My Pub

My Pub: Sandford Park Alehouse, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Sandford Park Alehouse

Related tags: Beer

Grant Cook, licensee of the Sandford Park Alehouse, talks about the transformation from nightclub to reigning CAMRA National Pub of the Year.

The pub

It probably wasn’t what I was looking for. It’s a listed building dating from the 1820s that had been a nightclub since the 1960s. I visited it on its last night, in January 2012, and put in an offer. I paid £270,000 for the freehold.

It took a while to raise the money, people weren’t lending for a pub business then, and we didn’t take possession until the November. Then we spent half the purchase price on a refurb and opened in April 2013.

I have strong views on what’s important in a pub – and a lot of it comes down to the cellar. The cellar here used to be the dance floor. It’s got a lot of space and a high ceiling that makes it easy to keep large quantities of real ale in optimum condition.

The garden is also important for us. There’s seating for more than 100 people and there’s no other pub garden like that in Cheltenham.

Key Facts

Address:​ Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
Tenure:​ freehold
Staff:​ 13 full and part-time
Annual turnover:​ £820,000
Wet:dry split:​ 80:20

The publican

I’ve been a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) member since 1980, helping organise beer festivals as a volunteer. From the late 1990s, I wanted to leave my job as a software developer, find a pub and do something that, hopefully, would be more fun.

I didn’t want to be tied, so I took on a free-of-tie lease in Leicester, the Swan and Rushes, and was there until 2011. By then I’d moved to Cheltenham where my fiancée had got a job and then we started looking for a pub here.

The trade

It wasn’t only the range and quality of beer that impressed the CAMRA judges, it was the fact we’re a successful business that appeals to a wide range of customers of all ages, including women.

I’ve tried to create an upmarket feel with mid-market prices. A 4.5% ABV beer will be £3.30 a pint, a 3.8% beer £3. And it’s a welcoming place. The CAMRA type is one element here, but it goes a long way beyond that. We sell a lot of wines and spirits as well as beer.

The local media took an interest from the start, and we’ve been pretty busy from the day we opened. I haven’t had to do much marketing. We’re busiest Friday nights, Saturdays and on sunny days – the biggest effect on our trade is the weather.

Most people walk here, we don’t have a car park. As our reputation has developed, and the CAMRA award raised our profile, people have been coming from outside the area.

The staff

I’m general manager here, and we have three assistant managers, two chefs and eight other staff. They have a wide profile from a 16-year-old glass collector to bar staff who are aged over 60.

It’s important they pick up the culture of the pub and bar staff are encouraged to understand and try the products, and become good advocates for different styles of beer and give customers advice on their selections.

We train them in the basics of understanding and pouring beer, and half of them are trained to change barrels and gas.

sandford cellar

The beer

We have 10 handpumps: three are devoted to our permanent ales – Oakham Citra, Wye Valley Butty Bach and Purity Mad Goose – six are guest ales, and the last is a cider.

Then there are 16 taps on the beer wall at the back pouring interesting lagers and ales including Freedom Authentic, which is our standard lager at £4 a pint, Sandford Orchards Devon Mist cider, Purity Lawless, Maisel’s Weisse and Blanche de Bruxelles Belgian wheat beer. We don’t stock any national brands.

Best-Selling Beers

■ Oakham Citra
■ Wye Valley Butty Bach
■ Purity Mad Goose
■ Freedom Authentic Lager

There’s a screen in the pub that tells customers what’s on at any time, and the current choice is continuously updated on our website, too.

We’ve had 1,600 different ales on since we opened. We don’t make a big deal about them being local, we just focus on finding the best we can. Then we have about 100 imported beers in bottles. So there’s loads of choice!

The permanent ales are our best-sellers, though. We get through three or four kilderkins (around 500 pints) a week of each of them.

Quality is obviously vital to us. We have a double cellar so when beer is delivered it goes straight into chilled cellar before being stillaged in the main cellar. We have 30 tilting mechanisms in there, so for every beer being served there are at least two on stillage.

Lines are cleaned once a week in the mornings and flushed through with water every time we change a cask.

The food

Food is an important part of the business, but it’s not more than 20% of our turnover. I see it as part of providing a good service to drinkers, and it helps encourage people to stay for a whole evening.

Menu Favourites

■ Ham hock with new potatoes and sauerkraut £8.95
■ Fish and chips with peas £7.95
■ Sausage and mash with red cabbage £7.95
■ Moules marinière with bread £7.95
■ Flemish stew with chips and cabbage £7.95
■ Home-made fish finger sandwich with pea purée and beer mayo £5.50
■ Mucky chips with bacon, salsa, jalapeños and cheese £4.95
■ Sardines on toast £2.95

It’s all home-made and we serve good portions at a fair price. The kitchen is open lunchtimes and evenings during the week, all day on Saturday and till 4pm on Sunday.

Our best-sellers are fish and chips, a haddock in batter made with Belgian wheat beer; ham hock with sauerkraut, a very large meal our two central European chefs came up with; and sausage and mash. Sunday lunches are popular as well.

The entertainment

What we want to create at the Sandford Park is a space where people are happy and can have a chat; it’s a safe, convivial environment.

We have pub games. Bar billiards is popular and we have shove ha’penny, chess, Scrabble and nine-spot dominoes.

Music is kept at a background level. There are no fruit machines – they fall into the same category for me as over-loud music that makes me want to leave a pub. There’s no TV in the bar, but we have one in the upstairs function room for groups that want to watch sport.

We stage a Cider and Cheese Festival every year over a spring weekend, when we serve 20 ciders and 20 cheeses that people can buy to eat with biscuits, French bread and apples.

Occasional events include the chocolate and beer tasting we had in July, and we took part in Cheltenham Beer Week in September when we invited guest speakers for tutored tastings in the upstairs room. We don’t have a beer festival, though. I don’t think that would add an awful lot to what we do here, and it would make it difficult for us to maintain quality.

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