Pub/Bar of the Month August 2014: The Nag's Head, Reading
The Nag's Head in Reading is a pub that has, out of nowhere, become one of the beer magnets of the South of England.
Until seven years ago, The Nag's was a nonentity. I live not far from Reading, indeed I actually lived in the town while I was a student, and yet I had never even heard of the place, until news began to filter through of its new focus on beer.
A preserved Morland Brewery plaque on the façade offers a clue to its past identity, but before its renaissance The Nag's had become part of the Greene King empire. Cask beer was absent and the main attraction was a pool table.
The turning point was the arrival of a new family at the helm, one of whom, Meeko Oates, had already transformed The Shoulder of Mutton at Wantage into a destination pub for beer lovers.
Externally, The Nag's Head is a half-and-half combination of red brick and brewers' Tudor. The end-of-terrace, sidestreet location, just off the bustling Oxford Road, with its colourful ethnic food shops, doesn't offer much breathing space and outdoor activity is hampered as a result, but there is a marquee with seating in the car park.
Internally, the pub is architecturally nothing special, although the single room is comfortable enough, with vinyl flooring, a dozen or so tables, a brick fireplace and a dartboard corner.
A few old pictures show Reading FC in its former home, just along the road, while one of the supporting pillars is festooned with CAMRA Pub of the Year award certificates.
A couple of screens show sports and an upright piano stands ready for action. Most of the time, though, it just acts as a storage point for the pub's many board games – a collection that would brighten any child's Christmas.
The bar at The Nag's Head sits against the back wall. There are some elaborate inlaid panels in the woodwork but the eye is drawn instead to the bank of twelve handpumps, with the choice of beer different every time you visit.
Many ales come from local breweries and the vast display of pumpclips reveals how fortunate past customers have been.
Chalkboards above the bar offer more detail about the ales currently on sale, and ones soon to follow, while there's a printed menu for bottled beers.
The bottled list is limited, but well chosen, the highlights being Anchor Porter, St Bernardus Pater, Brugse Zot and La Chouffe. A small selection of keg beers includes the excellent Windsor & Eton Republika pilsner and the pub also majors on ciders and perries.
Food is kept basic, through a menu of pies, filled rolls and cooked breakfasts, with a roast on Sunday, and is typical of the relatively simple package The Nag's presents to attract customers of all ages, both genders and many professions.
It's not unusual to see people huddling over a meeting, students tapping into laptops, or bookworms poring over one of the many books or newspapers on offer. Piped rock music is kept to a level that doesn't inhibit conversation in any way.
But what primarily brings everyone together is the quality and the quantity of the beer on offer.
Once again, it's quite apparent that, if you want to turn around a failing pub, good beer is the answer. Why so many licensees fail to grasp the concept is beyond me.
The Nag's Head, 5 Russell Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 7XD
Tel. 07765 880137
Opening Hours: 12–11; 12-midnight Friday; 11–midnight Saturday