A small shop selling beer, wine and cheese has become a bit of a York institution after 25 years, reports JULIAN COLE.

TWENTY five years ago, two “lab rats” with no business experience but a taste for beer opened a shop selling what they liked to drink. For want of anything more imaginative, they called it The York Beer Shop.

The shop has long since become something of an institution among lovers of beer, cider, cheese and wine, but in those early days there was no way of knowing if the place would last a week, let alone a quarter of a century.

Today, Jim Helsby is the sole owner of what has become the York Beer And Wine Shop, but back in 1985 it was a joint enterprise.

Jim, now 58, set up the shop with Eric Boyd, his friend and fellow “lab rat” at York District Hospital, where they worked in the pathology laboratory. Jim was a haematologist and Eric a microbiologist. Eric’s background, Jim recalls now, was at least useful with the beer and cheese, which both call on a bit of biology, whereas his own discipline wasn’t much help at all.

When the shop opened, it boasted six beer pumps and the cheapest beer was, Jim thinks, 59 pence a pint, while Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, a Beer Shop regular for all eternity – well, since 1985 at least – was 68 pence, as opposed to £2 a pint now.

The early days were a gamble for Jim and Eric as, with a loan of about £10,000, initially tied up in a brewery deal, they set about transforming the shop in Sandringham Street, Fishergate. Previously the place had been a carpet shop and before that a baker’s. After 18 months, they cut the brewery tie and went solo.

“It was quite scary really – a big step in the dark,” says Jim.

Neither he nor Eric knew much about running a business. They knew they liked beer and wine, and were persuaded to like cheese too, when Jim’s wife, who wanted to be involved, suggested a cheese counter.

Jim and Eric didn’t think that was much of an idea, but they went along with it anyway, and cheese has been a big hit at the shop ever since. Indeed, Jim travels round the country to source the cheese, along with most of the cider and some of the beer.

Wine has always been sold too, with Spanish wine being a speciality, but at first it was mostly all about beery evangelism.

It was a different world in 1985, with six main brewers sewing up much of the market, producing masses of mostly poor quality ale, while around 100 family breweries continued in an old-fashioned way, concentrating on selling beer locally.

“So it was hard to find the beer then,” says Jim, who now has the opposite problem. So many bottles of beer are produced nowadays that he could fill his shelves many times over.

“In the early days, draught beer was really important. We set up this business because we wanted to promote English beers,” says Jim. “Now draught is only a small part of the business, because there are so many pubs in York selling good beer.”

Eric carried on working at the hospital in the early days, while also doing stints at the shop. He eventually joined Jim full time until he left in 2004, and now works back at the hospital, although in a different capacity.

Did Jim ever imagine still doing this 25 years on? “Well, what did you think when you were 33? Did you imagine what you would be doing at 58? We went one day at a time, then one week at a time.”

It was five years before they made any profit that wasn’t ploughed straight back into building up the business.

But these are now good times for beer. “I don’t think the beer world has ever been better, not in my lifetime,” says Jim.

Independent shops help give a city is character, and the York Beer And Wine Shop has been doing that for 25 years. This writer discovered the place nearly 20 years ago. Young children had put pubs out of bounds and here was a shop that sold draught beer, a shop that felt like a pub. It still does, only a rather smarter pub these days. There is chat to be had over the beer pumps, bottles and cheese counter. “It has a pubby feel,” says Jim. “There’s a social side, a bit of chit-chat.”

Many readers may know of the shop through the weekly column Jim has been writing for the past seven years. In that time, he has profiled some 360 ales, offering up a beery short story each week. This week, we have allowed Jim to introduce the ale which he has had brewed to mark his anniversary.

The bottle-conditioned XXV Silver Porter was ready around the time of the actual anniversary date in June, but has only just arrived at its perfectly drinkable peak.

So now is the time to buy a bottle, filled with malt, barley and a splash of liquid history.