I was delighted last week to see that the Campaign for Real Ale has chosen the Sandford Park Ale House in Cheltenham as its National Pub of the Year.
I visited the place last autumn while researching my forthcoming book on the British pub, and found it to be a breath of fresh air.
That’s the impression that forms as soon as you walk in. Apparently the grade II listed building used to be a nightclub. It’s hard to imagine that now — it feels like a Georgian townhouse that’s had a recent and very sympathetic conversion. The light and air in the place stands completely at odds with the cosy, permanent twilight that typifies many pubs.
Obviously, to win this CAMRA award, it has to be all about the cask ale. This is where the pub’s claim that it’s run by beer lovers, for beer lovers, really comes into its own. The judges felt that they had rarely seen such a large selection of cask ales kept in such good condition.
When I wrote the first Cask Report, more than nine years our mantra was that one of the biggest risks of stocking a wide range of cask ales was that without the throughput, it’s impossible to keep them all in good condition.
Sandford Park Ale House has no problem with throughput from a very broad range. (What CAMRA didn’t mention of course is that there’s also a great selection of craft beers on KeyKeg.)
As well as the quality of the beer, if there’s one other message that is worth repeating, it’s the importance of stocking the right range of beers. Here, cask and keg together give a wide range of beer styles, strengths and places of origin, with one or two well-chosen European lagers and wheat beers, local heroes and the most sought after national craft brands.
If you like beer, there’s something here for everyone. Crucially, the pub’s website is meticulously updated with what’s on the pumps each day.
And if you don’t like beer, there are well-chosen ciders and wines too.
All these are the reasons why pubs like the Sandford Park Ale House win competitions like CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year. Judges have a checklist, and pubs like this one tick all the boxes. The décor’s great, the staff are well trained and knowledgeable, tick-tick-tick.
I’ve been to other pubs — many of them — that tick all the boxes, but still lack something. What I love most about the Sandford Park Ale House is that in its stately, serene way, it breaks rules and challenges conventions.
In your mental rolodex of pub cues, you’d see the white-tiled back wall with its row of craft keg taps, the name of each beer written above the tap in marker pen, and you’d look at the atypical pub décor, and you’d file this place as a craft beer bar.
Then you’d have to ask yourself if CAMRA — even in its current reforming mood — would ever award National Pub of the Year to a craft beer bar?
You’d also have to look at the streets around you. Whenever I evangelise craft beer, I’m always told that it’s fine for urban types like me, but it would never work out in the country as a whole, and it’s certainly not relevant in genteel, conservative towns like Cheltenham.
Not a 'craft beer bar'
The Sandford Park Ale House is not a craft beer bar at all. It’s simply a pub that effortlessly combines the best parts of tradition and convention, and the new wave that’s sweeping through the beer world, that says you don’t have to choose between the two
It proves that cask ale, when kept and ranged perfectly, by people who care about it, can be the centre of a pub’s offering and set it apart.
It proves that craft beer, sold correctly, can work anywhere you like.
And it proves you can be a great beer pub without ignoring or even alienating people who aren’t just there for the beer.
The same week CAMRA announced the pub’s triumph, the PMA also carried a story about how wet-led pubs are bearing the brunt of pub closures.
The Sandford Park Ale House triumphantly illustrates why, if it’s done well, there’s not just life but exuberant vitality in the wet-led model for the foreseeable future.