Last Updated : 04/03/07
fter a run of crappy towns with about as much real ale-wise to interest me as a remote village in the West of Ireland, this time it seemed as if I’d struck gold; not in the literal sense, as then I wouldn’t be at work in any case, but in the scooping way - I was due to be working near to Reading which has long been known to beer scoopers as a town where getting a few winners under your belt isn’t akin to pulling teeth as in some of the less beery places I’d been to recently.
I was actually working in Bramley, 15 miles to the south, but I’d craftily got work to book me into the Comfort Inn on Christchurch road in Reading; I knew that this particular chain of hotels wasn’t the best option comfort wise – despite their claims – but the location was about as good as I was going to get being a ten-minute stroll down Southampton Street, over the river Kennet, before bringing me out on the corner of Castle Street and, more prosaically, very close to the superb Sweeney and Todd pie shop situated there! Not that I need to eat any pies to maintain my superb chiselled-from-stone physique, but I’m a closet pie spotter… that’s my excuse, anyhow…
Monday 19th February 2007.
Brewing no more.
I was in the hotel by 16:00, having stormed directly from Taunton as soon as my work was finished there, and after quickly sorting out my room I was strolling down Southampton Street taking note of the bus times back for later (I reasoned that I’d not feel like walking back up the hill and, anyhow, with buses until midnight I’d not have to) and sticking my head into the two local pubs by the hotel; sadly, neither was exactly a hotspot for cask ale with the Wellington Arms selling just London Pride whereas I couldn’t see any real ale at all in the Pheasant despite my best lurking – and I’m pretty good at that these days with all the practice I’ve been getting lately!
Down the gentle hill I ambled until I reached an old haunt of mine, the Hopback-owned Hopleaf, which in the dim and distant past used to brew it’s own beer using the original Hopback plant but now, with that removed, it’s reverted to being a local’s pub albeit one serving slightly more and better beers than most bars of that ilk do! I must confess that I remembered nothing about the interior at all, my last visit having been around eight years previous, but I’m sure it wasn’t the particularly sickly shade of beige it now seems to have been daubed with. The beer range was similar though with six Hopback beers on – the special was Back Row 4.6% - as well as a Downton beer which rather proved to me that these breweries are one and the same.
None of the ales were new to me although, in my current state of undesperateness, I didn’t really want to simply walk back out again and so indulged in a half of the Downton. I usually find myself trying this brewery’s beers and wishing I hadn’t as I’m not a massive fan of their generally bland and unexciting flavours, but this one (Black Knight, 4.1%) was a lot better than most Downton beers I’d tried previously and exhibited a sweetish, toasty, fairly bitter flavour and was generally a decent, tasty, complex brew with hints of liquorice in the toasted finish – a good start taste wise, then, if not scoop wise!
Continuing down the gentle gradient of Southampton Street towards the hulking concrete and glass altar to Capitalism which is the Oracle Centre I passed another pub, the Red Cow, but both this and the following Red Lion (what is it about crimson animals in pub names?) had no real ale on the bar; well, none as I could see from my lurking position outside and I didn’t really fancy going in as I had more important things to attend to, such as the opening of the Nag’s Head on Russell Street with a promised twelve real ales to chose from – and the pub had already been open half an hour!
A tale concerning me and my map reading skills – or lack of.
Crossing the concrete and tarmac wasteland of the A329 flyover and Oracle shopping centre brought me to the site of Zero Degrees – or at least the site of it’s construction! This brewpub has been rumoured for a couple of years but it seems as if the builders have only now started to fit out the pub with the requisite brewery and bar; despite the presence of at least some of the brewing hardware on-site it was a pretty safe bet I’d not be scooping anything in the pub that evening as, notwithstanding the place having no beer, I’d have to climb over an assortment of paving slabs, bags of concrete, builders having a crafty fag and rolls of carpet to actually gain entry and I felt pretty certain than no brewing had yet taken place as the kit was still being piped in…
I turned left along Castle Street at the amusingly-named St Mary’s Butts (well I think it’s funny, I suppose it showcases my puerile sense of humour) and, somehow resisting the rows of juicy pies stacked up in the chillers inside Sweeney and Todd’s, on I went past the colossal police station, over the A329 via a crossing looking just like the one where St Vincent Street crosses the M8 in Glasgow, then up the uncomfortably steep and aptly named Castle Hill before turning right along what I’d convinced myself was Russell Street.
At this juncture I suppose I should come clean and admit that my map reading skills are, at best, atrocious and under no circumstances should I be permitted to navigate anything larger than a shopping trolley unless the owner of said object wishes it to end up miles from the intended destination; I can’t help it, I’m just useless at comprehending maps, although somehow I usually manage with tram routes… you can probably guess what happened next, but just in case you can’t let me spell out the full details of my incompetence…
I followed the road I’d assumed was Russell Street, keeping pace with the huge line of cars trying to escape from the city centre, crossing another street in the process; had I paid any attention to my surroundings then I’d almost certainly have noticed that, right there in front of me, was a road sign displaying for all to see that this side road was in fact Russell Street - but no, on I went, blithely ignoring all navigational aids and wondering how far this pub would be as I could almost feel my lungs being slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide as I walked.
Passing a Greede Kerching pub without even a look through the window onwards I stomped along the road, hoping that I’d find my target soon, but nothing pub-like materialised and I was now feeling slightly concerned that something was wrong somewhere; this should have been the incentive I needed to check my piss-poor map printed from MS Autoroute and realise that I was going in totally the wrong direction but no, on I went, wondering why some pubs are always at the opposite end of the road from where you start out looking for them.
Five minutes passed and still nothing pubby had appeared before I spied a strange object ahead which looked just like a bridge crossing a railway line: this time my cranial alarm bells were ringing full-blast as I knew I wasn't supposed to cross any railways! Out came the map and suddenly the full extent of my balls-up became clear to me; “Bollocks!” I shouted at no-one in general as I saw that I’d walked straight past my intended target and had gone due west along Tilehurst Road; this was bad enough, but I then realised that thing ahead actually was a bridge crossing a railway line and, even worse, it was the location of Reading West station which I knew was a good way out of the centre from previous experience of having travelled through it!
I stood on the bridge and gave my map reading incompetence a good cursing for a minute or two before realising that this was doing my cause no good at all, so performed an about-turn and retraced my lengthy route back to Russell Street; no harm done, but I’d just walked about a mile for nothing and must have inhaled enough carbon monoxide to kill at least a medium-sized mammal or two. All things considered, this wasn't the ideal start to the evening’s scooping…
Back on the scent.
I soon located the Nag’s head a short walk along Russell Street just past the Baker Street junction and straight in I went to quell the thirst I’d acquired through my absolute ineptitude at map reading. Inside I found a bright and spartanly decorated pub with the promised forest of handpulls adorning the bartop and, considering it had only re-opened 90 minutes previously, a good crowd of customers occupying all of the tables. Another thing that was immediately obvious was the lack of anyone smoking and a quick look around soon told me why – this was a no-smoking pub – and I began to feel as if I might be onto a good thing by coming here, albeit via Reading West station.
My eyes scanned the pumpclips and I immediately noticed that the range of beers on offer was eclectic to say the least, with newish beers such as Appleford Power Station (4.2%) and Welton’s Off Piste (5.2%) mingled with old favourites like Ballard’s Mild, Gribble Plucking Pheasant and Hogsback Hair of the Hog; not the best range of beers for the scoopers, but it was a varied selection of – mainly – decent brews and there wasn’t much I wouldn’t have indulged in a quick glass of. Scoops were nonetheless what I was there for and it wasn’t long before I was equipped with a glass of the Appleford which, amazingly, was a winner brewery too! (I must have seen the beer on stillage five times but on every occasion it’s been too cloudy to serve although, to be honest, this example would probably fall into that camp too).
The beer was hazy – probably not a good thing to be on sale for the pub’s reopening night – but tasted fine with a good malty taste backed by toastiness, hop, citrus and an increasing bitterness which combined to give a complex and appetizing finish, albeit with a yeasty overtone, tasting much better than it looked although obviously not in top condition! I followed this with the Welton’s and immediately regretted it as the beer had a very strange cream soda flavour with sickly caramel and toffee; this didn’t improve towards the aftertaste and, despite the emergence of some dark chocolate hints, the brew remained sickeningly sweet, artificial tasting and not and experience I’d wish to go through again…
During my attempt to force the unappetising fluid down my protesting gullet I got talking to who I assume was the landlord and we discussed beer and, predictably, CAMRA; he mentioned that he favoured aspirators to keep beers in good condition and I agreed with him, but opined that the local CAMRA people may not take my liberal view on these devices which, according to some, are level pegging on the evil scale with the likes of Hitler, Zyklon-B or the atomic bomb. Time will tell whether the application of CO2 to the beer at the pressure of one atmosphere will enable him to offer a varied range or simply allow the sale of too many beers at once and the quality suffering, but I hope the pub does well.
Old favourites revisited.
My scooping done I made my excuses and left, making a mental note to try this pub again, before a short five-minute trek to the Horse & Jockey. This is one of the scooping communities’ lost pubs; in the 1990’s it was run by famous – or should that be notorious? – landlord Pete who managed to achieve an amazing throughput of scoops which attracted tickers from far and wide to sample the wares. Okay, there were disputes about the authenticity of the “brewery” he set up out the back (he didn’t have a brewing license, so they didn’t count under my rules) and some other things, but in the main the pub enjoyed an excellent reputation with scoopers and it was a great loss when Pete finally moved out in the late 1990’s.
I’d been advised by several scoopers that the pub was now worth another look and so, as it was basically en-route back into the centre, I happily accepted the advice and in I went to be confronted with three Loddon beers, two of which I required, what a result! I thirstily swilled down Loddon Sorry not Available (4.3%), an amber fruity and sociable beer with a peculiar flavour not unlike “Spangles” - who remembers those? Next up was Chantry Cheer (4.2%) which was a copper, fairly bland toasty malt brew with some grainy sweetness in the finish. I got talking to the new landlord, Sean, and he seemed impressed that I’d not been in the pub for eight years and was even more impressed when I divulged I’d had more beers than “Superscooper”! He told me he was keen to build up the pub’s real ale sales again and had a Westcountry beerfest planned for the first weekend in March; it’s good to see the H&J coming back up after years in the doldrums and the proximity of the Nag’s Head can only be good for both pubs in attracting custom across the “force field” of the ringroad.
Whilst Sean went to check out the Nag’s head I finished my winners and, casting a curious eye over the lurid purple ceiling, headed off over the slowly flowing vein of lights which was the A329 back into the centre. I had a quick look at the various pubs on the way along Castle Street; the Brewery Tap had no brewery attached and only sold Broadside and Bombardier, whilst the Sun offered Bombardier (again – this stuff must be cheap!), Pedigree and Courage “Best” – technically a scoop now, but as it’s from Wells I didn’t bother…
Sweeney & Todd is an institution in Reading - and rightly so - as it’s pies are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the UK; it’s run by a Game butcher meaning the huge pies are stuffed with some mightily unusual ingredients (boar, pigeon, hare, rabbit, venison and other unusual meats regularly feature) and there are usually around ten types to chose from. Being a bit of a saddo I actually have a list of all the pies I’ve scratched in the shop over the years but even I was withered by two of those on offer – pigeon with peach and beef with horseradish! At the back of the shop is a strange bar offering three or four ales, sadly all predictably regional and boring, but the barman cheerfully extracted my two winning pies from the chillers and even did me a receipt too so work would pay for them as an evening meal; result, or what?
A few to round off the evening.
My next port of call was to be the Hobgoblin and so off I trudged, peeking into any pubs which should cross my path along the way. The Horn, on the corner of Castle Street and the still amusingly-named St Mary’s Butts, had nothing in the way of real ale anywhere to be seen so on I trudged, gnawing on my pigeon and peach pie which, despite dire warnings to the contrary, didn’t contain any lead shot and so I happily munched my way through the enormous pastry-encased delicacy as I passed various shop windows which seemed to be in the business of selling various beige goods.
I’ve been visiting the Hobgoblin for at least 10 years now and – thankfully – it’s not changed drastically apart from the cessation of selling the sickly-sweet Wychwood beers and the gradual reduction in the rareness of the guest beers so that where once the pub was a national must-visit it’s now merely a Reading must-visit. Inside, leaning against the bar and engaged in an animated conversation, was old acquaintance and fellow “old skool” scooper Roy Garraway, known to all as “superscooper” after he flew to Belfast just to scratch some beers from the (then) new Whitewater brewery back in the 1990’s. Despite only requiring one beer from the bar, West Berkshire Farinator’s cut (4.3%), I managed to spin out my visit for a good hour and a half as we discussed topics as diverse as Butcombe Stout, modern scoopers, bottling, foreign travel, past scooping pubs and retired tickers – and a load more random ranting too! By the time I’d torn myself away from the pub it was time for me to have a few last peeks into the pubs on my way back to the railway station where I had an appointment with a bus.
I passed the Coopers Arms, close to the 3B’s bar, which offered nothing more interesting than Greede Kerching OSH and so I descended the steps beneath the vaguely castellated town hall to see what awaited me there. The bar was almost empty save for a few suits who seemed to have no home to go to and one amusing old bloke sat at the bar who, despite being almost too drunk to communicate successfully, was still trying his luck at making friends with all and sundry who should be unfortunate enough to pass within five metres of his perch. This included me as I ordered my half of Blake’s Gosport Bitter (which I’d not sampled for years) but I fended him off with a polite pleasantry and quickly retreated to a nearby table to drain my glass.
The beer wasn’t in the best of condition, being a touch warm and flat, but the big flavours of liquorice, malt and bitterness still bounded out of the glass and gave a distinctive flavour which, had the condition been better, might have earned the brew a better score than the 2.5 it actually achieved. As my glass slowly emptied I watched with amusement as the spectacularly pissed old bloke earnestly attempted to convince the bored-looking, slightly gothy barmaid that Barbara Streisand was the best singer the world has ever known and even threw in a couple of wailing renditions of her greatest hits in an amusing attempt to press home his rather flimsy argument. Unsurprisingly, the barmaid (and I suspect anyone else who was listening in) remained unconvinced…
A quick visit to the Monk’s Retreat McSpoons followed, basically as it was a few steps away from the 3B’s, although the normal standard of service was immediately apparent as, on walking through the door, I was informed that the bottom bar was closed and I’d have to use the top one; I didn’t have the heart to tell the spotty youth imparting this information that there were no beers on his bar I’d ever drink even if I were adrift in an open boat somewhere in the South Pacific. One quick scoop later (Evan Evans Warrior 4.4% - too simplistic and bland), I was on my way again in to the intensifying drizzle which had suddenly descended upon Reading in a curiously swirling, misty way.
I remember the Three Guineas from many years ago; the pub in the railway station has had cask ale for quite a few years but, thus far, this has always been of the mundane type – no longer, as the eight handpumps now dispense brews from far and wide including, on my visit, Litton ale, Clarks Oddball, and beers from Salopian, Wychwood and various others I’ve forgotten. I required the Clarks and Salopian so, deciding to leave the latter for the next evening, indulged in a sample of Oddball which was pale, dry and buttery with a grainy sweetness coming forwards in the finish.
My plan had been to catch the No.5 bus back up the hill to within a stumble of my hotel but predictably, as I walked along the bus station, not one but two buses accelerated away from their stands and left me with a 20-minute fester for the next one; cheers then! I debated with myself as to the pros and cons of walking back, which I probably could have done in twenty minutes, but a combination of the increasing drizzle and my inherent laziness got the better of me and I simply waited for the next bus, wondering just how many taxis a city needs, as what seemed to be many hundreds jostled for position alongside the shelter.
Tuesday 20th February 2007.
A new one on me.
With another evening in Reading I’d not been in any great rush to scoop every single pub available but, studying my notes before departure, I realised that I’d essentially covered just about everything in the centre the preceding evening and thus only had a few pubs left on my list to investigate. This time I didn’t bother to look into the Hopleaf (missing a scoop in the process as I will explain later) but headed straight for the Hobgoblin where I hoped to extract from Superscooper exactly where the Retreat, one of the last pubs on my inventory, was located as I’d heard it could be worth a look on the off-chance a winner or two were on the pumps.
Another winner had appeared on the Hobgoblin’s pumps and so I appreciatively supped on the Rebellion Sleeper (4.4%) whilst listening to Roy trying to convince me that I was to blame for him slipping into rant mode during the previous evening and launching a tirade against some local CAMRA officer, which had resulted in said person leaving the pub in a rather sorry state. I failed to see where my part in this sorry episode occurred and so, changing the subject lest I be blamed for WW1 or the Black Death too, I persuaded Roy to go on a wander to the Retreat but, before we could leave, Alan Connor arrived and was somehow persuaded to join our roadshow… So, off we went into the suburbs of Reading and in a direction I’d not been on any of my previous visits, so at least if no winners were forthcoming at least I’d be scooping some new pubs.
Along the river we strolled, passing the rear of yet another McSpoons, before arriving at the Retreat set in it’s very suburban-looking side street in a very passable likeness of the Hopduvel in Gent, Belgium. Inside all was as a mid-terrace local’s pub should be but with more than a passing nod to the 1970’s in décor and atmosphere but, alas, the beer range comprised of nothing more exciting than Ringwood (and a few others I forget now). However, just as I’d resigned myself to nothing of interest, I suddenly noticed a sign above the bar for Schlenkerla Rauchbier; that would do me!
The other two supped pints of something as I stood happily with my branded glass of one of the world’s most distinctive brews; okay, so drinking the pasteurised bottled version isn’t anywhere as good as supping it from a wooden cask in the brewery tap, but still the aromas of kippers and forest fires enveloped me and all was good with the world. Roy enlightened me on the story of the pub which had apparently been taken over by two regulars who, by all accounts, have done a superb job in building up the trade and transforming the pub into a cosy, welcoming house which is of a type becoming more and more endangered as the years go by – the true local’s pub – although the landlord (and this is obviously just my opinion), as he pulled another Ringwood beer through, did resemble Harold Shipman to a startling degree…
Every dog has it’s day.
My companions had a quick discussion as to our next destination and then informed me we’d be off to a Wadworth pub. If you know my opinions of this brewery you’d understand why I was less than keen to join them on this expedition but, when I was told that the brewery’s amazingly rare Pint Pot Mild (brewed on the old Mayhem’s kit, apparently) would be on sale and that it generally tasted rather nice, I relented and decided to give the brewery yet another chance in the manner of a naïve judge who continually releases the hoodie-wearing youth with a warning in the hope he’ll be good the next time and have learnt his lesson.
A short walk later we were in the lounge bar of a quiet and friendly proper two-sided pub with the promised brew in our glasses; I must hold up my hands in admission here as, despite my fears of the beer being simply 6X doused with caramel, it was actually reasonably drinkable owing to the almost total lack of the Wadworth flavour which I usually describe as earthy malt and, as you’ve probably grasped by this point, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of. The beer was deep brown, smooth, and had a flavour of caramel and dark chocolate which mellowed to a dryish, thin, grainy chocolate and toasty aftertaste with a hint of the Wadworth character lurking in it’s depths; despite this unwelcome intruder the beer was comfortably the best brew from Wadworth I’ve had for many a year – although that's a bit like saying Stalin is a nicer bloke than Pol Pot.
Our final option was another ten minutes’ stroll out into the hinterlands but, by unanimous decision, we concluded that none of us could be arsed to waste our energy on such futile pursuits and so strolled back into the centre via a couple of intensely uninspiring pubs, namely the Back of Beyond McSpoons – which seemed to be selling only Archers and Greede Kerching fluids – and the pub opposite which did have a guest beer but, on further investigation and the braving of many chavs, Roy discovered that this was simply an Adnams beer…we didn’t stop.
I’d planned to do the same move as the previous evening and finish up at the railway station for my remaining winner in the Three Guineas and then a bus back to the hotel, but when Alan told me that a new Downton beer – Polish Porter – had come on in the Hopleaf I quickly changed my plans and stomped up London Road, past the ludicrous Dickensian theme pub “Great Expectations”, to the Hopleaf… only to find it shut with no sign of life and a curt note on the door explaining that it was closed due to “unforeseen circumstances”! With my final scoop of the evening snatched away from under my nose there was nothing for it but to walk the remaining five minutes up Southampton Street’s annoying gradient and thence on to the hotel, but not before I’d blagged a Nargis Kebab in Saffron’s restaurant at the top of the hill; I had to explain to the chef what it was, but as a bonus I was offered the kebab cooked either in oil or in the tandoor!
Reading is a well-known scooping town which should need no introduction to anyone who’s been around for a few years; the famous Hobgoblin is still essentially the same as it’s always been, albeit with less rare beers than previously, and it’s good to see the Horse and Jockey back on the road to recovery after years in the wilderness. There are also some newcomers to the scene which are well worth a look, with the Three Guineas at the station being a particularly notable one with regards to scooping potential, although don’t go there and expect roses around the door and rosy-cheeked farmers playing dominoes – it’s loud, brash and sport-oriented, but the beer is good and that's all that really matters when it comes down to it.
So with the old favourites and new faces it’s possible to indulge in quite a decent crawl around Reading these days which will be enhanced by the addition of a brewpub once the Zero Degrees finally opens. The variety of beers you will find will, obviously, vary depending on the day of the week and your good fortune but even if you don’t scoop a sackload of beers around the town then at least you will have the knowledge that lots of good, local beers can be found from brewers such as Loddon, West Berkshire and maybe Triple fff or Rebellion; add to this the amazing produce of Sweeney and Todd’s pie shop (which everyone should try once to see just how good pies can be) and a good day out is almost guaranteed in Reading – just don’t rant with Superscooper lest you be blamed for something you didn’t do!
3B’s, Blagrave Street. Under the town hall, opposite the Monk’s Retreat McSpoons.
Hobgoblin, Broad Street.
Hopleaf, 165 Southampton Street – a fair way from the centre uphill!
Horse and Jockey, Castle Hill (over ring road past cop shop).
Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street.
Retreat, 8 St. Johns Street.
Sweeney and Todd’s pie shop (and pub), 10 Castle Street.
Three Guineas, BR Reading Station forecourt (by bus station).
Zero Degrees, 9 Bridge Street.
Gazza’s beer of the trip.
Relatively few decent beers were sampled during my two days around Reading but, even allowing for such a poor selection, choosing a favourite is always difficult; it would be easy to plump for the ever superb Schlenkerla Märzen but I think I’ll go with a UK beer this time – and Wadworth Pint-Size Mild fits the bill as good as any, although I think I’ve broken my own golden rule and added points for this beer being good compared to the rest of the brewery’s output and it’s rareness rather than for it being a superb beer! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, but I didn’t have that many good beers in Reading and this was simply the best of a slightly disappointing haul.
© Gazza 04/03/07 V1.0