pay for the stuff. Because it was better. I don't do this lightly, but I'm giving the Pelt the maximum 2 points.
Food: Pizza. Just pizza. But what excellent pizza. The Pelt Trader has chosen to specialise, and that's no bad thing. They do one thing and do it very well: Stonebaked, Italian-style pizza with a thin, crispy base and not overloaded with inappropriate or incongruous toppings. Delicious. I wish they did one with anchovies on it, but I can't complain when the artichoke, pesto and olive is so good. And the pepperoni, come to that.
There are places masquerading as Italian restaurants that don't do pizza this good - and it's very reasonable value, at about 15 quid for a large pizza that'll fill two tummies at lunchtime. There are one or two places in the US and Italy where I've had a beer and pizza combo better than this, but nowhere in London. Pelt gets the food point.
|Your brewery is showing!|
Contender #5: Bull, HighgateThe only brewpub in this years competition, the Bull is home to perhaps the worst-named brewery in London, the London Brewing Company. Yes, it's a brewing company based somewhere in London, but are they really so bereft of imagination?!?
This pub has been nominated by readers for a couple of years now and rounds off the list of new contenders.
Range of Draught beers: LBC beers are rarely found in the free trade, and a changing selection of 3-4 of these are typically augmented by a couple of guests, often including the much sought-after seasonals from Thornbridge. In addition to the half a dozen casks, there are at least as many keg offerings; less emphasis on domestic craft keg than some of the other pubs in the running, but with authentic German pilsner and American IPA often available. Recently some of their own beers have appeared in keg form too.
Overall, it's not really the greatest selection though. The LBC beers are just a bit too similar to one another, and they need to up their game to earn more than 1 point.
Quality of Real Ale: In theory, brewpubs should be able to serve their own ales in tippy-toppy-tastic condition, though, like theoretical Communism, this often proves false in practice.
Bizarrely, the better cask beers I've had here have been the guests. Too much Acetaldehyde in some of the LBC ales. I want to like the Bull as it seems to have a lot going for it on paper, but the sad reality is that beer quality is, on balance, just average. 0 points.
Food: Of all the points I've awarded and rescinded over the course of this competition, this is the one that's absolutely doing my fucking head in.
I've had a couple of plates of food at the Bull that were so stunning I went back and ordered the same dish again immediately! I've also had a really poor Sunday Roast served lukewarm with bland, watery gravy and criminally round roast potatoes.
|Best. Scotch. Egg. Ever.|
Alright, alright, I'm giving the point. Happy?!?
Bonus points: Can the Bull salvage some dignity? Well, the bottled range, with plenty of American and Belgian ales, doesn't disappoint. And the Highgate clientele will probably be impressed by the lengthy wine list, which earns another point. They also have an intriguing selection of board games - not just for show either - which make sticking around all afternoon a tempting prospect, sometimes in spite of indifferent beer. So it's a maximum set of bonus points for Mr. Bull here, though perhaps a case of icing without the cake.
And there we are. Five pubs all going up against last year's finalists in hope, expectation and, err, beer. You can start crunching the numbers now if you like, but I'll be revealing the top five and overall winner sometime in mid-August.
Until then, pick a pub and get drinking!
Where to find it...
Crown & Anchor
246 Brixton Road
SW9 6AQ (map)
460 New Cross Road
SE14 6TJ (map)
Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden
168 High Holborn
WC1V 7AA (map)
Arch 3, Dowgate Hill
City of London
EC4N 6AP (map)
13 North Hill
N6 4AB (map)