Small Oxfordshire pub group concentrates on real ale
You may never have heard the name Oak Taverns, but you may well be familiar with some of its pubs in towns and villages around Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire where they have gained a reputation as “the” place to drink real ale. It has also just opened another pub, the Sun Inn in Wheatley, and it is pressing ahead with a project to recreate beers from long-gone local breweries.
You may already be familiar with the first of these beers – Wallingford Brewery 8d Ale XXX which is brewed to an 1890 recipe. This was voted runner-up in the Beer of the Festival awards at the Oxford Beer and Cider Festival in October, since when it has been available at the Cross Keys in Wallingford, within sight of the old brewery headquarters. Described as “a fairly bitter beer with marmalade and fruity overtones”, this was very unusual for its era in using Bavarian and Belgian as well as English hops. Two more historic beers are coming, including one from Halls of Oxford.
So who are Oak Taverns – not to be confused with Oakman Inns, a larger pub and hotel chain which also has some local venues? Oak Taverns is headquartered in Thame and has 10 pubs around the area and 14 altogether, in Thame, Bicester, Faringdon, Wantage, Wallingford, Chinnor, Sutton Courtenay, Princes Risborough and Haddenham, plus a few outside this area. The new addition, the Sun Inn in Wheatley, has recently been functioning as a café bar but is now a real ale pub again.
Oak is run by managing director Simon Collinson – himself a CAMRA member – his brother David and Emma Stevenson. Simon’s father was in the brewing business with Whitbread and then ran pubs, with Simon joining in 1998 after a spell at drinks wholesaler Matthew Clark. At one time the group numbered over 30 pubs, many on tied or temporary agreements, but Simon says: “We were a Jack of all Trades but master of none. We were running the Cross Keys in Thame which was owned by Punch, and didn’t do real ale before we came in. It was free of tie on cask ales, and we put in four or five lines which were very successful, and then we had the opportunity to buy it.
“That is the model we have used in our other pubs – cask ale orientated, not selling food, at a quality, freehold pub. Slowly and surely we have rolled that concept out over the last 10 to 12 years. There is always an opportunity to have a cask ale pub in any town as we quickly gained a reputation in places such as Thame and Faringdon. We also put a little micro-brewery into Thame and before we knew it, a lot of goodwill had been generated.”
The Cross Keys at Thame, the Swan in Faringdon and the Angel in Bicester all have micro-breweries, although they are not active all the time and the one at the Swan hopes to resume operations run by a local home brewer.
The decision not to offer food might appear odd, as so many pubs make most of their money this way and non-food pubs are a rarity. But the formula is successful for Oak Taverns, even in small towns and villages.
“Cask ale needs to be sold in good quality specialist outlets, not in big food pubs which don’t get the throughput to maintain quality” says Simon. “No-one goes to the same pub every night of the week, but one night they may go to watch sports, one night they might go out to eat, and one night they might go to drink cask ale. We run a chain of 14 pubs and we don’t fry a chip, employ a chef or a kitchen porter in any of them. The thousands of pounds we could have spent on a kitchen can be spent on other things, such as the garden at the King’s Arms in Wantage which is now very popular because of its heated verandas.”
Wantage is unusual as there were already two established real ale pubs here when Oak took over the King’s Arms – the Shoulder of Mutton and the Royal Oak. But in other towns and villages, Oak operates the stand-out real ale pub – the Cross Keys in Thame, the Angel in Bicester, the Swan in Faringdon and the Cross Keys in Wallingford are examples. It has village pubs too such as the George in Sutton Courtenay, renamed from the George & Dragon as the writer George Orwell is buried in the church graveyard here, although his grave bears only his real name, Eric Arthur Blair. Orwell’s works include an essay called Moon Under Water which extols the virtues of the perfect (fictitious) pub, and this name is now used by various Wetherspoon outlets.
“The King’s Arms, George & Dragon and Bird in Hand at Princes Risborough were all bought via Fleurets from Greene King, and were technically failed tenancies in need of much investment, but it’s interesting to see that Greene King is not selling any UK assets now,” explains Simon. “The Cross Keys in Wallingford was bought from Brakspear this year, and used to have over 60 covers for food. Some places do a big food or sports offer, when all they really need is to be a pub.”
He describes the Sun Inn in Wheatley as “a perfect pub for us” as it is in very good condition, with the original bar and cellar set-up in place although it has latterly been operating as a café. A good range of real ales was planned for re-opening in December.
So what of Oak’s collaboration with the Dead Brewers Society? This little-known organisation has exact recipes as used by many long-gone breweries, and Oak intends to produce a range of them for breweries local to its pubs. Next up will be Hunt Edmonds & Co’s Bitter from 1952, this 19th century brewery in Banbury having lasted until 1967 after being acquired by Bass, when it had 187 pubs. Halls of Oxford AK Pale Mild from 1904 will be produced for Christmas, described as “a bit like a northern bitter rather than a southern mild ale”. Oak’s brewer, Nick Zivkovic, brews in Bicester although the Dead Brewers beers are produced at the One Mile End brewery in London.
“These are beers your father or grandfather might have drunk, and people really like to hear the story behind them,” says Simon. “The Dead Brewers Society has thousands of records as these were kept because brewers were always being chased for tax and duty. We also analyse the local water before brewing starts.”
It looks like we can expect more real ale pubs and more brewing from Oak Taverns, at a time when cask ale’s future is questioned by some. A branch minibus tour of some of these pubs in being planned!