The Trouble With Mild Drinkers, 1938

“If you don’t want to drift you must conceive a strategy and stick to it. My policy here seems indicated by the Inn’s position on the map and in the Town — viz. a useful place for casual eaters and for nighters… and as the best Smoke Room in the Town. But what seems to obstruct this policy is the little knot of very loud-voiced mild-beer drinkers who stand in the dark at the bottom of the stairs, very pleasant people, very respectful, but yet their voices penetrate into every room up and down the house and the effect upon people who have to edge their way through them must be beery enough… [Now] that in an Inn can no longer live on drink… How and when to stop it?”

John Fothergill on the struggle to drag a pub ‘up market’ in his 1938 memoir Confession of an Innkeeper.

The Ordinary Pub is a Premium Product

A knackered old pub sign.

Once, beer was more or less beer.

Then along came whatever you want to call it (premium/designer/craft beer), and discount supermarket beer, and two extremes were established: bang-for-buck vs. taste.*

In the middle, though, remained good, solid, standard beer — a trade-off between price and taste, affordable to most.

But, we belatedly realised last night, good, solid, standard beer in an ordinary pub has become a premium product, largely due to taxation.

By choosing to drink somewhere other than your own house, you are making a decision to ‘upgrade’ your experience, and paying (where we live) up to an extra £2 a pint for the privilege.

It’s a bit like choosing to eat a pizza in a restaurant rather than at home.

The pubs that seem best equipped to survive in this new arrangement are those which are able to offer something unique.

For example, our local Dock Inn, among its many other charms, has exclusive rights on the distribution of Blue Anchor Spingo in Penzance — a good, solid, standard beer, but a different one, generally served in excellent condition.

* We’ve used ‘taste’ deliberately because it covers both ‘flavour’ and the feeling of exercising ‘discernment’.

Stumbling Upon a Gem

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’.

Sandford Park Alehouse: 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.)

zwicklThe 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.