Tap Social Movement: Yes they can!

I have admired Tap Social Movement from the very start, although I’m not a huge fan of its beer except for the darker, less hoppy varieties. It produces craft keg rather than cask, although that is about to change in a limited way. It also now produces a growing range of craft beer in cans as well as keg or key-keg, and will soon enter a whole new era with the delayed opening of its first pub, the White House, on Oxford’s Abingdon Road.

The story started in 2016 when founder directors (and sisters) Tess and Amy Taylor, with Paul Humpherson, set up the brewery on the Curtis Industrial Estate in Botley, Oxford – in the shadow of the A34. Opening of the tap room soon followed, and Tap Social was so successful that it soon ran out of brewing capacity. That was solved when it took over the state-of-the-art kit of the short-lived LAM brewery in Kennington, near Oxford, giving it a five-barrel plant in Botley and a 10-barrel plant in Kennington, overseen by head brewer Jason Bolger.

It’s no coincidence that Tess, Amy and Jason are all from North America, where the craft keg movement started – Tess and Amy being from Canada, and Jason from the US. Nor is it any coincidence that Tess, Amy and Paul have all worked in the criminal justice system, and had a burning desire to see ex-prisoners get a better deal to help them back into society.

So far over 30 ex-prisoners, or serving prisoners on day release, have come to work at Tap Social, most coming from Spring Hill prison near Bicester. Most of them have now moved back to their communities, taking with them the skills they have learned.

Some people poured scorn on Tap Social’s plans at the outset, and a comment posted on an article in the Oxford Mail described them as “bleeding heart numbskulls” – a name soon appropriated for one of the beers, along with the branding “criminally good beer”! Prisoners from HMP Huntercombe, near Henley, design the artwork for pump clips and cans, including the new branding with black bars.

“Criminal justice is at the heart of what we do, and the main motivator for job creation,” says Tess. “The idea to set up a brewery came second to the social justice part, as we have seen the complete lack of support for people leaving prison and the revolving door that brings them back. There is a complete lack of information on how to support people on day release, and only a few other companies are prepared to take on ex-offenders, including Timpson and Greggs.

“We have not encountered any negatives. The great thing about brewing is that there are so many transferable skills, and when we open the White House kitchen this will open up more training opportunities.”

The temporary ‘horse box’ at the White House

After moving to London, Tess managed a craft beer bar and caught the growing vibe about fresh, innovative beers sold mainly to a young, urban crowd. She recalls walking the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” with Amy: “We were sat in a tap room, and thought this was the idea we want to create.” With Paul being a criminal barrister and teaching fellow at Oxford University, and Amy being a PhD student here, Oxford was the natural choice for their venture.

Covid-19 has interrupted many things, including the day release of prisoners (which she hopes will resume soon), and posed a huge challenge for Tap Social. Work on re-opening the White House has been delayed, and plans for a Market Tap in Oxford Covered Market put on hold until 2021. But the more immediate challenge, for a brewery with a very busy tap room and lots of plans, was simply to stay in business.

Tess Taylor

“When lockdown kicked off we started home delivery, but we soon ran out of bottles,” says Tess. “Everything was so uncertain so the whole team was put into furlough, but when we realised this could go on for a long time, we had to react. We had been planning a canning operation and that finally happened in June, when we started brewing again after working through the beer we had in tanks. We have had a re-brand, a new website and a new canning line, and came out of lockdown with a fresh new look.”

The Botley taproom re-opened on the second weekend of July, with outside seating only at first but with socially distanced seating since added indoors both downstairs and on the mezzanine floor. There is plenty of outdoor seating on evenings and weekends when other businesses nearby are closed, complete with “sexy street food and vibey tunes” – open from 5pm-10pm on Thursdays, 4pm-11pm on Fridays and 2pm-11pm on Saturdays.

“We are offering some low-key music and the street vendors are back, but we can’t have people dancing and you have to sit down,” explains Tess. “Our tap-room capacity is only 25% of what it was, and many pubs and other venues are not buying as much beer. We have the same overheads as before and have taken a massive hit, and now government support is coming to an end. A lot of people want to support local businesses such as ourselves, but some feel guilty that this is not the right time to be going out.”

The Botley tap room

Work continues at the White House with the aim, hopefully, of re-opening before Christmas. A lot of work is required at the former Wadworth pub, including a brand new kitchen, but it is typical of Tap Social’s innovative flair that you can get a drink her even before opening.

It has put a “horse box” – effectively a moveable mini-bar – outside, serving coffee, snacks and beers mornings and evenings with a £3 per pint offer running Mondays to Wednesdays during September. Even better news for CAMRA members is that the White House will sell cask ale.

“We had our first pop-up event before Christmas last year, as we really want to get to know the community,” says Tess. “We have had a lovely response, and we plan to brew a cask beer especially for the White House and will also offer a guest cask ale from a local supplier. The menu will be pub classics with a twist, and some Canadian specialties.”

Work goes on at the White House

With all the challenges of Covid-19 and a big job in hand down the Abingdon Road, it is maybe just as well that plans for the Market Tap are on hold. This would be the second bar in the Covered Market, after Teardrop, and would occupy a former butcher’s shop in the centre. Tap Social would also manage the adjacent space for events such as performing arts, both free and ticketed, but that is for the future.

“We’re still planning to go ahead, hopefully by early 2021, and are following city council guidance as this is part of the whole regeneration of the market.”

For now, though, the challenge is to respond to any changes decreed by the authorities in response to the virus, to “keep on keeping on”. With its track record so far, you can be confident Tap Social is up for that challenge.

Sponsored t-shirts for Pedal & Post

“We have adapted, but if social distancing is to continue then we must look at other routes to market,” adds Tess. “It’s been a wild ride but really good fun until this year, and the community in Oxford has really got behind us.”

Tap Social’s website has all you need to know not only about the brewery and its vision, but also about the failings of the criminal justice system. The names of the canned beers say it all – Inside Out, False Economy, Jobsworth, Time Better Spent, Cell Count and Unlocked.

It may produce great beer, but I was taken aback when visiting the Churchill Hospital in Oxford when I watched an “eco-courier” with a Tap Social t-shirt delivering supplies on a bike. If hospital patients are being prescribed beer then the NHS is looking up, but it turns out that Tap Social is only sponsoring the t-shirts of human-powered courier firm Pedal & Post. Shame!

Can Tap Social Movement survive and prosper, even with another lockdown? Let’s hope the answer is, Yes they can!