Since my last review of The Nag’s Head, lots of people have said to me: “Why don’t you write about this pub for your next review?”. All the suggestions I’ve had are great ideas, but many are similar pubs to my previous choice. For this second review, I wanted to turn to a pub quite different to last month. While The Nag’s Head is a bona fide beer house, this month’s choice is far more of a local community pub, on a road less travelled. We’re off to the Hop Leaf on Southampton Street.
The Hop Leaf, Reading
Southampton Street in Katesgrove is a long hill of a road which used to be home to a whole host of well-loved Reading pubs. The Red Cow, Red Lion, Cambridge Arms, Woodley Arms and Wellington Arms are all now sadly departed, but The Hop Leaf is still standing strong and proud.
Once owned by Reading’s own Simonds Brewery, The Hop Leaf became a Hop Back Brewery pub in 1995. It’s still one of only eight pubs in the country run by their brewery. It’s both a Reading institution (if you’re in the know) and a hidden gem (if you’re not).
You’ll see nods to Simonds still on the outside railings (look out for their their red hop leaf trademark), but today the pub sign features the ‘Green Man’ of Hop Back. Out front, there is a small seating terrace which is a pleasant place to watch the world go by on a sunny day.
Step inside and you’re into a long room with a bar lining the back wall. There are booths to the left and going through to the right you’ll find darts and bar billiards dominating the area. In fact, it’s one of the last pubs left in Reading to still have a bar billiards table. There’s also crib and backgammon, so I recommend going up with a group of friends and having a traditional pub games tournament of your own (I once lost horribly, but I’m rubbish at anything involving hand-eye co-ordination).
At the bar, there are around half a dozen cask ales available, mostly from the Hop Back Brewery and lots are beers you won’t find very often in other pubs in Reading. There are usually one or two guest beers, often from Downton Brewery. You’ll also find Westons Real Cider, an assortment of pub lagers and spirits, and a fridge full of Hop Back and Downton bottled beers.
The Hop Back beers are in great condition here and have a lovely fresh taste to them. Even better, most of them are only between £3.20 – £3.40 a pint, so they will taste even nicer!
Not sure what you want to try? You can either ask behind the bar or look up to the blackboard to find out which beers are currently on and which seasonal Hop Back beers you can expect to look out for throughout the year.
I’m a big fan of the glass of golden joy that is Summer Lightning – it’s pretty much always on offer. Their Entire Stout also won CAMRA Champion Winter Beer of Britain in 2011 and is also worth a sample.
That isn’t the only accolade, though. Back in 2001, The Hop Leaf was awarded Reading CAMRA Pub of the Year. In 2010, landlady Claire Richards also won a Pride of Reading Award for taking care of an elderly regular after she noticed he hadn’t visited for a while. It’s support like this that makes The Hop Leaf a real community venue. In my opinion, it lifts it above many other Reading pubs.
Last month, Claire and her husband, Dave Richards (the landlord) celebrated 10 years in charge of The Hop Leaf. That’s no mean feat in today’s ever-changing world of pubs. When I attended the 10th anniversary celebration, I could see just how many Reading residents agreed with me. You could hardly move it was so busy.
The Hop Leaf draws a mostly local crowd, but everyone is very friendly. I often end up bumping into people I know who have had the same idea as me and decided to pop in for a pint or two. Fans of classic rock will enjoy the landlord’s choice in music, but there is also live music once a month.
There isn’t any food available per se, but there is a wide variety of snacks behind the bar. The pub is also dog friendly and has a wide array of newspapers to pore over while you sup your pint.
The Hop Leaf is very different from The Nag’s Head. It is slightly less beer-focused but full of local community and still only a short walk from The Oracle. It’s a lovely pub that serves an important purpose as a traditional side-street boozer.
Oh, and the best seat in the house? That’s definitely the booth next to the window in the corner – you can see everything going on. Cheers!
The Hop Leaf
Address: 163-165 Southampton Street, RG1 2QZ, view website.
Open: 12-11.30pm Mon-Thur, 12pm-12.30am Fri & Sat, 12-11.30 Sun.
Get there: Reading Buses 5, 6 & 7 stop at Whitley Street, or it’s a 10 minute walk from The Oracle.
James Moore is Explore Reading's resident pub reviewer. He samples the best pubs in Reading to bring you a new review every month. A beer expert and active within Reading & Mid-Berkshire CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), James also runs '1001 Beers to Try Before You Die' - one of YouTube's most fun beer review channels.