Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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!

Monday, July 17, 2017

BV London Pub of the Year 2016-17 - part one

It's that time of the year again: The excitement! The suspense! The engraving of a trophy with the name of the same pub that won last year, probably!

Yep, we're back for the 2016-17 London Pub of the Year contest. And this time it's a bit strange because this is the first contest since I moved out of London.

I've not gone far away and still drink regularly enough in the capital, but before we get started, I really ought to mention my new local, the Radius Arms micropub in Whyteleafe.

It's not in Greater London so it's not eligible for the contest, but if it were, it'd have a serious shout of winning. Landlord Vince keeps a constantly-changing range of both cask and keykeg beers from Premier League breweries and an unrivaled cider selection.

What the Radius understands - and what so many pubs consistently fail to get - is that to be a serious drinking pub you need to offer variety, and variety isn't just about the names on the pumpclips, it's about offering real choice: light and dark; sessionable and strong; supermalt and hyper-hopped and everything in between.

So, whichever pub wins this years contest, I'll probably be drinking there less than I will at the Radius. Sorry, guys!

That said, there are of course several seriously stunning places to drink across all corners of the capital, so let's get cracking:

In this post I'll run through the top five from last year - and in the next one I'll take a look at five new contenders. Sometime in the middle of August we'll have a result and some pub, somewhere, will get to celebrate with jubilation and try to figure out which shelf to clear to put the trophy on.

Last year's Winner: Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell

This competition has been running for five years, and in four of those years, the Clerkenwell Craft  has won. I had no idea five years ago that the place would be so utterly, absolutely dominant and almost feel duty bound to give somewhere else a chance.

Party hardy, party Crafty...
But it is, undeniably, a fantastic pub. I held my 40th birthday party there a few months ago with beer-loving friends old and new, coming from all directions. Is there anywhere else in central London that could keep a large, diverse, discerning group drinking happily from opening to closing time? And, more importantly, keep me happy on my birthday?!?

Range of draught beers: When this place first opened, it blew our minds, offering the largest beer selection in the entire country; a game-changer in every sense. Some years later, other pubs have caught up to some extent, but most of the time you'll find 21 keg and 16 cask options available and even at quieter times, it's rarely much less.

Aside from a couple of permanent house beers - the 3.8% Craft Pale from the Kent brewery is available across the CBC estate and Thornbridge Tsara seems to have emerged as the house lager - the selection is constantly changing, and they do their best to represent a very broad mix of styles and ABVs. Hopmonster IPAs, 10% Imperial stouts, Sours, Saisons, table beer, you can take your pick. Which I frequently do.

If I'm being ultra-picky, the cask range is sometimes a bit samey, compared to the keg selection which showcases not just top-drawer British craft breweries but those from across the world, but they can only sell what brewers make available.  It's still one of the best beer selections you'll find anywhere and they get the full 3 points.

Quality of Real Ale: You know, there are plenty of folks who drink in the CBC pubs who hardly ever touch cask. They could do just fine on a keg-only basis like a lot of the more recent arrivals on the London craft beer scene. It would make things easier for them, certainly.

But the chain has demonstrated an admirable commitment to cask and proven conclusively that it is possible to specialise in both cask and keg. There are probably just as many customers here who almost always drink cask - and why not, given that it is always kept exceptionally well. The omnipresence of poor quality, lukewarm real ale in London has afforded it a dubious reputation of late, but that's never, ever an issue here. On a scale of -2 to 2, they pick up maximum points.

Food: Since opening, the original Craft has stuck resolutely to a simple but effective food policy. Pork pies and Scotch eggs, with veggie alternatives that nobody ever purchases, even though we're technically in the London Borough of Camden here! The Mr. Barrick's pies are extremely high quality, and with no faffing about in a kitchen, they're available instantly over the bar. Smidge of mustard. Lovely.

Other CBC pubs offer a full food service, but I actually feel that it might detract from the simple pleasures of a pie and a pint if this one followed suit. As explained in previous years, I can't give this pub a point for the food, simply because - great though the pies are - there is no cooking and precious little food prep involved.

Bonus points: Beer is very much king here - in fact it's pretty much the sole occupant of a vast, beery castle. That's no bad thing, though it does mean there aren't going to be bonus points for darts competitions or community choirs! The bottled beer selection is excellent (and a 33% takeaway discount is always available) so that's worth a point, and while I can't give anything for food, they can certainly have a bonus point for the wide range of snacks available, which include rather tasty olives and of course Soffle's famous Pitta Chips in addition to the aforementioned pies. I also love how you can see the daily beerlists across the CBC chain online. I can't think of any reason to take points away, so that's the full 3 bonus points for the original (and still the best?) Craft Beer Co.

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

This contest has been remarkably static over the last couple of years, with the Craft Beer Company's younger Covent Garden brother (actually nearer Tottenham Court Road than Covent Garden really) holding firm in second place.

The location means that it attracts plenty of tourists as well as beer aficionados, and the beer range is vast - could this be the year that this branch clinches the top prize? 

Range of draught beers: They make a bold claim to offer the largest number of taps anywhere in the country, and they're probably right. It's a slightly more keg-oriented line-up than Clerkenwell, with a massive 30 keg beers on hand, alongside 15 cask - though some of the time not all pumps are facing the customer.

As in Clerkenwell, the aim is to offer as broad a range as possible and they succeed. I can't remember ever going in and not finding something I haven't had before, and in the unlikely event that I ever did, there would always be something I know to be delicious. Big spectrum of styles and strengths. Frequent Tap takeovers. Plenty of variety that changes every day. 3 points. No arguments.

Quality of Real Ale: This is such a subjective thing, but a lot of us who blog about beer are agreed that the overall quality of cask beer in London is 'a thing' that needs 'something doing about'. For some the answer is simply not to drink it, given that there are so many excellent beers out there in keg and bottle and can.

The CBC chain has strived for excellence across all formats - I just feel that over the past year, this branch has not been up to the standards of Clerkenwell. For example, when we had those stupidly hot days last month and my mouth felt like a dried up sheep's skull in the Nevada desert, the cask beer here wasn't as cold as I'd have liked. If I'm honest, I've had a few good-but-not-truly-great pints in here lately, and so this year can only score them a 1.

MILF Food!
Food: Until relatively recently, the pub was home to a Forty Burger residency, at which I have fired a few critical shots in the past. Maybe they felt their overcooked burgers just couldn't compete with the juicy pink offerings from the Byron across the street? Anyway, after a short spell hosting Prairie Fire BBQ, which I never got to sample, the food here now comes courtesy of the attention-grabbing MILF (which stands in this instance for 'Man, I Love Food' apparently). Boasting 'Food that's fun and tasty, like your Mum' they offer a range of messy American diner-style dishes, mostly chicken-based, and, dubious branding aside, they're actually not bad.

The huge portion of Buffalo Wings (£10) is zingy and spicy with the right balance of sauce and crispiness, but will somebody please tell them that Buffalo Wings should come with celery sticks. That's what the blue cheese is there for, guys!  I've also tried the 'Southern Fried Chicken Fries', which is a bargain at £5. A substantial portion of fries with strips of fried chicken fillet on top, smothered with cheese and hot sauce, it's like a redneck whore's take on poutine. Again, it's pretty good, though a 'Southern Fried' dish should not be hotter than 'Buffalo'.  It just shouldn't.

These might well be the two spiciest things on the menu, and while I can handle the heat fairly comfortably, it's not a good companion to more subtle craft beers. I'd like to try something here that isn't knockout-hot. With a few tweaks, the MILFy menu could be very good indeed, and it's just about worth the food point as it is now.

Bonus points: Everything that is true of the Clerkenwell Craft is equally valid here. A full set of 3 bonus points.

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

We're still waiting for another one of these!
Completing a remarkable hat-trick last time out, the Clapham Craft takes a slightly different approach to its more central cousins, being more of a local and, importantly, boasting a proper, decent-sized garden at the front and rear.

But does this mean that it attracts a less beer-centric audience and more 'normal people'? ARGH! IT'S THE NORMAL PEOPLE! GET THEM OUT OF HERE NOW!!!


Range of draught beers: Clapham offers up to 10 cask and 20 keg lines, though in reality the numbers are often well down on this. This - and perhaps also the conservatism of drinkers here - has a tendency to exacerbate the issue we see in the other CBC pubs, with a still fairly experimental keg range (at a price) and a safe, repetitive cask selection that sticks to the same few breweries.

Thornbridge Jaipur and Dark Star Revelation are great beers - it's just hard to get excited about seeing them on the bar - though if you want a sour or fruit beer or Imperial IPA, you'll probably be in luck on the keg side. It's the best range in the local area, though possibly not up to the standards set by the flagship central London Craft Beer Cos. 2 points.

(The exception, obviously, is the 'Craft 100' beer festivals, which looked like they would be twice yearly and perhaps even quarterly, but though the glassware lingers on as a reminder, we haven't actually had one in almost a year..)

Quality of Real Ale: OK, here's a little theory of mine: When the Craft Beer Co was only 1-2 pubs, the quality was standout everywhere, everytime. Now they've expanded, taken on more staff, trained them up and so on. And, don't get me wrong, they generally do a brilliant job, but expertise, experience, instinct and nous can't be comprehensively taught. Tom Cadden can't be responsible for every beer in every cellar any more!

Look, I've never had a bad pint here. I've had lots of very good ones. But the ratio of excellent-to-merely-good pints has shifted downwards. 1 point.

Food: Forty Burgers is still alive and well here, and I've written enough about them in the past. I'll eat their Parmesan and Truffle Oil fries. I don't mind the chicken burger. But their beef - or rather their policy of always cremating it - is a plateful of underwhelm. I'm not going to give negative points, but nothing in the plus column either.

Bonus points: I'd usually give a bonus point for the beer festivals but as these appear to have dried up, I can't really do that this year. As with the other Crafts, they get points for the snack range, bottles and online presence. However, I am going to take the counsel of my readers and deduct a point for their pricing policy. A lot of people think this chain is rather expensive. Personally I think it's just about OK for Central London, but the pricing is the same (or maybe even more expensive) here, and that is taking the piss a bit, however upmarket Clapham thinks it is these days. 2 points.

Last year's #4: Pelt Trader, City

The Pelt has finished in 5th and 4th place in the last two years and has stuck to its simple, tried and tested formula of 'beer and pizza' under the arches of Cannon Street station. But is this formula special enough to make the place a genuine Pub of the Year contender?

Range of draught beers: Typically six cask and ten keg at any one time. The City types that provide much of the regular custom here are fairly conservative in their drinking habits, so on cask you might find fairly standard beers such as Harvey's Best or Adnam's Ghost Ship, alongside more unusual, craftier offerings from, say, Burning Sky or Siren. The keg selection is more focused on international lagers (albeit unusual ones, K├Ânig and Kostritzer rather than Stella and Becks) though you'll also find pale ales, IPAs, Wheat beers etc. It's not really a place to go if you especially love your dark beer, though you'll sometimes find one stout or porter on the cask list.

These days, this sort of selection is a borderline 1/2. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and a 2, though it's a close thing.

Quality of Real Ale: Resisting the temptation to offer more than half a dozen cask beers probably works in the Pelt Trader's favour. They seem to get it right very consistently - even on those hot days, the ale is cool and quenching. I don't really care if it's human skill or technology - I just want to enjoy a nice refreshing pint. Obviously quality isn't just about temperature, but overall beer condition is also very good. No off-flavours, enticing aromas every time. It's just very, very good. The full 2 points.

Pizza with Pizzazz at the Pelt
Food: The Pelt is all about pizza, and very good it is too. Proper stone-baked with a crispy, bubbly crust, and you choose from a limited number of gastronomically sound options - none of your 'customising' it by piling up nonsensical combinations of chicken, pineapple and curried quails eggs here.

They are decent value, rather delicious, and the Pelt trader earns the food point for a simple offering, executed very well indeed.

Bonus points: If you're not up for a massive pizza, the Pelt offer a good range of 'craft' charcuterie, including spicy beer sticks and wild venison chorizo.This is clearly worth a bonus point, as is their range of bottled beers (Every bloody pub seems to get a bonus point for their bottled beers these days. And I hardly ever even drink bottled beer. Maybe I should start reviewing shit pubs where the only thing in the fridge is a Mann's Brown Ale and a few bottles of Kaliber?!?) Anyway, 2 points.

Last year's #5: Tap East, Stratford

Completing last year's top five is the only Brewpub on the list, and indeed the only pub located in a big fuck-off shopping centre. Do these things count against the Tap East? Of course not; it's well worth walking through bloody Westfield to get a decent pint at an oasis of calm amongst the crowds. But is it a Pub of the Year?

Range of draught beers: A year or two ago, the emphasis was very much on the in-house brewery, with the Tap East producing new beers every few weeks. Now this seems to have calmed down a bit (OK a lot) and the six handpumps tend to feature rotating regular beers from the brewery - Coffee in the Morning, JCB, Tonic Ale - alongside guests which these days are more likely to provide a winner for the tickers amongst you. (The last couple of times I've visited there has been nothing new from Tap East for, but new beers from Mallinson's and Torrside. Hmm.)

Spot the Microbrewery (and Microtoilet)
On the keg front the nine taps (I think it's nine, could be eight, could be ten; definitely not 136 though) offer a range from fairly standard stuff like Fuller's Frontier lager, through their own IPA series, to stronger and more interesting specialist shit, often at surprisingly reasonable prices. It's a decent selection and a solid 2, though I'd really like to see a return to greater experimentation with their own beers on cask.

Quality of Real Ale: If the Tap East is in a bit of a rut with their brewery output, then this malady has sadly also extended to the overall quality of the cask beer. If I'm honest, I've been disappointed the last couple of times I've been here. Not to the point where I've had to send beer back, but some of it has been very lacklustre. It's a shame because this time last year I was enthusing about how they had really upped their game in this department. No negative points, but a net score of 0.

Food: With a vast number of outlets in the Westfield food court just steps away, the Tap East isn't really a destination food pub. The odd sandwich or plate of chips is all you'll get here, apart from on special occasions when they do themed food promotions. Even the cold store - which looks like it should have slices of delicious pie in it - is used for beer promotional material and a few cans. Obviously no points here.

Bonus points: They get the standard bonus point for the bottle range, even though Mrs B-V now finds the Mongozo Coconut a little too sweet. I also really like the Salty Dog range of crisps, which is probably good because they loose a point for the woefully inadequate toilet facilities. Honestly, they'd be better off not having that single toilet at all and directing people to the superior facils in either the shopping centre or Stratford International station. Anyway, the net result of this is just 1 point I'm afraid, which concludes a disappointing showing for the Tap East this year.

And so, there we go. Check back in a week or so to see this year's five new contenders!

Where to find it...

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

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

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

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

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

1 comment:

  1. must be hard work having to review all those pubs i guess


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