Mixed fortunes for local brewers

Sale for Vale but West Berkshire in trouble as Wychwood cuts back

Local brewers have mostly come through the pandemic intact, but by no means unscathed despite organising deliveries and, in some cases, expanding their tap rooms. Those with a high proportion of pub sales have of course suffered due to the lockdowns, but some of the smallest will benefit from changes to taxes in the Small Brewers’ Relief scheme.

West Berkshire Brewery is trying to negotiate a sale, while Vale Brewery is already sold to experienced trade people. Wychwood has axed its tap room and brewery tours, while Tap Social faces a delay to plans to launch a bar in Oxford’s Covered Market.

The most concerning news is about West Berkshire Brewery, situated just over the county border near Newbury, which supplies many pubs and operated the Grapes in Oxford as well as two pubs in North London. The Grapes is now closed, with a notice in the window stating: “It is with great sadness that I inform you the Grapes is closed. We will not be re-opening. I would like to thank every one of you loyal patrons for making this place what it was. We have had some great times here and it’s a shame to see the Grapes go.” What happens to the pub now is open to conjecture, but the property is owned by the city council with Bath Ales running it for a while before this company was taken over by St Austell brewery, which didn’t want the pub. It is the last traditional pub on George Street, which is otherwise dominated by large bars and restaurants. The Grapes returned to the Good Beer Guide for 2022 but will now be removed from the electronic version.

The Times newspaper reported in late November that WBB “faces collapse into administration”, and whether that has now happened is unclear; it had been in talks with potential buyers. The brewery, situated on a farm, underwent massive expansion in 2017 which might have led to the current problems. In the meantime it has continued to brew and to sell beer online, until just before Christmas.

The Grapes in Oxford, now closed, was run by West Berkshire Brewery

WBB was founded in 1995 by David and Helen Maggs, who sold it around a decade ago when David Bruce, founder of the Firkin pub chain, was appointed chairman. Among its cask ales are Good Old Boy, Maggs’ Mild and Dr Hexter’s Healer, the latter named after the long-serving landlord of the Royal Oak in Wantage.

The Brouder brothers have taken over Vale Brewery

A happier picture has emerged at Vale Brewery of Brill, Buckinghamshire. This brewery also dates from 1995 when set up by Phil and Mark Stevens in Haddenham, who have now sold it to brothers Jimmy and Joe Brouder. The Brouders previously worked directly for Carlsberg UK, Timothy Taylor’s, Heineken UK and Star Pubs & Bars, and since co-founding sales and marketing agency 2EM in January 2019, they have worked with many more breweries at various stages of growth.

Joe Brouder said: “We have been aware of the excellent beer produced by Vale Brewery for many years, and I used to serve it in a pub I ran over a decade ago. When the opportunity arose to purchase the business from Phil and Mark I could see the potential for the beers, in particular local favourite Gravitas, and the business as a whole. We are really looking forward to working closely with the existing team, as well as getting to know our new customers and suppliers. Cask ale is a category very close to my heart and I can’t wait to demonstrate how this product, unique to the on-trade, can thrive.”

Phil Stevens added: “The journey has been amazing, and we’re delighted to have passed Vale Brewery Company to (much younger!) brothers Joe and Jimmy. They have some great drinks trade experience and are keen to build on solid foundations and ensure the business and beers continue to be relevant and delicious.”

Wychwood Brewery in Witney, part of Marston’s, brews one of the group’s most successful real ales, Hobgoblin, and also beers under the Brakspear name having inherited the original, historic brewing kit from that long-closed Henley brewery. But the Wychwood Brewery Tap, new to the Good Beer Guide in 2021 and in again for 2022, will not re-open and has now been deleted from the electronic version of the guide. It first closed in March 2020 along with all pubs, having only operated for a couple of years.

More surprising is Wychwood’s decision to close down its brewery tours and lay off its guides. Jon Tillson, one of the top brewing team, said: It was a really tough decision regarding the tour and tap operation, but myself and the brewing team remain focused on brewing great beers.”

Tap Social Movement has been one of the big success stories among local brewers in recent years, opening a second brewing site in Kennington to join its original Botley brewery and tap room, and then taking over the White House pub in Abingdon Road, Oxford. It has also established a new bar at the Lock29 development in Banbury.

But its plans to open another bar in the heart of the Covered Market in Oxford – a former butcher’s shop with adjacent entertainment space – have been put back, with February now the hoped-for start date. This is part of a redevelopment of the historic market by the city council, which already has one bar tenant – Teardrop, owned by Church Hanbrewery.

Tap Social’s Tess Taylor outside the White House in Oxford: a local success story

In the meantime, Tap Social has launched Long Stretch, the first release in its new series of barrel-aged and blended beers. Limited to roughly 400 500ml bottles costing £7.50 each, this is described as “our most ambitious beer to date….. a complex, lightly carbonated 7% wild ale best enjoyed chilled, but not cold.”

Work on Long Stretch began more than two years ago when it pitched Monkey Bars, its Belgian Dubbel, into a French red wine barrel along with some wild Brettanomyces yeast. It then added molasses to a Belgian-inspired dark ale brewed in collaboration with Wild Beer Co, fermented the beer with a Belgian ale yeast, and transferred it to a Scotch whisky barrel with fresh cherry puree. It will certainly be a Christmas ale with a difference!