We went to Cheltenham to look at buildings and so did no research whatsoever into pubs and beer, but luck was on our side when we found the Sandford Park Alehouse.
After an hour or two’s nosing around, we eventually got hungry and thirsty, at which point, we saw a sign outside a plain-looking, white-painted building: CHEESE TOASTIES £4.99. ‘That’ll do,’ we said, and went in.
Immediately, our Spidey-senses began to tingle: a map of Belgium? As in the country where the beer comes from? Our first glimpse of the bar confirmed our suspicion: somehow, we had managed to stumble upon Cheltenham’s own ‘craft beer bar’.
A bright, airy, multi-room pub with décor just cosy enough to prevent it feeling sterile, enlivened considerably by maps on every wall. It reminded us, in fact, of Cask in Pimlico before it got its corporate makeover.
There was also lots of beer, though the selection wasn’t as large as at some better-known bars, and was perhaps also (thankfully?) a touch more conservative. A row of hand pumps offered cask ales from multiple Golden Pint nominees Oakham, among others. We couldn’t fault the condition of Oakham Citra or Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, though we wish we hadn’t drunk them in that order. (You can’t come back down the hop-ladder.)
The real highlight was a kegged beer from Germany, via a row of taps behind the bar. Bayreuther Bierbrauerei Zwickl, at £3.90 a pint, didn’t seem exorbitantly priced (we pay £3.40+ for Doom Bar in Penzance) but we hesitated until the barman leaned over conspiratorially and said, ‘It’s served in one of these’, waving a narrow, handled ceramic mug. ‘People who like this beer really love it,’ he told us, and he was right. It was a Bavarian holiday in a jug – a little sweetness, gentle lemon-rind notes, and just enough dryness at the end to prompt another swig. It was probably (intentionally) cloudy, but we couldn’t tell, and didn’t care.
Once we’d got comfortable under a fascinating map of the Middle East, it was hard to move, and we drank one more than we had intended as we observed the crowd. The people around us were a little more middle-aged and tweedy than at the ‘craft’ places in Bristol, perhaps, but then that might just be Cheltenham. We, hurtling into middle age (though not yet into tweed), felt quite at home.
On the basis of this first visit, it felt as if the Sandford Park Alehouse might as well have been designed with us in mind, and, when we visit Cheltenham again, it will be with the specific intention of verifying that feeling with a second equally lengthy session in the same cosy corner.
The Sandford Park Alehouse is at 20 High Street, ten minutes walk from the city centre, and 30 minutes from the station.