The Oxford brewery tackling judicial system’s false economy

Founded in 2016 in Oxford, Tap Social is providing ex-offenders with job opportunities while brewing award-winning beer.

by Julia Migné

When Tess Taylor visited her sister, Amy, in the UK a few years ago, she didn’t imagine that they would end up starting a social enterprise.

The sisters worked for a non-profit organisation in Canada that helped people get pardons for their criminal record so that it doesn’t affect their work opportunities or housing. This sparked Tess’ passion for helping people in the system. Then, Amy got a job in the UK as a Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Justice where she met Paul Humpherson, a criminal barrister.

When Tess visited the UK, she got a job at a craft brewery to meet more people. The sisters were keen to help people come through the judicial system with a bit more of a fighting chance.

Realising how welcoming and vibrant the brewing industry was and the different jobs it could provide under one umbrella, Amy and Tess decided to team up with Paul to open a brewery and employ people from local prisons. Thus, Tap Social was born.

Tap Social’s brewery. © Tap Social.

After Amy moved to Oxford for her PhD, the trio took a lease on a unit in Botley and “just decided to give it a ride,” as Tess says, adding that the move was “probably one of the best things that happened for the business because there’s so much more competition in London and it’s less saturated here”. 

With the addition of award-winning craft brewer Jason Bolger, and economist, Matt Elliott, the team has grown considerably. Now, five years later, Tap Social has three venues in Oxfordshire: the Taproom, the White House, and Lock29. We sat down with Tess Taylor to find out more about the social enterprise that is providing employment opportunities to people currently serving or recently released from prisons.

The Tap Social site in Botley. © Tap Social.

INKLINE: When you started this project, how did the local community in Botley react? Were the people on board from the start? 

Tess Taylor: To be honest, we didn’t have that much of a network when we first set it up. And nobody came across us because our Botley site is behind an industrial estate. But when we started popping up on social media, people started getting excited about our venture.

It was the Taproom that put us on the map.Initially, we had imagined it as a wholesale brewery, opening it once a month for tastings and people to drop in.Then there were a couple of nights that really took off. For instance, a local band came in and brought 250 people with them. People started calling our enterprise “Oxford’s best-kept secret” and started seeking us out.

People were supportive and lovely and we just felt welcomed immediately. We attribute a lot of our success to the Oxford community. People have been so unbelievably helpful!

The Taproom hosts regular events throughout the year. © Tap Social.

I: You had the experience with brewing and business but how did you get the expertise you needed to produce award-winning beers? 

T: We had a little experience with the brewing side but it was on a very small scale. We quickly recognised that it is important to get someone with experience onboard if we want people to primarily associate the place with great beer.

I think we attribute a lot of our growth to saying yes to opportunities as they come and running with the momentum when you have it.

We didn’t want it to be like: “Oh, people drink beer because of this cause”. We wanted the beer to be a standalone product. So we posted a job advertisement on the Society of Independent Brewers, (SIBA) and a few people applied and one of them was Jason [Bolger]!

I: Can you tell us more about the false economy in prisons and how what you’re doing helps tackle that issue? 

T: All of the names of our beers highlights a fact about the criminal justice system such as the false economy. The idea is to draw people to action. It’s quirky but it also relates to something that we’re trying to achieve or change within the system. 

We spend £18 billion on re-offending costs because we put people in prison and then we release them with nothing. We used to release people and give them £46. It was raised this year for the first time since 1995 to like £76. And while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough.

We release people with little money and sign many out with no fixed addresses, turning them onto the street. Then we expect people to not re-offend, build a life, and contribute to society.

Each of the Tap Social beers has a name that relates to the criminal justice system. © Tap Social.

So we want to create real employment opportunities. We pay people real wages and make it easier for them to get back into the routine of working. They start to build a social community as well and have those regular daily conversations and interactions so that when they come out of prison, it’s less daunting to go back into the world.

This also means they have some savings and employment history. So they’re more likely to get housing and more. So we are also changing the perspective about the entire offending cycle and the system.

I: How many people have you helped so far? 

T: We’ve had approximately 30 people come and work with us on site. Moreover, all of our branding comes from those who are serving at HMP Huntercombe. We work with their Art Department.

We also go to the prison and do some workshops and courses, such as interview preparation.

All of the artwork on the cans has been done by prisoners. © Tap Social.

I: Art seems to be an important part of what you do, be it through the artworks on the cans or with the exhibition you currently have at the White House. Why was that important for you to mix the art into this?

T: Amy and Paul would always comment on the fact that there’s so much artwork within prisons and that there is this amazing wealth of talent. But it never goes anywhere and nobody sees it.

So from the very beginning, we wanted to use prisoners’ artwork as another way to showcase the amount of talent that these people have and to raise awareness. It also shows the artists that it is a viable career path. Our first bottles had prisoner artwork and we’ve done some exhibitions at the Taproom.

We’re very lucky that the Education Department at Huntercombe has been supportive and they’re keen to support their guys as well. We go in and meet with them and tell them what we would like. Then they put together all these custom pieces for us.

The White House is a community cafe, bar, and kitchen and has been praised for the quality of its food since its recent opening. © Tap Social.

I: What is your key advice for people keen to dive into social entrepreneurship? 

T: I think we attribute a lot of our growth to saying yes to opportunities as they come and running with the momentum when you have it. 

We’ve been ambitious with what we’ve taken on in the last few years, and especially, during the pandemic which pushed us back in a sense but also just drove us to make it work. We try to make the best use of most opportunities that come our way. Be it in terms of venues, opening new sites, or increasing diversity.

Moreover, surrounding ourselves with amazing people has been key to everything! All of the people that we work with are so talented and so brilliant and bring such a range of skills.

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