tap social craft beer brewed by prisoners to help stop reoffending. Pic: Ian Wallman

Brewing Kindness: The Beer Made By Prisoners That’s Preventing Crime

8 mins

Fifty per cent of prisoners reoffend within a year of being released but a taproom in the UK is giving ex-inmates jobs and proving that they can brew more than just award-winning craft beer

It’s a Friday night and Tap Social’s taproom is a busy nightspot. There are groups of students on one side, an older group deep in conversation on the other. Some people digging into sourdough pizzas to go with the selection of beers on offer, while others are focused on the band that’s playing. 

The taproom is a slightly unusual addition to Oxford’s social scene, its home in an industrial estate away from the iconic spires and historic buildings of the famous English university city. But other than its location, it could be just another successful hospitality venue. 

Except behind the scenes, Tap Social is far more than just a brewery or business. When you visit one of its venues, it’s a good chance that someone pulling your pint, or brewing the beer you drink, is either in or recently released from prison. 

In 2021/22, 24.9 per cent of offenders who were released from custody in England and Wales went on to reoffend, while figures cited by Tap Social suggest around 50 per cent of prisoners will reoffend within a year 

Far more than another craft brewery, Tap Social is a social enterprise with a mission. Set up in 2016, its aim was to help tackle the ongoing issue of integrating prisoners back into society in the UK and preventing reoffending by finding them employment. 

Member of staff at TapSocial
TapSocial was set up to employ prisoners along with other staff and stop them reoffending

The issue is no small matter. The latest available UK government figures show that in 2021/22, 24.9 per cent of offenders who were released from custody in England and Wales went on to reoffend, while figures cited by Tap Social suggest that around 50 per cent of people released from prison will reoffend within a year. 

Taking On Prisoners

Tap social brewery which is staffed by prisoners to stop them reoffending

It’s widely accepted that having stable employment is proven to reduce reoffending, yet less than one in five – 20 per cent – of prison leavers have a job post-release. The UK government regularly pushes the idea of giving jobs to ex-offenders, and schemes are in place at various UK organisations, with Pret a Manger and Timpson, the key cutting company, among some of the bigger businesses that take on people who have been in prison. 

But Tap Social was set up with this specific aim in mind – starting life as a brewery housed in a warehouse eight years ago that was staffed by its founders plus an offender on day-release from nearby HMP Spring Hill. 

Since then it has grown to incorporate five venues across Oxfordshire, producing award-winning beer – and now a bakery – in a venture that’s not only hugely popular, but does social good at the same time. 

Its founders are aware they can’t turn the tide of reoffending alone, but are firmly of the belief that if more companies do what they do, and they can persuade them to take a similar view, then a huge difference could be made.

‘There’s such a huge emphasis on the offence, the sentence and locking people away but very little thought given to what happens next as 99 per cent of prisoners will be released. It’s just kind of forgotten about what happens to those people at that point’

Founder and director Tess Taylor, who set up Tap Social with sister Amy, and her partner Paul, said while all three had some experience working with people through the criminal justice system, they wanted to do something that would have an immediate impact and was kind. 

‘We’ve seen the way the system just fails people in so many ways,’ she told The Ethicalist. For the trio, who have added more directors to their number to help the business grow, it was vital to do something to help people being released from prison. 

‘There’s such a lack of support and such a huge emphasis on the offence and the sentence and locking people away,’ Tess says. ‘Then there’s really very little thought given by the public about what happens next and the fact that 99 per cent of people will be released from prison one day. It’s just kind of forgotten about what happens to those people at that point. 

‘We wanted to do something to have more of an immediate impact on people’s lives and something we felt on a day-to-day basis was a bit more tangible than working in policy.’

Progressive Company

The directors of the progressive Tap Social. Pic: Artur Tixiliski
The directors of the progressive Tap Social. Pic: Artur Tixiliski

They chose a hospitality-focused business as it would offer a range of jobs which didn’t require high levels of qualifications to get involved. The rising popularity of craft beer, would ensure possibilities for those who had started at Tap Social to progress or to move to similar roles closer to home. 

“We thought there would probably be a brewery that they could then go on to work with if they didn’t stay with us,’ Tess explains. ‘It’s a really friendly and interesting industry. And you don’t have to start with a degree or this huge skill set, you can literally come in and work your way to the top. So it’s less scary, and it also offers the opportunity for having those normal day-to-day conversations that you’ve missed for so long while serving a sentence.’

It was important to the founders that as well as making a difference they also made great beer –which they have proven by their reputation and awards. And the reaction to the whole enterprise has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘We’ve been really blown away by how supportive the community is,’ says Tess. ‘You get the odd comment and question but what we’re trying to do is start those conversations anyway, and address some of the preconceptions people have about people coming out of prison. 

‘For many of us, unless you have somebody in the family who’s been in prison you just don’t think about them. These are people who are going to come back into society, so let’s see what we can be doing to make sure that they don’t end up back in prison, which costs us more money as a society, plus we have more victims of crime. It’s a really unproductive way to deal with the whole situation.’

The result of the project is a careful balance of optimism and care. While the founders refuse to put any stipulation on the maximum length of sentence someone has served – part of the aim to give equal opportunities no matter what someone was convicted of or how long they’ve been in prison – they work closely with the parole board and probation services to ensure there’s no risk associated with that person and that the role will help them. 

On top of that, support is key, with regular check-ins and the chance to progress as much as anybody else could within the company. The results speak for themselves, with one staff member who has now moved back to his home city progressing up to head chef thanks to the report he received. 

Only Human After All

The Taproom mezzanine staffed partly by prisoners and serving beer brewed by prisoners

For Cooper, who started working at Tap Social in August 2021 – seven years into his sentence at HMP Spring Hill – he leapt at the chance to work for such a progressive company. ‘I heard about Tap and what they stood for and knew it was for me.’

Cooper was offered a front of house role and despite not having worked in hospitality for 15 years, with the help of his mentor at Tap Social re-learned the ropes. ‘It’s not very often as a prisoner you come across someone that you feel genuinely wants to help,’ he says. ‘But they treat you as human.’  

Cooper’s is just one story that brings to life the difference Tap Social has made, creating over 60,000 hours of employment, and employing more than 40 people directly from the criminal justice system in long-term roles, leading to a reoffending rate of just six per cent instead of the 50 per cent national average, with 94 per cent still in work a year post-release.

Social Impact

For Tess, Tap Social has proved its impact albeit with a relatively small pool of people. But they’re not alone with other companies now including inmate rehabilitation as part of their business model. ‘Getting enough organisations together, we can prove that this is a model that works and that other businesses are supporting,’ she says. 

But the overall picture goes beyond just employing prisoners, but proving that a different approach can work, she says – with the long-term goal of influencing policy and showing that reducing reoffending might require a more nuanced approach. 

“What we recognise as the main issue is that policymakers are terrified of doing anything too drastic that’s going to then bring them any negative attention or bad media,’ Tess says. ‘So we want to show that long prison sentences, especially for minor offences, are not the way forward.

‘We should be looking at suspended sentences or more people should be eligible for de-release, and we should have more community placements. Then eventually, if we can have enough of the public voting in that direction, it shows policymakers that actually, this is a safe way to do it.’ 

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