5. The Brewery Quarter
Cheltenham’s first proper brewery was founded in 1760 by local maltster and baker, Thomas Gardner on this site. Gardner’s Brewery flourished and expanded and in 1888 was registered as Cheltenham Original Brewery Ltd. However, people had been brewing their own ale and malt since medieval times because it was safer to drink than disease-borne water.
What's the history?
On this site, not so long ago, stood the Whitbread brewery; it ceased business in 1998 after a long history of malting and brewing.
Cheltenham’s association with malting and brewing goes back to medieval times when it was a cottage industry. Ale, sometimes flavoured with herbs and spices, was a necessity to avoid catching many waterborne diseases. The addition of hops around the 1500s saw the start of the brewing of beer.
From grain to glass was a complex and scientific process – to achieve the best results understanding how to control temperature and humidity was essential.
In 1760, Thomas Gardner, local baker and maltster, founded a brewery on this site. It flourished and expanded and in 1888 was registered as the Cheltenham Original Brewery Company Ltd. A raging fire destroyed some sections of the building in 1897. After a major rebuild by brewery architects, William Bradford and Sons, they acquired, over the next 30 years, all their local and West Country rivals.
By the 20th century, the site contained extensive malting, brewing, cooperage and bottling facilities.
Mergers, takeovers and redevelopments continued throughout the rest of the brewery’s life, the final one being Whitbread in 1963.
© 2018 Sally Self, Cheltenham Local History Society
Historical photograph by R.W.Paterson courtesy of Cheltenham Local Studies Library.
A local opinion
There was a dramatic culture change in the working environment during the brewery’s last ten years while I was working there. It was moving from being a community/family employer to a corporate enterprise creating a tension between Whitbread and workers who had been there for many years.
In the late 1980s, brewing was still recognised as a craft and people who had worked there a long time didn’t like seeing the transition from traditional brewing methods to factory standard production – a move from intuition to a science-based approach.
Fascinated by the science of brewing, I studied for the Institute of Brewing exams and visited other breweries to see how they operated. Everything has to be exact to achieve consistency in brewing- all the ingredients were tested and every batch tasted. We used water from Dowdeswell and tried to replicate the soft water of Burton-on-Trent, this process was described as Burtonisation.
Tasting was a key part of checking the beer. This was done blind, only a small mouthful was needed and we used cream crackers and water to cleanse our palettes in between.
When I first arrived a strong drinking culture still survived at the brewery with an on site social club which often had a free bar for events. Some workers who had been there 20/30 years were unhappy when Whitbread began to make changes to this culture.
Whitbread ran marketing campaigns joining in with the fashion for quirky beers, for example oyster stout and chocolate beer, and secretly experimented with creating freeze concentrated beer.
It’s a shame it closed, it would have been an amazing living museum – it was a fascinating site with underground tunnels linking up different areas.
Mike Ward, Quality Control Technician, 1987-1998