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 26, 2017

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

Here we go with the second part of this year's Pub of the Year contest. And in many ways, it's far more exciting than the first because it's the turn of the new contenders. In Top of the Pops parlance we have one New Entry and four Re-Entries this year.

So let's get right onto it, Pop-Pickers...

Contender #1: Euston Tap(s), Euston

The Euston Tap (note the singular!) last appeared in the 2012-2013 competition and was perhaps slightly unlucky to miss out on the top five and drop out of the reckoning for the next couple of years.

The East Lodge is now open - for beer!
A lot has changed since then though. The owners took over the 'East Lodge' on the opposite side of the road and ran a specialist 'Cider Tap' for a while - and when demand for cider proved to be less than expected, they switched over to beer, and effectively converted it into an extension of the Euston Tap, so there are now two little chunks of Euston Tap, facing each other. It's effectively the same pub, but with double the space and a truly vast choice of beer - not that it was bad beforehand...

Range of draught beers: If you count the two taps as a single entity - which I do - they offer up to 47 draught beers, which is frankly astonishing, and beats even the Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden. The East and West Lodges typically offer eight cask beers each (with no duplication), and there are 31 keg taps across the two, with slightly more in the original West Lodge. With so many lines of beer, almost every style can be represented all the time. It's the cider drinker's loss, I suppose!

I'm typical of a lot of Euston Tap customers, in that I typically pop in there for a really quick one before catching a train. This usually involves downing a second far too quickly and leaving with a sense of regret that there are beers unsupped that I really wanted to try. London breweries are represented, but not dominant here, and it's a great place to pick up the latest seasonal specials from Arbor, Rooster's, Mallinson's and other top drawer breweries. On keg you might find genuine US imports, Bavarian lager or an IPA from Buxton or Cloudwater. You take your pick, and there's a helluva lot to pick from.

A stupendous range. 3 points.

Quality of Real Ale: I've argued for some years now that the 'craft beer revolution' has been a good thing for everybody, and that the best places to go for really good cask beer in the best possible condition is often pubs also happen to offer a lot of craft keg. This is a controversial view in certain circles. For example, there is a certain pub around the corner from here that I'm frequently asked to include. Yes, the Bree Louise wins a lot of CAMRA awards and stocks a lot of real ales - but guess what? The quality is questionable at best, bordering at times on undrinkable slop! And that's why the Bree is not in this competition but the Euston Tap is. Cool, perfectly conditioned cask ale every time that you can order with confidence. If the local CAMRA really care about real ale, this should be their darling instead. Max points.

Food: Fairly obviously the Euston Taps are not places to go to eat. If you put a kitchen in there, there wouldn't be any beer!

Bonus points: With both lodges now in beertastic action, there's more space than there used to be, which means the facilities are no longer inadequate. I'll even give them a quirky bonus point for the brilliant graffiti therein ('Toy Story 2 was OK' never fails to raise a smile while I'm siphoning off the excess. They also have a hugely impressive and reasonably priced bottle selection, not that you're likely to need it, given the range of beer on tap. 2 bonus points.

Contender #2: Wenlock Arms, Hoxton

Sticking in the same neck of the woods (OK, up the road from NW1 to N1) the Wenlock - something of an institution among North London drinkers - is one of those pubs that I'm always asked to include in the competition. I have to admit it's long, long overdue, and this is its very first appearance.

That's partly due to the fact that the place closed for a while and at one point looked to have a worryingly uncertain future, but it's now very much open for business on a far more sure footing and indeed has been named this years CAMRA North London Pub of the Year.

It retains the appearance of a traditional backstreet boozer, albeit one with a strong emphasis on the beer. And that's not a bad thing.

Range of draught beers: The current buzz is all around the Block brewery, which has recently started brewing in the basement, though you'd still never guess that the Wenlock was a brewpub if you didn't know. Joining the Block beers on draught are the usual London breweries - Five Points, Beavertown, Windsor & Eton etc. - plus classics from further field, with the occasional surprise thrown in. At busy times you'll find up to 10 cask and 20 keg, though I don't think I've ever seen the full-capacity range on offer.

A proper traditional boozer yesterday
It's a competitive selection, mixing up old favourites with interesting randoms and their own beers too. 2 points.

Quality of Real Ale: It's a tough decision, when you know that a pub is pretty good, but there are others that are a notch better. Do you give the pretty good pub maximum points, knowing that the places where the beer is even better are maybe going to be understated? Do you reserve the highest accolades only for the absolute top few, or grade on a curve, so the bottom 20% of pubs get -2, the next 20% get -1, and the entirity of the top 5th get 2 points? Or would that just be a bit silly, because by definition I'm only going to be reviewing pubs that are good, therefore they all should be in the top quintile, making a curve approach to grading utterly retarded?

I'm overthinking this. The cask beer here is good. Is it as good as the best? No. So it's 1 point.

Food: At one of its relaunches, the Wenlock briefly tried to go 'all foodie' but soon backtracked when it became clear most of the custom weren't really in the market for a gastropub. That's pretty sensible and the current policy of offering scotch eggs and the odd toastie is probably appropriate. I can't give them a point for that, but it's not that sort of pub.

Bonus points: Most of the pubs in contention this year don't specialise particularly in real cider, but the Wenlock is an exception to this, usually offering half a dozen varieties from small producers, which is obviously worth a point. There are also a number of fine original features and fixtures (and if they're not original I don't really care because they look the part!) like mirrors and mosaic flooring representing the old Wenlock brewery, which was a big player in the first half of the last century. It's a nice touch and fits in well with the image of the 'Traditional Backstreet Local'.

Contender #3: Hope, Carshalton

Talking of TBLs, there has been a lot of talk in recent years about them dying a slow death on their sorry arses, and it can't be denied that where pubs are dying out, it does tend to be these old fashioned community boozers that suffer disproportionately.

However, for every rule there is a big fuck-off exception to prove it, and the Hope does just that. A pub that is absolutely thriving under the weight of its own achievement and success. Owned by a consortium of 22 locals, it's a good little pub that has just been getting better and better.

We welcome the Hope back after a three year absence, and it's putting up a exceptionally strong fight this time.

Range of draught beers: As the quality of the ale has improved here, so has the selection of both cask and keg beers, with standard lines being displaced by far more interesting stuff. And it's a range that is regularly boosted by the beer festivals which are held, wait for it, every month! (Except possibly December and January.)

Downton New Forest is the standard drinking bitter, and this is typically complemented by six cask guests, of which a couple are usually dark, and at least one is stronger. That's a decent variety bucket before we even get on to the keg stuff, where just about anything goes. Bavo Pils or Hacker Pschorr is the closest thing to a mainstream lager, and you'll typically find IPA-type beers from London darlings Kernel and Beavertown. It's entirely normal to find something well north of 10-12% on keg here too. The sublime Arbor 'Goo Goo G'Joob' and the ridiculous Lervig 'Big Ass Money Stout' (17.5% and brewed with pizza!) are recent keg guests.

Normally, this selection would be worth a score of two. However, the fact that beer festivals are so frequent nudges it up to the perfect 3.

Quality of Real Ale: When the Hope first came under its current management, I think it's fair to say that there were some teething problems with the cask beer. A few years back, I might've only scored it a zero or a one, possibly even going to -1 on a really bad day. (If I was feeling particularly catty I might point out that this didn't stop CAMRA giving them awards...)

Probably best not to come on the Saturday though...
That was then; this is now. The beer quality, certainly over the past year, has been superb and the place has invested in both people and equipment to ensure that this remains the case. I cannot fault a single one of the many pints of real ale I've enjoyed here over the past 12 months, and it merits the full 2 points.

Food: Like many of my favourite drinking holes, the Hope has a fairly sensible approach to food. It's not a gastropub, nor does it want to become one. It does, however, appreciate that people might want something to soak up the beer from time to time. So there's a range of rolls and chunks of pie on the bar - sometimes even stuff like samosas too - and if you want something hot and can wait 10 minutes there's a range of 'pot meals' that they can mic up, served with fresh bread for about £6 a throw. It's not going to win any points for food, but it's not going to lose any either. It's a sensible, balanced approach that is right for this kind of pub.

Bonus points: Where does one start? Obviously the beer festivals are excellent and worth a point, and they are always well stocked with some of my favourite snacks (OK, I admit it. I have a Bacon Fries addiction. No, Frazzles aren't the same. Not even close.) They have a pub cat who also finds time to run their twitter account, and while it seems to have disappeared recently, I shall also give a point for their 'snuff box', of which I have availed myself plentifully over the year. (Bring it back, please!)

There are things that annoy me, and for which I could deduct bonus points. I'm still annoyed that their online beer list uses 'fake handpump' graphics, making it impossible sometimes to know whether a beer is cask or keg. And it can be very frustrating if you arrive at one of their beer festivals on the advertised Saturday session and find that all the beer is gone.

The thing is, while there are little things I can criticize the Hope for, it's still a fantastic place, and a proper pub at a time when they seem to be dying out. For every bonus point I deduct, I can think of something else to add one on for (oh yes, the piano and guitars that occasionally spark impromptu performances or jam sessions), so it has to be a full 3 points here.

Contender #4: Rake, Borough

The Rake comes back into the PotY reckoning at the first time of asking and with a new look following a refurbishment this year.

The change in decor to London's original micropub meant that the brewers graffiti was sadly lost from the walls - but on the plus side there are now more beers available than previously. Which is probably more important than what some guy from Rogue wrote with a permanent marker in 2007!

Range of draught beers: While the Rake's reputation has always been more about keg than cask, the recent refurb now means that four cask ales are usually on offer plus at least eight on keg, generally with the stronger beers on keg, though there's normally at least something vaguely 'mainstream lagery' for the normals.

The writing is no longer on the wall...

The beers all tend to turn over fairly quickly, so in an extended session you could find the range changing somewhat. Weird and wonderful imports are the name of the game, with genuine American IPAs or Belgian fruit beers entirely within your rights of expectation. The cask is more conservative, usually, with reliable staples from Dark Star, Thornbridge, Salopian etc.

It's not the hugest range ever (well to be fair it's a bloody tiny pub!) but often offers something different to other places. 2 points.  

Quality of Real Ale: One of the little quirks of the Rake is that the cellar is often open and you can frequently see the staff popping down there to work their magic. This is another pub where it's a borderline 1-2 and hard to know where to draw the line. I've had some excellent pints here undoubtedly, though I'm not convinced they always get pale or golden, hoppy beers cool enough on a hot day. For that reason it has to be a 1.

Food: A recurring theme this year - no this is not a food pub. Borough Market is full of places to eat from street food to Tapas to excellent tandoori. There is no space for a kitchen here! (Though, ironically, in the 1990s when the building was a cafe, it was pretty much all kitchen..

Bonus points: They don't get a point for brewer-graffiti any more, but the collection of bottled beers behind the glass is hugely impressive for such a tiny venue. Also worth a point is the tap takeover and meet the brewer events that occur frequently - great to sample interesting beers and meet interesting people. The full hat-trick of bonus points is completed by the snacking range which includes excellent pork scratchings, beef Monster Munch, if you're that way inclined, and superb beer sticks. I'd think about taking one off for the facilities, which are sort of outside and shared with the market unless you're a girl, but they're just about adequate so we'll stick with the full 3 points.

Contender #5: Cask Pub & Kitchen, Pimlico

The Craft Beer Company has dominated this competition over the years, but the Cask is the older brother and has its origins very much in the fires from which the CBC irons were smelted, and I'll abandon that analogy now if that's alright.

Naming conventions aside, it's not that different. The deal is good cask and keg beers from breweries that matter. It's the last pub in the competition this year, but is it the least? No. No, it really isn't.

Range of draught beers: Pretty similar to what you'd find in a Craft Beer Co, if we're honest. The trendiest, craftiest beers on keg from all over the world, and a more conservative selection of mostly British cask, albeit changing on a regular basis. 10 cask and 16 keg is typical, and they go out of their way to have something for everyone. Even obnoxiously picky, hard-to-please wankers like me! One thing I like is that they often feature batches of beers from the same brewery, showcasing their range and ensuring a mix of styles on offer, not to mention a neat-looking spreadsheet for us tickers. This can be from well established breweries, but not always. Over the past year I've discovered both Electric Bear and Neptune here in this fashion. It's like a mini tap-takeover. And that's a good thing to be like.

Have a hand-pulled piss...
So, scoring? Well it's a solid 2, bettered only in the Craft/Cask chain by Clerkenwell and Covent Garden, which have, of course, been the two best pubs in London for the past two years.

Quality of Real Ale: I'm probably getting pickier about the quality of cask, because it's an issue that I think is going to be increasingly important (though possibly not to CAMRA...)

For that reason, while the beer quality here is pretty damn good, it's another 1 that's not quite a 2.

(Christ, for a CAMRA Life Member, I haven't half been criticising them today, haven't I? I'll stop now)

Food: It's Forty Burgers here. It is what it is, and you can read what I've said about this particular concession in the first part of this year's competition, or indeed in any number of entries in previous years...

Bonus points: Basically, anything that earns points for the CBC chain earns points here. Bottled range. Tick. Snack selection. Tick. Big choice of highly unusual spirits, albeit some at a fair old whack of a price. Tick. I also rather like the gentleman's facilities here which combine period features some quirky embellishments... A clear and easy 3 bonus points then.

So, that's the five new contenders. In a few weeks we'll announce which of these ten fine pubs is the 2016-17 BV London Pub of the Year so keep tuned. 

(It's fucking hard work writing fairly detailed reviews about ten pubs in a short space of time, so I'm off for a well deserved session!)

Where to find it...

 Euston Tap
190 Euston Road (and indeed across the road - watch out for buses)
NW1 2EF (map)

Wenlock Arms
26 Wenlock road,
N1 7TA (map)

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

The Rake
14a Winchester walk,
Borough Market,
SE1 9AG (map)

Cask Pub & Kitchen
6 Charlwood street,
SW1V 2EE (map)

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