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!
ʼʼ

Monday, July 8, 2019

BV London Pub of the Year 2018-19 - part one


It's time, yet again, for the Ben Viveur London Pub of the Year awards to commence. Woohoo!

Now, don't get upset, but I'm going to have to make a decision as to whether this should be the last year of the competition, or keep it going.

This is the eighth year of the competition and it's always a pleasure. but the truth is that since I moved out of Greater London I've spent a lot less time drinking in eligible pubs. In all honesty, my pub surveying process has therefore become a bit rubbish. It's certainly not as thorough as it could be, and in all likelihood there are numerous very good pubs that aren't getting a fair crack of the whip simply because I haven't been to them.

But that's for me to think about over the next 12 months. There will be a 2018-19 award, and it starts right here, right now.

You know the drill - first I revisit last year's Top Five pubs, then in part two I check out some new contenders and re-entries. We think about it for a bit, talk it over with some fellow beer writers, and then, some time in August, this year's winner is crowned.

Let's get right to it then.


Last year's Winner: Antelope, Surbiton

The 2017-18 Champion went straight in with a bullet, which may have come as a surprise to some, though not, I suspect to regulars at the Antelope who have been enjoying the excellent craft beer and delicious food there for some years now.

Previously a brewpub, the Big Smoke brewery has now, as I did, moved out of the capital to dedicated premises in Esher, while the owners of the Antelope have been busy acquiring other pubs in West and South West London and making them, I think it's fair to say, a whole lot better than they used to be. One of them might even be amongst the new entries this year.

But how has the Antelope been this year? Still good?

Last year's winner
Range of draught beers: The brewery may no longer be in house, but Big Smoke beers still regularly feature on cask and keg, though this typically makes up only a small fraction of the overall range. I have to admit this is fine with me - while the Big Smoke beers are usually perfectly acceptable, I don't find them especially exciting and, well, they weren't exactly the reason the Antelope won last time.

In total ten cask beers are usually available, with most of them changing frequently, while there are at least 12 quality craft keg offerings, often more. Favoured breweries - in addition to Big Smoke - include Arbor, Thornbridge, Vibrant Forest, Wild Weather, Arbor, Tiny Rebel. You know, just the sort of stuff you want to be drinking. They usually cover all stylistic bases too, whether you're looking for a quenching sour, a rich, dark stout or a Double IPA.

It's not the biggest range in the contest and, if you're a ticker, you might be disheartened at seeing Big Smoke Solaris over and over again, but the selection is solid and worth 2 points.

Quality of Real Ale: There has been a fair bit of discussion lately around cask beer quality at the point of service. Is it always as good as it could be? Does an extended range have to come at the expense of quality? Would it be better if we all just gave up on real ale altogether?

Until a couple of years ago, I'd have argued that even if cask was indifferent in typical or average pubs, you could always rely on a great pub to serve a cracking pint. Now I believe that this has changed. Even the very best pubs with the noblest of intentions now sometimes struggle to be consistently awesome, and that is, sadly, the case here.

Don't get me wrong, most of the beers I've had here have been very good, but some have been maybe a little tired and indifferent. On a scale from -2 to 2, the Antelope therefore picks up a 1.


Food: A concise menu, reasonably priced with plenty of fresh, local-ish produce on offer. That is, essentially what I want from pub food, and the Antelope does this well. The hog roasts during the Summer are possibly the best hogs ever roasted, while their German Sausage platter is well worth the wait it takes for it to be cooked. They deserve to pick up the coveted foodie point.

Bonus points: If you find the keg range too 'domestic' for your liking, there is a solid bottle and can selection at fairly reasonable prices and this is worth a bonus point, as is the big range of cask cider on the pumps which is more 'traditional' (e.g. apple-centric) than many specialist cider pubs these day which tend to overdo the fruited ciders. The selection of board games out the back (along with fairly comfy armchairs to sit in to play them) is another point-worthy feature. And that's before we even consider their twice-yearly beer festivals.

There's nothing for which I'd want to deduct points, so the Antelope picks up the maximum 3 bonus points.



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


The Covent Garden Craft always seems to finish in second place, but with new competition on the block, how has it done this time around? The Covent Garden Craft has now been with us for five years and has had a bit of a refurb.

Range of draught beers: You're unlikely to find a better selection anywhere in London. Finding one that is equally good would be a challenge. 30 keg taps and 15 handpumps mean that there is something for everyone including, increasing, keg beers from the rest of the world, albeit sometimes at a price. This is very Central London, after all.

Whether you're looking for a fruited Sour or a heavily-hopped Double IPA or an Imperial Breakfast Stout, they'll have something up your street. Even a decent lager if that's what you feel like. The range just can't be criticised and they pick up the maximum 3 points.


Quality of Real Ale: There are some who would argue that 15 handpulls is just too many, even for a specialist beer place, and that the quality of cask beer would inevitably suffer. I don't agree with this point of view. Well, not strongly.

What?!? Nothing wrong with Dry Roasted dust...

I marked them down last year, giving them a score of 1 because the cask was good but no longer truly outstanding. And I'm doing the same this time around. I suspect that the underlying quality of some beers (like the amazing Thornbridge Tapit Chocolate Orange Stout I enjoyed here on New Years Day) has carried them to some extent - supreme cellar skills can potentially elevate an ordinary beer to heights of excellent, but the ordinary cask beers I've had here have been, well, ordinary.

Food: The dining policy varies from one branch of the CBC to another. This one has had a few different fairly short term residencies, and some of the time doesn't offer a kitchen service but allows diners to order in from affiliate eateries in the local area. Cold pies are usually available and are very good, though this in itself isn't enough to earn or lose a foodie point.


Bonus points: I'll be brutally honest - I don't like their (relatively) recent refurbishment. It didn't need it and the Craft is now a less pleasant place to drink beer. The basement area worked with the old brewery mirrors and slightly dingy walls. The confused modernism and backlit portals just doesn't feel right. Maybe I'll get used to it, but I think it was a backwards step and I'm deducting a point for it.

That said, there are so many things for which the Craft chain (and therefore this branch) can pick up bonuses. The huge range of bottled and canned beers (with a third off for take-out customers) is one of them. Their snack range has for years been excellent, and includes my favourite brand of Dry Roasted Peanuts - Tavern Snacks. Don't mock - these are one of the very peanut makers that include enough dusty bits!

If you've had enough beer, the Covent Garden Craft has a range of spirits and liqueurs that is simply insane in its extensiveness. If you're into whisky or gin or just about anything else, the top shelf will surely defeat you without even trying.

This all adds up to a score of 2 in the bonus department.
 



Last year's #3: Hope, Carshalton

A lot has changed at the 2016-17 PotY since it won the award. The pub has been expanded significantly with more space, new toilet facilities and a new kitchen area. This time last year the works were taking place, which lent the Hope a slightly subdued atmosphere. Now it's back running at full strength and is arguably better than ever.

A delicious New England Pale Ale and a transparent glass
Range of draught beers: At first glance, the selection at the Hope is modest, with seven cask beers, including two Regulars - Downton New Forest and Windsor & Eton Knight of the Garter. There is usually a dark beer and a stronger IPA type offering among the changing cask beers. Sometimes there is something that is just batshit insane - recently Kissingate Raisin The Bar was on offer - a dry-fruited Imperial Stout at 14%.

Seven keg beers include regular lagers from Hacker (Germany) and Bavo (Belgium) plus changing craft offerings from Arbor, Left Handed Giant and other credible brewers. Sounds good but, like I said, modest, right? However...


The thing is, there's a beer festival every single month and a range of other special events that often involve extra beers being available in the marquee bar. These are so frequent and expand the selection so substantially whenever they occur that one really has to factor them into the overall beer range. And that's why they get a score of 2.


Quality of Real Ale: They take cask seriously at the Hope. even going so far as to moderate the serving temperatures for different styles of beers. They get that a NEPA should be cooler than a 14% stout. They get that certain beers benefit from freshness and others from considerable cellaring.

If anything the quality here just gets better and better with experience - and that's another thing. They retain their staff for years, so they become more knowledgeable which in turn results in the beer improving to heights of even greater consistency. These little things make a difference and it's a difference evident in every pint served here.

It has been named CAMRA Greater London Pub of the Year four times for a reason. A maximum 2 points for cask quality.

Food: It's not a foodie pub per se, but the Hope know that people are likely to be sticking around for a few beers and might want something substantial and comforting to eat, hence the provision of a simple all-day menu of pot meals - chilli, sausage casserole, that sort of thing - as well as cold pies on the bar. It's perfectly good stuff too. Not going to win a point for destination eating, but not going to lose one either.


Bonus points: Where does one start? The Hope Beerfests have become destination events across South London and farther afield. The reclusive feline 'PubCat' and perfectly serviceable piano also provide a reason to visit for those who might be less bothered by the beer. There are usually four draught ciders available, plus an enviable range of bottled and canned beers if there's nothing you feel like on draught. There's a bar billiards table, occasional live music and just about everything you might want from a community local.

Moreover, there's nothing I don't like about the Hope. There's literally nothing not to like. A maximum 3 points here.



Last year's #4: Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell


And so, we come to the inaugural winner and the pub that has won the PoTy the most times. Four, if we're counting!

As the Craft Beer Co has expanded, the Clerkenwell branch has arguably been a little overshadowed, but it's still a cracking pub, isn't it?

Range of draught beers: The sight of the long line of taps and handpumps on the bar was absolutely mind-blowing when the Craft first opened, back in the early 2010s. Nowadays it's less of a novelty, but still a range that can hold it's own anywhere in London. Or indeed the world.

Up to 14 cask ales are on offer, slightly fewer than was once the case, along with over 20 on keg, including a house beer from the Kent brewery. There are frequent tap takeovers and - as in the Covent Garden branch - a huge variety of styles, particularly on keg. It gets the full 3 points as per usual.


Quality of Real Ale: It is with a heavy heart that I must report something of the 'Curate's Egg' at a pub where the cask quality was once second to none. I've had some beers here in the past year that really weren't very good at all. Shared gen corroborated reports that some casks that had been on sale for over a week. This is a rather discouraging development - people aren't drinking cask here, so the quality gets worse, so fewer people will drink cask here...

That's a proper pie. Shame about the cask quality lately.
A recent example: quality was woefully inconsistent during a Croft brewery tap takeover; their Bean and Gone coffee porter was in excellent condition, but Dusk Til Dawn IPA was pretty poor and Deep Red undrinkable. That's beers from the same brewery consumed in the same session. Not good enough for a pub that once served some of the best cask in the country.

Compare and contrast with the Hope above, where the same people have formed the basis of the management and staff for years - I suspect that people have turned over here rather more rapidly, and it may well be one of the reasons behind the downturn in cask quality. That and Suited Tossers not drinking enough of it, maybe.

Sigh sigh sigh. It's not enough to go negative with the scoring, but - and I never thought I'd say this - the quality score this year is 0. Sorry.

Food: The Clerkenwell Craft has no kitchen. Excellent cold pies are available, and you are free to bring in street food from Leather Lane.


Bonus points: The. Usual. Drill. Bottle and can selection. Pies and Snacks. Excellent top shelf. 3 bonus points, but I'm still saddened to think about the decline in cask quality.



Last year's #5: Euston Tap(s), Euston

A pair of little boxes outside Euston station, regulars in this competition, but how much beer magnetism are they exuding these days? Enough for you to miss your train to Crewe?

Range of draught beers: Theory and Practice are two different things. In theory, the combined might of the Euston Taps delivers something like 16 cask and 32 keg beers, for a stunningly massive selection of 48 different draught beers.

Empties outside the Euston Tap
In practice, this never happens. Or at least, I've never witnessed it. On some days it might come close. You might get 11 cask and 28 keg, but it'll usually be a bit less than this - sometimes the less-busier 'East lodge' only has one or two casks on. The keg range is strong, with the best British breweries represented along with selected imports. Lervig, Brew by Numbers, maybe a genuine Belgian Kriek. Exciting stuff.

The Cask is perhaps less inspiring these days, with the same beers from the same breweries often apparently 'on shuffle'. Redemption Trinity and Moor So'Hop are perfectly decent beers, but if you're a ticker you don't want to see them on the blackboard. Often the cask beer here is overly dominated by ordinary-strength pale ales.

So overall it's a mixed bag. A score of 2 is probably on the slightly generous side.


Quality of Real Ale: The choice of cask might be getting a bit dull here, but the quality is never in doubt. I've always been impressed with the condition of the cask offerings, even the boring ones, and it's a maximum 2 from me.

Food: No kitchen, no food, no points won or lost.


Bonus points: It seems that the only pubs that ever make the shortlist have an excellent bottle fridge, but it's particularly useful at the Euston Tap when one is about to board a train, so they pick up a bonus point. In a no-frills sort of pub like this, it's hard to find anything else to get bonusy about, however. 1 point.



And so, that's the first half of this years Pub of the Year wrapped up. Join us again in a few days time when we come to the arguably more exciting episode - the five new contenders!




Where to find it...




Antelope
87 Maple road,
Surbiton
KT6 4AW (map)
website / whatpub
*********

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

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

*********



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

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



2 comments:

  1. Only a little more geographical variation here, and if I've worked out the scores correctly Euston and Clerkenwell don't make the final this time?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Hope as to be the winner surely?

    ReplyDelete

Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.