Last Wednesday, Oxford CAMRA celebrated all thing pubs and beer with its annual awards night at the St Aldates Tavern. True to form, I took a roundabout route to get there.
This Scandi restaurant on top of John Lewis also doubles as a bar, where you can enjoy cocktails and a small range of beers whilst enjoying a panoramic view of the St Ebbes housing estate. You can get here either through the John Lewis shop, or up in a lift from ground floor level on Bridge Street. This was a lunchtime visit where I dined on meatballs washed down with a bottle of Menabrea, arguably the most interesting of the beers listed, a blonde Italian brew more in the Czech or German style. Shame there’s no Lervig or similar to reinforce the Scandinavian theme. The draught offerings are equally as non-Scandi as you can get: two very similar Czech lagers. Thankfully the prices are non-Scandi too; the food seemed good value, though my Bionda beer works out as the most expensive beer (per pint) of my tour so far. Just as well it was on somebody else’s tab!
Three Goats’ Heads (#25)
The same day I found myself waiting for a bus in Iffley Road, so I popped into the Magdalen Arms for a quick half. It’s an impressive transformation from the dive that it was fifteen years ago, so will get a proper review some other time.
The CAMRA pre-show party was in the Three Goats’ Heads, although as I hadn’t told anyone, it was no surprise I was the only one there. But I didn’t have to drink alone, as despite it being very early evening, the place was absolutely buzzing. This is the only place in the region run by Tadcaster-based brewer Sam Smith, who’s portfolio of pubs includes some absolute classics. As somebody who appreciates great pubs, it’s with regret that I have to confess I’m not a great fan of Sam Smith’s beer. I didn’t much care for his Bond theme, either.
In the interests of my research, I took a pint of the only real ale, Old Brewery Bitter, which was served very cold, too cold actually, but at £3.50, it’s one of the cheapest in the city away from a Wetherspoons.
Aside from the temperature of the beer, and my indifference towards it (I’m not saying it’s a bad beer, it’s just not to my taste), the pub itself has a lot to offer. Set over two levels, it was converted from a pizza restaurant more than twenty years ago, and has a curious interior, quite opulent upstairs with wood, mirrors and a huge column that kind of gets in the way; it’s more basic in the lower bar. I found a seat upstairs and engaged in a football discussion with three lads on the adjoining table. The Goats describes itself as a “Digital Detox Pub” – conversation is encouraged here, and the three rules of the house are no mobiles, no tablets, and no swearing. Finding I couldn’t get a phone signal to back up my football opinion with real statistics, I managed to break two of them.
St Aldates Tavern (#26)
I can’t make my mind up about this pub. Sometimes I think it’s great, other times I leave disappointed. Tonight’s visit didn’t help. This was the venue for CAMRA’s awards night so I expected the beer to be tip top, given that the guest list comprised many local brewers, the licensees of many of the area’s finest pubs, a host of discerning drinkers. And me. The first pint I had was indeed excellent – one of the Siren Craft “Suspended In…” hazy pale ales – but once that had finished, nothing else really grabbed me.
Suffice to say we had a good night. The turnout was fantastic; so was the buffet. People made positive speeches. Awards were bestowed on the Royal Blenheim and Brewery Tap, Abingdon, as City and Country Pubs of the Year respectively, and brewers Hook Norton, White Horse and Loddon for their winning beers at last year’s Oxford Beer and Cider Festival.
For after-show party, we all followed Steve and his certificate round the corner to the newly crowned City Pub of the Year. It was a much better attended gig than my pre-show affair. My plan had actually been to go home but getting into conversation with two brewers at the Tavern meant that the train left without me, and I took little persuasion to join them and the awards night throng at the Royal Blenheim.
As you’d expect for Oxford’s best pub, the beer was exceptional, and I took a bigger liking to the White Horse Porter than anything else I’d tasted all night. And spending a happy hour with brewers, publicans and other like-minded beery people was a fine way to end a busy day.