Everyone always talks about the rise of craft beer bringing new life into an industry once dominated entirely by bland, big macro brew behemoths, and how people’s tastes are changing and how amazing it is to see the revival of the art of craft brewing.
What a lot of people don’t talk about, is how along with the renewed interest and taste for craft beer and spirits, came the revival of the long-standing British establishment – the Off License. Today, the classic local Offy has developed into something more, and has morphed to become known as a bottle shop. Instead of the typical reduced bottles of vodka and cheap cases of beer, you’ll find specialist beers from smaller breweries, small batch spirits, and curated wines with someone behind the counter who knows every single one like the back of their hand.
We love our local bottle shops, and we’ve known the large majority of them on a personal level for a long time. One of those bottle shops, and who we’ve chosen to feature today, is Cornelius Beer & Wine.
Like many in this industry, its proprietor – James Wrobel – didn’t start off in Edinburgh or even aiming to be in the industry. Born a Cockney and raised in Essex, he originally moved to Edinburgh to study painting in the late nineties. But, again like many, he started off employed by Oddbins while studying his degree and moved into management after graduating.
A question that a lot of people working in this industry ask each other upon introduction is “So, how did you get into beer?” We felt it was appropriate then to ask James the same question, as the answer to that question is never the same.
“I’ve always been a bit of an oenophile, but it would have been about 1997 that I had my first glass of La Chouffe. I had tasted plenty of Belgian stuff before, but never anything so…easy. Immediately started ordering it by the pallet (to the consternation of my area manager) I became an evangelist for the stuff and managed to shift plenty of it to the good folk of Goldenacre. That led me down the slippery path of beery discovery. I still crack a bottle open occasionally and it never disappoints.”
Like we said, never the same answer twice. But, it does lead into another question…how do you go from art student working in an Oddbins to pay your way through uni, to owning a bottle shop?
“When I got married, the wife prodded…encouraged me to go my own way. If all you really know is shop keeping, then you really should aspire to have your own shop”
“She was also sick of me moaning about the lack of Deuchars in the local Viccy wines. This is back when Deuchars was both cheap and nice. There was a nice vacant shop just down the road from us and one thing led to another.
UK beer – especially Scottish – was nothing to write home about. “Good” beer meant US IPA’s – Sierra Nevada, Goose Island – Belgians – Leffe, Duvel, Chimay – or German Weissbier – Erdinger, Weihenstephen.
The name was trickier – some of our rejected ideas were woeful – In the end we went with my middle name- I had always kept it to myself because it sounded too posh, which was perfect when we were trying to think of something slightly upmarket.
The logo was easier: A friend put us in contact with a nice guy – whose name I forget – from the Leith agency, who knocked it up in his lunchtime. All he asked in return was a bottle of Jack Daniels! I think he saved us hundreds of pounds in design work and I feel slightly guilty about exploiting him…!”
For many people who are into their beer or wine, owning a bottle shop sounds like a total dream. You get to chat with your favourite breweries and winemakers, order whatever you think is good, sample lots of good beer…but what really are the perks – and downsides – of it all?
“The hours are long, but I’m not always “at work” when I’m at work if you know what I mean. Also, there is very little homework.
I do like sharing discoveries with the public and getting people excited by new wine/beer.
Our punters are a very mixed bunch but they are universally lovely, generous, good-looking and intelligent”
The number of good beers we’ve tried thanks to James’ recommendations are too numerous to possibly start counting, there are so many varied and good beers in the shop so we decided to ask: “What styles excite you? Which breweries are you most interested in?”
“Excite is the wrong word, but I’ve always had a soft spot for sessionable, old-fashioned styles. Bitters, eighty shillings, milds and the like. I’ll really miss the beers of Stewart Mcluckie once he retires.
It’s hard to single out individual beers, but if you put a gun to my head I’ll admit to drinking a lot of Fallen Chew Chew, Luckies Bitter and Tempest Red Eye Flight. I’m also partial to a decent pilsner.”
“Tempest – natch – Buxton, Siren, Fallen are all hitting it out of the park at the moment with a broad range of beers. As far as imports go, my admiration for De Molen knows no bounds. They do some consistently world class stouts along with more wacky hipster juice at a fraction of the price of Mikkeller or the top end US stuff”
And as for what’s ahead for 2016? (Make sure you hold him to this!)
“I’m loving this sudden enthusiasm for milk stout. It’s also great to see brewers getting behind decent lager in a big way. Pretty sure they’ll never equal the classics from Czech or Munich, but at least we have a few decent pils/helles from Scotland. Obviously, the drive away from IPA and other hop-dominated styles is economic, but personally – as an old fart – I’d like to see brewers fall back on older, classic styles of beer, rather than always pushing at the bleeding edge.”
Thank you to James for letting us poke about the shop for photos, and for giving us the time to answer all our questions. Cornelius Beer & Wine is based at 18-20 Easter Road, Edinburgh. You can find their website here, but follow them on Twitter to keep up to date with all the latest beers in the shop.