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!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BV London Pub of the Year 2015-16 - part two

The other day we revisited the top five pubs from last year's competition. Now comes the arguably more interesting list of the five new challengers on the 2015-16 shortlist.

Narrowing it down to five was a challenge. Trying to ensure all parts of Greater London are represented is borderline impossible, while there is always a strong temptation to include more pubs that are undeniably great but similar to those already in the competition - such as another Craft Beer Company outlet.

I've tried to pick pubs that I think are worthy of entry in the competition whilst retaining a bit of variety, and this is what I've come up with:

Contender #1: Cock Tavern, Hackney

As part of my quest to visit every brewery in London, I've taken in a lot of brewpubs, including this one, but the truth is that the Cock Tavern has been pretty unlucky not to make the Pub of the Year shortlist in previous years.

Formerly home to the Howling Hops brewery - which has now moved to far larger premises in Hackney Wick, and, yes, I've been there this year too - it now houses the relatively tiny Maregade plant.

Range of draught beers: While the brewery in the basement is usually represented on the bar, there are still far more brews on offer from its larger Howling Hops sibling, and indeed guest beers from a variety of sources. Typically six to eight cask beers on the ancient-looking wooden handpulls, and maybe as many again on keg.

It may not look like much...
The Maregade and Howling Hops beers are usually excellent, with differently-hopped variations keeping things interesting. Pale ales and stouts tend to dominate, along with the occasional super-strong beer, which rather fits in with the 'old man's trousers' atmosphere that doesn't exactly scream wheat beer or wild cherry sour. But it's a decent selection. 2/3.

Quality of real ale: If there was anything holding back the Cock in previous competitions (I'm sure there's a joke about a tight frenulum in there somewhere but I'm not going to make it!) it's that in the pubs early days I had a few lacklustre pints in here. Not terrible, mind, just not brilliant.

Happily, this is no longer the case and the quality of the cask beer is now pretty damn good. Probably not quite good enough to earn maximum points, but worth a solid 1

Food: Very much a 'wet-led' pub in Morning Advertiser-speak, the food offering is limited to pies and cold cuts, plus an extensive range of snacks. So no food point, but good for soaking up the ale.

Bonus points: If you enjoy cask cider and perry then there are few pubs better than this with a range of six or seven usually available at a variety of strengths and sweetnesses. That's one bonus point, and they can pick up another for the impressive snack range including the rather moreish Serious Pig salami. 

Contender #2: Tap East, Stratford

Another East London brewpub, the Tap East is the only re-entry among this year's challengers and is making its third appearance in five years, though it's never done quite enough to make the top five.

I drink there quite a bit, despite it being located on the edge of an horrific shopping centre and not particularly easy to get to. But what is it that keeps me coming back? (Other than being able to drink out of an Easter Egg with nobody giving me funny looks!)

Pumpclips on the walls is always a good look
Range of draught beers: One of the great things about the new wave of brewpubs is that they love to keep things diverse. Of the six cask ales available (often turning over very quickly with some popular beers lasting less than a day!) there are normally a couple of 'regular' Tap East brews plus a Tap East seasonal special, and then a handful of guest beers from the likes of Thornbridge, Marble, Shiny etc.

Then there are eight or so keg lines, with a couple of fairly standard International lagers, wheat beers, fruit beers, maybe some standard stuff like Brewdog Dead Pony Club. Stylistically it's all a very good mix and you never know quite what you might see - for example Tap East IPA might be on cask and keg, but slightly different versions of the beer brewed with different hops, then the following day the IPA that was on keg will now come onto one of the cask lines and Tap East Wheat will show up on keg. I can't quite award maximum points but it's at the upper end of a 2.

Quality of real ale: This is an area where the Tap East has upped its game. Quality was always good but now it's really good and the high cask turnover may have a lot to do with that. This applies to both their own beers and the guests and I'm happy to award the maximum 2 points.

Food: Given its location at the end of a shopping centre food court, I'm not that bothered that the Tap East doesn't do much in the food department - it's better that they use that space for the brewery rather than a kitchen. That said, they do a perfectly nice portion of crispy fries with mayonnaise when I'm peckish.

Bonus points: Let's get the negatives out of the way first - a point must be deducted for the toilet facilities, or rather, the lack of. I know the point about the space for the brewery applies, but still... (Most of us dash outside and use Stratford International station, or wander into the shopping centre instead.)

Now we can start to tot up the positive bonus points. Salty Dog crisps are probably the best packaged crisp on the market at the moment, so they pick up a point for their snack range. Then there are the board games, including beer top trumps unless somebody's nicked them. The bottled beer selection is definitely worth a point too.

Finally we have their beer festivals, which are overflowing with one-offs and collaborations, however, the gravity-dispensed beer is served far warmer and in poorer condition than their usual cask ales, which sort of cancels that out, point-wise. All of this leaves them with 2 net bonus points which isn't at all bad.

Contender #3: Draft House, Bermondsey

The Draft House chain has a few branches now, including a horrendously-packed one near Old Street and a rather gloomy presence in the 'Nappy Valley' part of Battersea. This is their first appearance in the PotY competition and it's the Draft House at the Southern end of Tower Bridge which makes it into our exclusive club.

Range of draught beers: (Yes, Draft House, it's spelt 'draught'!) The selection is focused largely on keg, with about 10 beers usually available. While there are nods to mainstream lager tastes, albeit usually fairly upmarket brands, there is plenty of space for the IPAs and Saisons of London's achingly cool craft brewers - Beavertown, Five Points, Kernel and Fourpure from just down the road. Add to these some equally crafty US imports and you're gonna have a good time.

There are usually three or four cask beers on offer too, often one from Sambrooks, and every day there is a 'daily cask' promotion with a beer sold at a very low price for central London. It's a pretty neat range and worth 2 points.

Quality of real ale:  OK. This place is more about keg and bottled beer, and that's fine, though oftentimes the cask options are new and interesting beers that I just have to try - just recently this was the first place to have the revived 'Whitbread Pale Ale', now brewed at Windsor & Eton.  But, the cask beer here isn't perhaps as good as in the other pubs in the competition.

You could almost be in an American diner
I hesitate slightly in awarding a score of 0 because it seems unduly mean. So lets remind ourselves: This is a scale from -2 to +2 and zero is merely an average score for average quality cask beer. 

Food: There is a separate section out back offering American diner-style food and it's really rather good. You can run a tab and have beers brought to your table and it's almost like being there.

The portions are hearty, the prices reasonable, and it's very tasty stuff. Smoky dogs. Chilli cheese fries. A massive bowl of spicy buffalo wings served with a cool, creamy blue cheese dip (though we need more celery sticks please!) I happily go to dine here, and it's definitely worth the foodie point.

Bonus points: They've earned a point for their food, but over the counter bar snacks are a different kettle of fish entirely - or indeed a different glass of home-made foot-long pork scratchings. Yes, you read that correctly. Are you even still here after reading that?!?

That's worth a point and the Draft House can also be proud of its equally pointworthy bottled beer list with an impressive range from around the world (though I've been told they don't always get the glassware right, that's not enough to deduct a point).

Contender #4: White Hart, Whitechapel

Back in the world of moveable brewpub feasts, the One Mile End brewery is still, I think, brewing at this pub in the heart of bustling Whitechapel, located appropriately enough at No. 1, Mile End. But they've expanded out into the old Redemption Brewery premises, more than one mile away in Tottenham. Whether they'll stay here in the longer term I have no idea.

Range of draught beers: Regardless of whether or not it's brewed on site, the majority of the beer available is from One Mile End. Some beers are on both cask and keg so you can compare the two, and while there aren't many guests on the handpumps there are plenty of keg beers from elsewhere, often other London micros.

The extent of the range varies wildly - I've seen anything from six cask beers down to just one, plus somewhere between four and eight on keg. Until very recently, One Mile End beers like Hospital Porter and Docker's Delight were hard to find anywhere else which gave the range here some novelty value. Due to inconsistency though, I can only really give 1 point.

Quality of real ale: For a brewpub, even one where some of the brewing is happening elsewhere, the condition of the cask ale ain't great. In some instances where the same beer was available on keg, I'd be tempted to plump for the keg version, which is most unlike me.

No points for telling me what is wrong here!!!
I've give a lot of pubs negative points for beer quality, but not usually those in a Pub of the Year competition. Maybe I overestimated the place when whittling down the shortlist a few weeks back (or had other things on my mind like breakfast salad) but in the cold light of day I really have to give -1. Not good enough.

Food: Some of the most interesting pub meals I've had over the past year. It's almost as though I only included this pub in the competition in order to talk about it. Almost.

After several beers with my best mate, I had an OK-ish burger and chips which came with an curious aniseedy ketchup that didn't seem entirely confident if it was deliberate or not. But this was nothing compared to the 'Full English' served to me when I went there for brunch.

Gherkin. Salad leaves. Dressing. Pine nuts.

On a plate of breakfast. Seriously.

The food isn't actually bad, so I'm not going to go with a minus point, but somebody in the kitchen area needs a proper talking too.

Bonus points: I feel pretty terrible, but I'm really struggling to think of anything to score the White Hart on, but to avoid it ending up with nul points, I'll be generous and give them one for the wine list, which is probably above average for the area.

Contender #5: Three Johns, Islington

Our final pub of the 2015-16 contest opened in 2014, describes itself as a 'speciality spirits pub' - but there's a lot more to it than that. Beer, for example. And pizza.

Located just down the road from former Runner-Up the Islington Craft Beer Co, the Three Johns is up against some serious local competition - but how will it fare against the competition here?

Range of draught beers: Keg-oriented in the extreme, with only three cask ales vs around 14 keg taps. Several lines are devoted to Camden brewery products, which is a tad controversial in the craft beer world after their takeover by ABInBev., the worlds largest brewing conglomerate.

But that's just a part of the range - there are also impressive European and US imports on tap - Mikkeller, Chimay, Stone... the cask range changes constantly and I've found rare beers from the likes of Moor and Thornbridge in here. Overall not a bad selection. 2 points. 

It's all about what goes well with beer, really
Quality of real ale: I haven't been quite wowed by the cask beer here as at some other pubs, but that's nitpicking and arguably an unfair comparison. Clear, cool pints in good condition are the order of the day and while I've never seen a proper dark cask beer on sale here, the pale and amber stuff is always perfectly good and worth 1 point.

Food: Limited menus can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on context. In this instance it's definitely a good thing. Sourdough pizzas, piled with fresh ingredients and bursting with flavour. Could there be a better accompaniment to delicious beer?

The pizzas are reasonably priced and go well with an equally yummy Iceberg Wedge, topped with lots of bacon. It's a winning formula and easily worth a food point. Maybe even better than the pizzas at the Pelt Trader...?

Bonus points: Spirits, fairly obviously. The pub boasts a museumesque wall of bottles behind the bar containing rare and interesting spirits and liqueurs, so that's definitely one point in the bag. Then there's the bottled beer selection which, again, is mindblowing and fills in any of the gaps in the draught range. Another two points for the Three Johns.

And so we come to the end of another Pub of the Year rundown. The thinking hat now goes firmly back on me head, and the Top Five Pubs for 2015-16 will be announced sometime in August.


Where to find it...

Cock Tavern
315 Mare Street,
E8 1EJ (map)

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

Draft House
206-208 Tower Bridge Road,
SE1 2UP (map)

 White Hart
1 Mile End Road,
E1 4TP (map)

Three Johns
73 White Lion Street
N1 9PF (map)

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