20% reduction in choice over three years in city centre survey
Real ale is in decline in the heart of the city, but there is still a great deal of choice compared to many other places of similar size. This is one of the key findings in a survey of city centre pubs on the afternoon of Saturday, September 16, the first survey by local CAMRA members since November 2019.
The decline in choice will come as no surprise to people watching the rise and rise of craft keg beers, now featured by most pubs and most local and national or international breweries. Nor will it come as a surprise to anyone who has seen industry statistics showing real or cask ale to be in declining production, although that has stabilised after a big drop in 2021-22.
The average price of a pint of real ale has shot up to £5.06, compared to £4.19 three years ago, as breweries and pubs battle against the rising cost of everything from raw ingredients to energy for heating, lighting and cooking, and staff who are in short supply.
The survey involved visiting 25 pubs in an area bounded by the railway station, the fork of Banbury and Woodstock Roads, Magdalen Bridge and Folly Bridge. In the 2019 survey we visited 28 pubs, but since then the Mitre and Eagle and Child have closed, with the Mitre becoming Gusto restaurant and still hopes the Eagle and Child will re-open in the long term.
We found a total of 100 real ales in all (in 2019, 125) with 72 different ones (90) from 41
breweries (46). The best represented breweries were Greene King with 13 offerings, Animal/XT with 7, White Horse with 6 and Fuller’s with 5. The most common beers with 4 appearances each were Greene King Abbot, Timothy Taylor Landlord and Sharp’s Doom Bar which, like Abbot, is owned by a brewing giant. The same beers were the most common in 2019 plus Wychwood’s Hobgoblin, but we found no Hobgoblin at all on cask this year.
The pubs with the widest choice of real ales were the Royal Blenheim with 10 and the Turf Tavern with 9, the Turf choice including 2 GK ales and 4 house ales brewed by GK. The Royal Blenheim keeps its crown as the pub with the best choice, whereas runner-up in 2019 was the Four Candles with 9. There were 3 pubs with just one real ale on offer – the Cow & Creek, Lighthouse and Teardrop, in the Covered Market, which usually has two. The recently opened bar in the market, Tap Social’s Market Tap, hopes to introduce one cask ale shortly.
The cheapest pint after the two Wetherspoon pubs (£1.99, compared to £1.69 in 2019) was the White Rabbit with Oxford Prospect at £3.80 (in 2019 the Royal Blenheim was cheapest after Wetherspoon at £3.30). The dearest pint of real ale this year was at the Turf with Reggie’s Turf by GK (a mere 4.5% according to Untappd) setting back customers a cool £6.45. The actual overall average price of a pint of real ale was a no less than £5.06 (2019, £4.19). The average price in pubs with more than one beer was the Turf £5.87, Head of the River £5.79, Bear £5.54, St Aldates Tavern £5.43, and the King’s Arms £5.42. In 2019, the average at pubs with more than one beer was led by the Head of the River at £4.69, then the Bear £4.63, Chequers at £4.53, and King’s Arms at £4.51. The cheapest average price this year was at the White Rabbit (£4.44), compared to the Wheatsheaf at £3.60 in 2019.
How to interpret these findings? Disappointing though the reduction in choice has proved to be, it may well turn out that 2019 was the high water mark before the enormous challenges brought by Covid, the cost of living crisis and sky-high energy costs, with both breweries and pubs often cutting back on real ale to play safe with keg beers having a much longer shelf life. You could argue that Oxford city centre is a bubble, riding most of the storms and attracting so many different kinds of customer prepared to dig deeper to pay for their beer. But in truth the picture isn’t much better in the Oxford suburbs, county towns and villages, where the £5 pint is firmly established and anything under about £4.50 a rarity and a relief.
The question now is how much further prices will go, and how much further the choice of real ale might reduce. Only time will tell, but the thing to celebrate is how few pub closures there have been locally in defiance of the national picture. Re-opening of the Lamb & Flag nearly a year ago and the Grapes in August have given real ale in Oxford a great boost, and with only the Eagle and Child remaining closed in the city centre, we are doing pretty well all things considered.
- Thanks to Steve Lawrence for organising the survey and collating the results, and to Ian Harper and John Winney for all their work.