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

Friday, July 22, 2016

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

So, it's that time of the year again. That half-way point in the calendar when I pick my Pub of the Year, which is probably the same as it was last year. You know the drill by now.

Except that things are a bit different this time.

Rather foolishly I committed myself at the start of 2016 to visiting every single brewery in London, with a view to putting out a book on the subject. That's going alright. Sort of. I've done just about half of the current total, so I'm just about on schedule.

The thing is, once you've one brewery (ok, a few) you really have seen them all. You start to see sacks of malt in your dreams. You try to find something that makes this fermentation vessel different from those fermentation vessels you saw last Saturday. All those American Pale Ales start to blur into one continuous stream of golden hoppiness. Another day. Another railway arch. Another industrial estate...



And sprinting around this vast capital of ours in search of beer brewed on the premises has probably meant that I've not put as much effort into the PotY this time as I have in previous years. But the show must go on, obviously, and as usual there are ten pubs on the shortlist, and the overall winner will be decided some time next month.

Of course, lots of the breweries are brewpubs, and some of these have made the list. I'll talk about those when we come to this years five new challengers in a few days time. For now, here are the returning top five from last year's competition.


Will the Craft Beer Co continue to dominate?
(Oh, and in case you're wondering, the breweries I've already done are: Essex Street, Tap East, B&K Highbury, Hammerton, Crate, Howling Hops, Maregade, Laines Four Thieves, Laines Aeronaut, One Mile End, Dragonfly, Long Arm, Five Points, Ram, Brick, B@K Angel, Bexley, Zerodegrees, Southwark, Camden Town, Barnet, LBC Bohemia, Meantime, Brockley, Big Smoke, LBC Bull, Husk, Beavertown, Redemption, By the Horns, Brew by Numbers, Anspach & Hobday, Canopy, Bullfinch, Alphabeta, Kernel, Fourpure, Partizan and Brixton!)


Last year's Winner: Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell


The original Craft Beer Company has been BV Pub of the Year three years out of four which is quite an astonishing achievement. The chain has since expanded across London, but is the Leather Lane outlet that started it all off still the best of the best?
 
Now five years old, it got a bit of a refurb this year which added more seating as well as making the place a bit more 'pubby' and welcoming, while the CBC website now includes daily beer lists for all the pubs in the chain. Mouthwatering beer lists...

Range of draught beers: Still one of the best ranges in London, without a shadow of a doubt. 21 keg lines and 16 casks on the go usually guarantees a choice of at least 30 beers at any one time, allowing for frequent changes and the presence of cider.

There's a healthy and intelligent balance struck between light and dark, weak and strong, and domestic and International - essentially something for everyone, whether you fancy a 12% Alaskan Baltic Porter or a session Pale Ale from Kent (which happens to be the house beer, and the only cask that doesn't change).

Tap takeovers and special events ensure that rare and one-off beers regularly show up here and nowhere else. Fairly obviously it's a maximum score here. 3 out of 3.

Quality of Real Ale: Unlike the plethora of newish craft bars that focus almost solely on keg and bottle, cask is key to the business model of the CBC chain. In five years, I still don't remember ever having a bad pint here, and I've had well over 300 different cask beers. That's an astonishingly good strike rate.

Beers don't go on sale until they reach peak condition; they almost always get the temperature right - no serving golden ales at a sickly room temp here - and if suppliers can't deliver on beer quality, they simply won't stock it. These simple principles guarantee some of the freshest, tastiest cask ale around and on a scale of -2 to 2, they earn a maximum score of 2.

Food: Pies. Rather good pies, in fact. And excellent Scotch eggs, plus olives and 'fresh' pork scratchings out of a big jar. That's it. And such snacks are often exactly what you want when having a few beers. 

They have it all...
This isn't the sort of place you go to for a full sit-down meal, and nor should it be. I'm perfectly happy with a Mr. Barrick's Pork and Stilton pie, and while there's no cooking involved and I can't really go handing out food points, this hasn't stopped the Craft winning the competition in the past...

Bonus points: The bottled beer range here (with a decent discount for takeaways) is always good for a bonus point, and the snack selection is worth another. The recent refurbishment does seem to have improved the atmosphere (not that it was ever bad) so we'll chuck them a point for that too, giving the maximum 3.

Is there another pub in London that can match the Clerkenwell Craft? There are nine more to review, so we'll have to see.

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

The sheer dominance of the CBC chain saw the younger, brasher sister scoop the Runner-up spot last year, and the Covent Garden branch is sure to be a contender again with its prime West End location and impressive offering on the beer front.

Range of draught beers: With 30 keg taps and 15 handpumps, the balance is tipped slightly more towards keg here, and it may be my imagination, but I reckon there's a nod to the tourist market with a slightly higher proportion of 'standard lager' style beers than in other branches. But with so many other beers on tap to choose from, this really doesn't matter.

Top-drawer breweries from London, the rest of the country and across the pond are all represented and occasional tap takeovers from the likes of Siren and Dark Star allow our finest exponents of the brewers art to showcase their full ranges. There's no denying it's a great selection, and there's always something surprisingly delicious to be found. 3 points.

Tessellating beer mats!
Quality of Real Ale: Most of the time the cask beer here is pretty good, and the West End is generally not great for beer quality with most pubs in the area scoring 0 or -1. But this past year, it hasn't been as consistently superb as in the Clerkenwell branch. Yes, I've had some great pints here, but also some that were only OK-ish and sometimes a bit on the warm side for the style. So it's a 1

Food: This is one of several Craft branches that until very recently had an arrangement with Forty Burgers to do their catering - I've made known my indifference to this food in the past. However, that has now come to an end here, and they are doing their own 'American diner' menu with burgers, dogs and nachos. I've not tried it yet and it mostly didn't apply to the past year, so we can't score or deduct any points this time around.  


Bonus points: As well as up to 45 draught beers, Craft Covent Garden boasts over 200 different bottles and cans - a list so vast and varied it's almost hard to comprehend. Look behind the bar - if you can avoid the distraction of so many taps - and you'll see one of the most impressive ranges of spirits anywhere. The snack selection is similar to the Clerkenwell Craft, and these add up to three bonus points.

But I do have one criticism - the place can get extremely crowded and the layout of the ground floor (long and thin with a long bar) isn't ideal for queue management. Consequently there are certain times when it can take 5-10 minutes to get served which isn't ideal. But I should really give them a point for using oversized glasses, so they get away with a 3.




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

Yes, it's another Craft Beer Co. but little a bit different, and home to possibly the best pub beerfest in existence...

Range of draught beers: A few years ago, this would've been a more impressive range than it appears today, and it's only because of places like, well, the other Craft Beer Companies in central London, that a selection of 10 cask ales and somewhere close to 20 keg beers doesn't seem like that many.

If the Covent Garden branch makes overtures to mainstream lager drinkers, the Clapham Craft does something similar with standard cask bitter - you do tend to see the same fairly safe beers returning on a regular basis here. Dark Star Hophead, Thornbridge Kipling, that sort of stuff. The keg selection is more adventurous, with Saisons and Sours often featuring prominently. It's not quite as good as other crafts though, and gets 2 out of 3.

Quality of Real Ale: This is an area where the Clapham Craft cannot be faulted. Maybe because they tend towards a more familiar lineup it's easier to get right? Whether that's true or not, the cask beer here is always cool, lively and delicious, the way it should be. Not many pubs in this competition will pick up the maximum 2 points, but this is one of them.

Just a tiny corner of #Craft100

Food: The situation here is the same as at Covent Garden where a new regime has just taken over, and the previous one wouldn't have won any points anyway.

Bonus points: Now here we come to the very best thing about Clapham. Not just the best thing about the Craft Clapham, but the best thing about Clapham itself!

The #Craft100 festival. There has only been one in the last year (I'd sooner have them every month) and once again it set the bar sky-high for what a beerfest can be. 100+ beers, many of them ultra rare or specially-brewed. Fantastic street food. It's a shame I can only give one bonus point for it - but of course the usual bonuses for CBC Pubs apply too - bottled beer range, lined glasses etc. and so they'll easily pick up the full 3 points.

Last year's #4: Royal Albert, New Cross

An unexpected finalist last year, the staff at the Royal Albert were surprised and delighted to make the top five. True, this Antic pub is relatively local to me, but convenience of location doesn't win any points in a cutthroat competition like this one...

Range of draught beers: The Albert is a bit more of a locals pub, and as such there is considerable fluctuation in trade. Like many Antic pubs it doesn't open until 4 during the week and is somewhat busier at weekends - this means that the extent of the beer range can vary. On a good day you'll have a choice of half a dozen real ales, and a few craft keg, alongside more standard beers.

The mix is often very strange - you'll see something incredibly mainstream right next to a new experimental brew - and this is what Antic generally does with its pubs, catering to all markets. Their house brewery, Volden, has improved vastly and the Albert takes care to balance their beers with stuff from farther afield. 2 out of 3.

Quality of Real Ale: Antic pubs don't always get this right. I've been in several where pints have been flaccid and dingy, and in some cases wholly Sarsonesque. Fortunately the Royal Albert doesn't suffer from this problem and the beer is consistently well kept. Not outstanding enough to earn the coveted maximum, but worth 1 point.

Oh no, he's eaten all the beer sticks again...
Food: In keeping with their 'everyman (woman, and student)' ethos, food tends to be pretty decent in Antic pubs. The daily menu at the Royal Albert relies on quality seasonal produce and most of the dishes are rather good. There's your standard pub grub - steak, bangers'n'mash, that sort of thing alongside more interesting options - try the ham hock hash with poached duck egg for a very generous starter, or perhaps the crispy pigs tails.

I have actually had one fairly disappointing dish here, but suspect that was a one-off as there have been many more enjoyable dining experiences, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and the food point.

Bonus points: A working bar billiards table is a rarity these days - the Albert has one and wins a bonus point for that and the various board games that are available to play here. Then you've got the bonusworthy snacks - including the excellent spicy, meaty beer sticks, though unfortunately their sausage rolls, possibly the best in the world when fresh out of the oven, don't seem to be available very often now.

The limited opening hours are a problem - if you're in the area and feel like popping here for lunch during the week that simply ain't an option. So we probably have to knock off a point for that, but add one on for their soft drink range, which is one of the best I've seen with Fentimans, Square Root, and some weird cucumber cordial all in stock. Overall a further 2 points for the Albert.

Last year's #5: Pelt Trader, City

Tucked away behind Cannon Street station and close to the river, the Pelt Trader serves two distinct markets - an after-work City crowd and craft beer enthusiasts doing the central London circuit.

It's part of a small 'chain' that also includes the Euston and Waterloo Taps and the Holborn Whippet, all of which are decent pubs, though for me the Pelt has something just a bit special about it.

Range of draught beers: Generally at least 10 keg beers available alongside about half a dozen cask. No 'standard lager' so all the taps are dedicated to more interesting stuff, with a bias towards the newer, craftier brewers - Kernel, Buxton, Siren, Thornbridge etc. There's usually a couple of international offerings too. On the cask side, there remains a focus on the light, pale and hoppy. Expect to find the limited single hop beers from the likes of Mallinsons, Kent and Vocation.

Quieter times at the Pelt Trader...
Sometimes the range gets a bit 'usual suspect'y, but there's always a solid selection and that's worth 2 points.

Quality of Real Ale: As I say, the cask beer range might include the odd darker beer, but the business as usual is light'n'hoppy, and these beers are served incredibly well. Their 'long range gravity' dispense system may have something to do with it, as the beer is always cool, clear and delicious. Given that every cask beer I've ever had here has been pretty faultless, I can only award the maximum 2 points.


Food: Pizza. Delicious proper pizza. Thin and crispy with judiciously chosen toppings and none of this 'whack everything on it' mentality. The pelt keeps the food options simple - a single blackboards worth of choice - and does it pretty damn well. It won the food point last year, and it wins it again this year. Apart from maybe a few select Trattorias, it's probably the best pizza in London.

Bonus points: On paper this is not a pub that has a huge amount of 'interesting shit' going for it. The railway arch location is perhaps a little soulless. 

As with last year, I can dish out two bonus points - one because it's prices are extremely competitive for the City, and another because they do have a rather good bottle selection, again at reasonable prices.


And so, there we go. I do feel a bit like I've repeated a lot of what I said about these five pubs last year, quite possibly with less eloquence and passion.

But these places were top five for a reason - find out in a few days time when I review this year's new challengers to see if they can be knocked off the top.



Where to find it...



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

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

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


Royal Albert
460 New Cross Road
New Cross
SE14 6TJ (map)
*********  


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

3 comments:

  1. Have you visited the Shagg and Shake in Hoxton?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Is it really worth it when the same pub win year after year?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Brown paper envelope...

      Delete

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