No food? No problem for Oak Taverns

Dave Richardson joins a CAMRA tour of pubs with a difference

Many pubs, apart from a few in busy city centres, would say that you have to serve food to survive. There are of course exceptions, but Oak Taverns is probably unique in this area being a small pub chain operating in villages and small towns where fish, chips, burgers, pizzas or more lavish pub grub are never provided, unless by takeaway vans. We toured five of them in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire one Saturday, and will look at another five later this summer.

As managing director Simon Collinson told the Oxford Drinker a few months ago: “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. 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.”

Animals of many colours…..

Our tour actually started at XT Brewery, not only because it fitted in well with our itinerary but because XT is now brewing some beers exclusively for Oak Taverns pubs in addition to its core and Animal range. Oak pubs including the Angel in Bicester, Cross Keys in Thame and Swan in Faringdon have their own micro-breweries, but XT is now brewing for them and also producing beers for an Oak Taverns initiative with the Dead Brewers Society, reviving recipes used by long-gone breweries.

One of these was on offer in the taproom at XT – Hall’s of Oxford AK Pale Ale, with a recipe from 1904 – along with XT3 and Numbat, from its experimental Animal range. Hall’s can trace its heritage back to the 17th century but became Halls Oxford & West Brewing Company in 1896, closing in 1926 when taken over by Allsopp’s, along with 300 pubs. A distribution depot on Park End Street was retained, and in 1980 Ind Coope, then a brewing giant, brought back the Hall’s name for its local pubs, introducing the “Hall’s Hare” ceramic plaques that can still be seen on nearly 50 pubs around the county today.

So much for the history –I found the AK Pale delicious as I like a malty taste. We were to see it at some pubs later, and demand was such that one pub, the Cross Keys in Wallingford, sold 15 barrels of it. But these Dead Brewery Society beers are limited editions and you can’t find AK Pale now, the latest edition being Blatch’s Pale Ale from Theale, Berkshire, from a 1964 recipe.

XT operates on a farm in Long Crendon, near Thame, and director Russ Taylor gave us a tour and talked us through its journey since he founded it in 2011 with Gareth Xifaras – their initials creating the name XT. Expansion was rapid until Covid hit in 2020, but production is still around one third less than 2019 levels. Cask ales predominate although cans and bottles are available too, with the taproom open from 12-6pm from Wednesdays to Saturdays. XT beers have become a familiar sight not only locally but further afield, as it will deliver anywhere within a day’s drive by transit van. Some XT beers are always in production (XT25 is the highest numbered so far), whereas nearly all Animal beers are experimental with over 100 already produced.

Suitably refreshed, we piled back into the minibus for our first Oak Taverns pub stop, the Rising Sun in Haddenham. XT has achieved pretty well a permanent tap take-over here – a certain R. Taylor lives nearby – with XT3 (its IPA), XT4 (amber), Animal’s Hop Kitty (now a permanent beer) and Katydid (don’t ask!), named after a green coloured American tree cricket. Much rarer was my choice, Narwhale Blonde by Well Drawn Brewing Company of Bedwas, Wales, which was unremarkable. This is a cosy, open plan pub and one of two in the village, and with some historical interest. On display is a reproduced poster from 1878 offering two pubs and two cottages for sale including the “neat and substantial” Rising Sun.

A warm welcome from Ieva Pakalniskyte (left) and Katie Baldock at the Bird in Hand.

Venturing further into darkest Bucks, we next pulled up at the Bird in Hand in Princes Risborough, an end-of-terrace pub away from the town centre but near the station. Here the beer choice was more eclectic, including two from Chiltern Brewery – Beechwood Bitter and Chiltern Black. Still available was the previous release from the Dead Brewers Society archive, Edmunds of Banbury Best Bitter from 1952, which I naturally went for. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Hall’s AK Pale but it was still good, and White Horse’s Pacific Pale and Old Rosie cider were also on hand pump. This was a busy little pub with a modern interior, where some customers had ordered in a pizza while watching sport.

Next stop was the Red Lion in Chinnor, where Simon Collinson, who lives locally, joined us for a drink. It was no surprise to hear that Oak plans to acquire a couple more pubs where it will roll out the same concept, so we look forward to hearing more about these. Apart from XT3 this pub had three very unusual beers on offer, Hillfoot Best Bitter from Blue Bee Brewery in Sheffield, Stranger from Handsome Brewery in Kendal, and Marc Antony from Roman Way Brewery in Northamptonshire. I enjoyed a half of the latter two as I looked around the pub, where live Rugby made it probably busier than usual on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not often that three of the four breweries represented were names I’d never heard of!

The Cross Keys is Thame’s top real ale pub.

We then moved on to Thame, and a pub I knew already as the “must visit” stop when in town. Situated on the edge of the town centre, the Cross Keys was the first Oak Taverns pub to try out the real ale specialty idea after it was acquired from Punch, proving so successful that it became the model for other pubs in the group to follow. No fewer than nine real ales, plus flat ciders, were on offer, to be enjoyed while perusing the display of pump clips recalling the hundreds of ales that have featured here at one time or another. What a line-up….. Hall’s of Oxford AK Pale Ale was also available here, but by now I wanted a change and went for halves of Chiltern’s Ruby and Tring’s Mansion Mild, both very tasty. The full line-up included Hoppiness, badged as Thame Brewery but produced at XT, XT4 and Animal’s Hop Kitty; Cocow and Cap Bitter from Ampersand in Norfolk; and a beer from Cross Bay brewery in Morecambe whose name I didn’t catch – again, two breweries I had never heard of.  Truly impressive…..

Our final stop was at the latest addition to Oak’s portfolio, the Sun Inn in Wheatley, functioning in recent years as a café-bar but acquired in December with its cellar intact and ready to resume life as a village pub. Here we found all three real ales were from the XT stable, although this isn’t usually the case. The amber XT4 and XT8 porter were joined by Ermine from the Animal range, described as a “hazy, pale, milk stoat stout”. This was an unusual range of beers, and I don’t recall having a pale coloured stout before.  But was it really a stout or a stoat? – by this time, I was past caring about the semantics. The Sun Inn is a large, stone-built pub with a substantial garden, and brings much needed variety to the Wheatley scene. Like some other Oak pubs, it welcomes a food van on busier nights and there are now many cuisines available.

Thanks as ever to our chairman Tony Goulding for driving us. We look forward to the second Oak Taverns tour later this summer, visiting towns including Faringdon, Wantage and Wallingford.

The Sun in Wheatley is Oak Taverns’ most recent acquisition.