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!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

BV London Pub of the Year 2017-18 - part one

Yes, it's that time of year once again. The lazy Summer days of trying to decide which pub has been the best in London over the past 12 months.

Almost unbelievably, this is the seventh year of the competition, and three different pubs have won the accolade - but who will it be this time? Which prestigious pub will attain the additional prestige of having their prestigious name on the most prestigious trophy - the trophy of prestige?

As usual we'll start by returning to last year's top five, and then, in part two, we'll look at five 'New Entries' that weren't in the contest last time. After that's it's as simple as picking out a worthy winner - and by 'simple' I mean 'actually rather painstakingly difficult', obviously...

So, here we go! Prestige!

Last year's Winner: Hope, Carshalton

Since winning the contest last year, I think it's fair to say that the Hope has been a bit of a building site. Major improvement work is taking place to make the pub even better - more drinking space inside and out, new food prep areas, far better toilet facilities... this is no 'lick of paint' - there is a lot of work going on and some serious investment in the future, and of course, the pub has had to find ways to stay open while this is all happening.

The biggest downside for me, has been the loss of the monthly beer festivals for the first half of 2018, which makes it hard to judge the Hope fairly this year, given that these are a major factor in making it a destination pub for those of us who don't live in the Carshalton area.  

The Hope getting in on the hazy NEIPA fad
(As of June, the fests have started up again and are as good as ever!)

Range of draught beers: This is a proper community pub and as such it works hard to provide something for everyone. If you like dark cask beers, there'll usually be something for you. Feel like a 7% hopmonster on keg? You're probably covered too. Ordinary bitter or lager drinker entirely unfussed about the whole 'craft' thing. Yep, there's a beer for you too.

The 'community' obviously has enough beer enthusiasts to ensure a steady throughput of varied beers from top-drawer breweries - Rooster's, Thornbridge, Redwillow... at their June fest I enjoyed some aggressively murky New England style ales from Arbor and Tiny Rebel - bang on trend.

Given that they scored a maximum last time and it just hasn't been quite the same without the beer festivals, they'll fall just short of full marks, but I shall break with tradition and, for the first time, award a half point.  2.5.

Quality of Real Ale:
The cask beer here is always in good nick. Fresh, aromatic and tasty, there's just one problem I have - and I accept entirely that this is something that comes down to personal preference:

Over the years, I've had a couple of, ironically, heated discussions with the Hope management over the serving temperature of their cask beers, particularly those of a pale, hoppy persuasion. They need to be served colder - ideally at a similar temperature to the same beers in keg format. Yes, I know all the arguments about tradition and how cask shouldn't be ice-cold and so on, and I agree - but that applies to traditional English bitters, milds, porters etc. I believe that the correct serving temperature for big AIPA is, basically, chilled.

We'll probably have to agree to disagree on this one and I appreciate that serving colder cask might risk harming their relationship with CAMRA, from whom they've won a host of awards. Once again, I'd feel bad deducting a whole point because the quality, otherwise, is excellent, so we'll score them 1.5

Food: The Hope isn't trying to be a food destination (yet - who knows what the post-refurb plans may include?) and for the moment freshly cooked food is typically only served at lunchtime. For the rest of the day, a range of 'pot meals' - chilli, curry, stews etc. - are available with fresh bread, and there are also cold pies on sale.

It's more the sort of stuff to keep you going during a drinking session, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Bonus points:  Last year, the Hope won, despite various idiosyncrasies, simply because for every little negative, there was a big positive - and that's just what one should expect from a proper pub. Two or three decent ciders/perries are always available, and they get another bonus point for the superb range of snacks on offer. Add to that the Twitter celebrity pub cat and the reasonably-in-tune piano, and you have a pub that scores the maximum 3 bonus points. Admittedly, the gentlemens toilets aren't great, but that's obviously something they are working on, so I won't penalise them for that. Even without the beer festivals for half the year, it's still a fantastic pub.

Last year's Runner-Up: Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden

The Craft Beer Company has gone through a few changes over the last couple of years. Their excellent Clapham branch sadly closed, and with it went the superb #Craft100 beer festivals. They acquired new outlets in Limehouse and Old Street, though with reduced beer selections compared to the central London flagships, and it is these that remain the benchmark by which the chain should be judged.
Range of draught beers: A long, thin bar area with a long, long, long line of handpumps and keg taps serves as a great showcase for the beer, which is what this place is all about. Up to 15 cask and 30 keg beers are on sale, with just about every conceivable style represented. There aren't many pubs where you can pretty much guarantee finding an Imperial Stout or a Berlinnerweisse on draught at all times, but however niche your tastes, there's something to suit your palate here.

There has been a trend in the other CBCos for the cask range to be a bit disappointing, relative to the keg selection, but in this branch the innovation extends to the handpump - last time I was in here I had a Blood Orange Wheat, a strong Saison and a Chilli Milk Pale - all on cask. This might well be the most varied selection in the entire country and of course they pick up a maximum 3 points for it.

Quality of Real Ale:
There is a theory, that doesn't always bear out in practice, that if a pub has too many cask beers available at any one time, the quality will invariably suffer. While the logic makes sense, it ignores the fact that a pub with lots of interesting, tasty beers will attract a lot of customers who will drink them and keep turnover, err, turning over.

There are pubs with one real ale available where said beer is undrinkable, and destination pubs that serve 10 or more, all of them in great nick - and this phenomenon is far too commonplace to simply be an exception proving the proverbial rule.

Ancient signs make for interesting decor
But, and this is big but, this year I have to confess that I've found the beer quality at the Craft Covent Garden to be 'good but not always great'. The scale goes from -2 to 2, and the overall condition of the cask here, this time, is only worth a 1.

Food: The food concession here has changed a number of times - I have yet to try the latest incumbents, Buffalo Bun, so can't reasonably award or deduct points this year.

Bonus points: The superb draught selection renders it almost unnecessary, but the Craft offers a huge range of bottled beers, with an elegantly curated guidelet on every table, and these are available to take out at a 33% discount. They pick up a second bonus point for their virtual museum of old brewery signs that decorate the basement level, and a third for their impressive range of pub snacks.  (I only recently discovered that 'Tavern' Dry-roasted peanuts, as sold here, are far and away the best dry-roasted money can buy. Obviously the best bit about dry-roasted is the dust, but all too many brands these days have hardly any dust in the bag. These are superb with 3-4 full fingertips worth of delicious salty dust every time!)

It all adds up to maximum bonus points and a very impressive performance overall.

Last year's #3: Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell

There are many similarities between this, the original Craft Beer Company, and the Covent Garden branch, though this is the one that has won the PotY a massive four times!

A refit a couple of years ago left this pub - once the Clock House - with an altogether more 'pubby' vibe than when the CBCo story first began, though it's reputation amongst tickers and craftwankers has perhaps declined a tad. When it opened in 2011, it felt pretty unique; now there is plenty of competition in the same space.

Range of draught beers: Beyond the house beers (a cask pale from the Kent brewery and Thornbridge Tsara lager) the range is ever-changing, though 'showcases' from various breweries tend to come in waves and at any one time there will likely be half a dozen or more different beers from the same brewery available - whether this be Thornbridge, Revolutions, Hopcraft or somewhere else pretty good.

It's a reliable place to source rare imported keg too, from the Continent and across the pond, albeit sometimes at a fair old price. Typically around 14-15 cask and 20-22 keg beers will be available, which is a great selection, though perhaps not quite as varied as Covent Garden stylistically. Also there has been a tendency, particularly with the cask ales, for the same old beers to show up a little too often. Consequently, this year's score is a solid 2.

Mustardising one of Clerkenwell's finest Scotch eggs...

Quality of Real Ale:
This is where the Clerkenwell branch exercises its superiority over its brother down the road. The cask ale here is always flawlessly fresh and in fantastic condition. Serving temperatures are almost always appropriate to the style too - there's just nothing I can criticise and they get the full 2 marks.

Food: No kitchen here, and food is limited to cold Scotch eggs and pies, mainly of the pork variety. As such things go, they are excellent, and if you want to eat something more substantial you can usually bring in from one of Leather Lane's many eateries and street food stalls.

Bonus points: The snacks available (including the aforementioned pies and eggs) are superb, and as with any Craft Beer Co, the bottled beer range speaks for itself. There is also an extensive and interesting range of spirits and liqueurs available. Even if I deducted a point because prices for the area are high, they'd make it back with the stunning retained decor - the mirrors and 'clock' ceiling motifs that are an interesting feature that adds to the atmosphere.

Overall it's yet another impressive showing for the multi-time winner.

Last year's #4: Euston Tap(s), Euston

Straddling the entrance to Euston station, the Tap(s) has become a regular feature of the Pub of the Year contest, with a whole lot of beer crammed into two small boxy spaces.

Range of draught beers: If we count the East and West lodges as one venue, the range of beer is very possibly the biggest in town, with 16 casks and a massive 31 keg taps - though most of the time the number will actually be a little lower than this, with the newer East Lodge in particular sometimes running 'under capacity' especially at less busy times.

Even so, there's usually an impressive range, with a full range of styles from across the globe well represented, though 'old standards' that sell well often take up a number of taps - Redemption Trinity and Brooklyn lager rub shoulders with the latest seasonals from Norway's Lervig and the Bristol Beer Factory.

Birds eye view of the West Lodge
It's a tough decision, but they get a 2 rather than a 3 because the cask selection sometimes lacks tickability and can be too dominated by 4.x% pale/golden ales.

Quality of Real Ale:
The Euston tap pioneered the approach of serving cask beers via 'long-range, assisted gravity' which has now taken off in quite a few places. Some purists might baulk at this - where are the handpumps? where are the casks? - but it's never been an issue for me and, frankly, the proof is in the quality. The beer here is always more or less perfect and the full 2 points are richly deserved.

Food: Given the lack of space, there is obviously no kitchen space here. Pizzas are available (brought in) and there are loads of food places on the Euston forecourt.

Bonus points: If there's nothing you fancy on draught, there is plenty of bottled and canned beer in the big fridges, which is a masterstroke as a lot of folk will want to buy good quality 'train beers'. Beyond this, however, it's hard to find reasons to chuck bonus points in their direction. The beer is wonderful, but it's a no-frills environment in which to drink it, and while you might miss a train or two to stay here, it's possibly not a place you'd want to remain for an entire day.

Last year's #5: Pelt Trader, City

And so we come to the last of the 2016-17 Top Five, located right in the heart of the City of London.

Range of draught beers: I've noticed a trend here over the past 18 months or so that the Pelt appears to have become more of a slave to its core clientele than previously. What this means for the beer range is, predictably, not particularly good news.

City suits tend to be rather more mainstream in their tastes than beer writers, hipsters and tickers, typically preferring either an inoffensive, drinkable lager or a standard, lowish gravity cask bitter. And I know I'm generalising here, but they are also more likely to be the sort of customer that sticks to names they know. While the Pelt hasn't gone down the route of Fosters and Stella, the keg beers are now dominated by worthy but not particularly interesting regional European lagers, plus something hoppy but relatively everyday from the Kernel.

Sometimes faces can be just a bit too familiar...
The cask beers often come from the same breweries - Harvey's, Adnams, Redemption and others - and are, unfortunately often the same old beers too. No doubt beers that have proven popular with the chaps in Finance before they catch the train back to Sidcup. I can entirely understand why it's happened, but it's a backward step I'm afraid and a score of 1.

Quality of Real Ale: Better news here. While the Pelt Trader may no longer offer much to excite the beer ticking community, I really cannot fault the quality of the cask here. The effort has gone into making even the most ordinary beers sing with gusto. On a scale from -2 to 2, they score maximum points for cool, delicious, refreshing pints time after time after time.

Food: The food offering here is as it's always been. Pizza. And pretty damn delicious pizza too.

They've deliberately kept things very simple, with just a few topping combos available, and typically priced by the inch: 12 inches for £12 or - and the mathematician in you will know that this is better value - 18 inches for £18, which will comfortably feed two people.

It hasn't changed since last year, and it's still good enough to earn the food point.

Bonus points: Like its elder Euston brethren, this is another place where the drinking experience can sometimes have a spartan sort of feel to it. They don't have the same bottled beer range, but can get a bonus point for an improved selection of snack products, including delicious charcuterie.

So, that's the first five. In a few days time I'll be running the beery rule over five new contenders, so keep tuned.

Where to find it...

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


Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden
168 High Holborn
WC1V 7AA (map)
website / whatpub 

Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell 82 Leather Lane,
EC1N 7TR (map)
website / whatpub 

Euston Taps 190 Euston Road (lodges either side of Euston bus station)
NW1 2EF (map)
website / whatpub

Pelt Trader Arch 3, Dowgate Hill
City of London
EC4N 6AP (map)
website / whatpub


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