Despite a rich brewing history, Oxford has in recent years had very few “brewery taps”. At the end of the last century just before Morrell’s bit the dust, their brewery tap was the Brewery Gate on St Thomas’ Street, which closed not long after the brewery. It only escaped demolition recently to make way for a hotel after a successful campaign to save Oxford’s Horse Hospital, which was next door to the pub. For a while afterwards, the only brewery in the city was Old Bog at Headington Quarry, their tap being the Masons Arms, but now Old Bog is mothballed, the mantel has been taken on by Tap Social at Botley. But the wider region has a host of new and established breweries, and in recent years a number of them have bought, leased or forged agreements with pubs in the city to showcase their wares. It sounded like a good idea for a crawl.
Tap Social (#31)
After a twenty-minute walk along the bleak and windswept Botley Road, we arrived to find Gareth sitting glumly outside.
“It’s closed until 2”, he informed us.
This was bad news. It’s not the first time I’ve organised a pub crawl to a closed pub, as some elephant-memoried friends still remind me to this day. And if it was closed to Gareth, it would most certainly be closed to everybody. A subsequent check shows that the brewery’s website does advertise a 2pm start, but in fairness to me, the Facebook page says noon, which is my excuse and the one I used in my defence.
“I need to ask them a question about buying beer in June, anyway”, I replied more in hope than expectation, and ventured inside.
Preparations were underway for a private party upstairs, and a brewing workshop was in full flow downstairs, so there were people around. I asked the kind lady behind the bar about my June order, and then about our more immediate requirements. Good news. We could stay.
If you’ve not been here, then why not? Check out their website and read about their philosophy, and why they’re here. It’s all in a good cause, so Oxford’s only brewery tap deserves your support.
I gleefully ordered a Get Your Hops Off, my favourite of the Tap beers, a superb American IPA packed with hops and massive hits of peach, passion fruit and mango. It’s a great beer, and is better in keg than in cask, so was followed by another of the same before it was time to leave. And bonus of all bonuses, my bar tab I got from a crowdfunding appeal two years ago is still in credit, so the Monky Bars were on me.
We took a bus back into town to avoid wasting valuable drinking time suffering the Botley Road again. First stop was the Grapes. When Bath Ales was snapped up by St Austell in 2016, the Grapes (or “Beerd” as it was known for a while) was deemed surplus to their requirements, so the lease was taken on by Yattendon’s finest, West Berkshire Brewery.
It’s not the biggest of pubs, and is often busy, which is good, as it runs eight cask and around a dozen keg lines, all of which needs to get drunk. Though this is the first time it’s properly featured on a crawl, this is a bit of a regular haunt, as they keep tempting me with tap takeovers and other beery events that I just cannot resist. I had to ignore some of the more exotic taps today, as this was a “brewery tap” day, so that meant sticking to the host brewery’s beer, which in turn meant a nice pint of cask Mararaja IPA.
Plough at 38 (#32)
Time was tight, so we had to make tracks round the corner onto Cornmarket. The Plough is very new on the Oxford pub scene, but in another way, it isn’t. It’s been a pub since 1656, which would make it one of the city’s oldest, but this was broken between 1924 and 2016 when it stopped selling pints and started selling shirts and suits as a branch of Austin Reed.
They went the way of so many High Street retailers in 2016, and after a period of lying empty, somebody had the good idea of turning this fine building back into a pub again. Some of the investment came through XT Brewery, most noticeably in the three huge 1000 litre conditioning tanks behind the bar, in which beers are conditioned on site before sale. XT are, of course, based just over the border in Buckinghamshire, and they have a tap room there in Long Crendon, but this has become their city centre showcase, and you’ll find three cask and several more keg lines of XT and Animal beers to choose from.
The restaurant is upstairs (and very nice stairs they are); downstairs is the bar, which has large windows offers a great spot to sit and people watch, or marvel at just how many Deliveroo moped drivers there are. The bar itself is an unusual ‘V’ shape in front of the archway that leads to the tank room. Check out the impressive copper pipework linking said tanks to the beer taps. I never shopped in Austin Reed, and it’s sad to see any long-established business fail, but let’s face it, this place always was, and still is, much better as a pub.
Teardrop Barzinho (#33)
If you, like me, thought “Barzinho” was a midfielder in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup squad, you, like me, would be wrong. But there is a Brazilian connection here, for a rough translation from the Portuguese is “little bar”, and this little bar in the historic Covered Market is owned and run by Brazilian husband and wife team of Christian and Luciana, who between them are Church Hanbrewery.
And this is a little bar, the littlest in Oxford, but still manages to stock a couple of cask beers (dispensed from 18-pint pins on a stillage) and eight or so keg lines. Everything they sell, liquid or solid, is from Oxfordshire, so a better champion of local brews you will struggle to find. As this was the brewery tap tour, I took a third of Church Hanbrewery’s own Mat Black, marketed as an ”Imperial Black Ale”, rather than the more common but totally confused “black IPA” some brewers prefer, followed by another third of their Czar Bomba, a hefty 9.9% Imperial Stout. Beers from Little Ox and White Horse feature a lot (available in third and two-third measures), and the bar doubles as a shop where you can buy bottles to take away.
This was a bold move for Christian and Luciana, and hopefully it’s paying off. Tap Social are due to open a bar in the Covered Market from the summer, and hopefully this will lead to an increase in footfall, more beer drinkers and possibly extended opening hours too.
Royal Blenheim (#5) and Castle (#21)
Our last two pubs were repeat visits. You can’t do the proper “local brewery” crawl without a visit to visit Hook Norton’s only Oxford pub, the Castle. It was only a couple of weeks since I struck gold here, and this time there were two different special beers, Outside Half with its rugby ball-shaped pump clip and the more traditional Kingmaker Ale.
And likewise, the local beer crawl had to call at the Royal Blenheim, White Horse Brewery’s outlet in the city and the newly crowned Oxford Pub of the Year. I gave in to temptation here and plumped for a pint of Fixed Wheel Blackheath Stout, a blatant disregard of the crawl’s beer choice rules, but this was an award winner too, having been crowned CAMRA’s Champion Winter Beer at the festival in Birmingham earlier in the month. Too good an opportunity to miss, and it was worth it; even so, I made amends with a quick half of White Horse Porter before we left.
Brewery Gate picture by David Hill