FORGOTTEN CRAFTS: THE CASK MAKER
One of Britain’s last master coopers demonstrates the barrel-maker’s art
In our new series, we highlight traditional British skills that are at risk of disappearing. This month, we meet Alastair Simms, one of the last master coopers in the UK
The clang of the cooper’s cast-steel bar as it strikes an iron barrel hoop is a sound that reverberates through the air – rattling its way up one’s body from toes to teeth and back again. It is, however, a sound that Alastair Simms, the owner of White Rose Cooperage in West Yorkshire, is perfectly accustomed to. Working at a wooden bureau in his workshop or over a smouldering fire in the courtyard outside – surrounded by the tools of his trade and a carpet of fresh shavings at his feet – he handcrafts wooden vessels that are strokably smooth. These are predominantly destined to transport liquor and flavour it, in the continuance of a tradition that stretches back centuries.
Like his predecessors, Alastair came to the craft young, when he was just 14. “They used to start them at 12,” he points out, before going on to explain why the job of the barrel maker, or ‘cooper’, is more relevant today than ever. “Coopering has always been about recycling. You can get 80 years out of a barrel, then saw off the ends and make a smaller one that will last another 80.” Using wooden barrels to transport alcohol is also known to greatly improve its flavour. “I can tell you what anything transported in plastic and metal tastes like,” Alastair says. “Plastic will make it taste like plastic, while metal gives a harsh edge to the drink. A wooden barrel softens and rounds the flavour, meaning you taste more of the ingredients – the malt, hops and barley.”
With these facts in mind, it’s concerning that Alastair is currently one of the last remaining master coopers in the UK. The main reason the cask maker’s situation is so perilous is the wide variety of cheaper container options now available. Thankfully, though, Alastair says things are improving, with artisan alcohol producers happy to invest in a superior way
“Coopering has always been about recycling. You can get 80 years out of a barrel”
of containing and transporting their product. Because of this, White Rose Cooperage, which was once on the brink of closure, is now thriving, and Alastair has even had to take on an apprentice, Kean Hiscock, to help with all the work. It’s a heartening prospect given that coopering is one of the longest-standing skills in the country, harking back as far as the early Middle Ages when it was a proud and prolific – not to mention essential – industry. Indeed, the popular surname Cooper dates back to the 5th century, when everything from fruit and fish to oil and gunpowder would be shipped in kegs.
There’s a pleasingly meticulous order to the contents of Alastair’s workspace, one that sees him move industriously through each state of a barrel’s production, from one end to the other, leaving a tell-tale trail of trimmings, chippings and sawdust. To begin making each cask, a set of staves – long strips of wood that form the barrel’s outer shell – are selected based on length, texture and hue. Hanging from a plank nailed across a wide window, and looking much like a misplaced set of shabby panpipes, is a full range of these, cut to the length of each barrel size and labelled in marker pen to be used as a trimming guide. Some names are recognisable – hogshead and firkin – while others, such as kilderkin, anker and puncheon, are less familiar.
Once cut to length with a circular saw, the staves are slotted into a rusty hoop, side by side. As one end of the barrel takes shape and the other splays out beneath it, the result looks like an oversized, belted wooden grass skirt. Heading outside, Alastair lights a fire in a cresset – a metal basket – over which the barrel is placed. Doused with water, the carefully created combination of
“A whisky barrel will tend to be charred – that’s what gives the clear liquid an amber hue”
steam and heat – along with some highly skilled knocks of the cooper’s hammer – causes the wood to become pliable. To aid the process, further hoops are looped over the flared end and slowly tightened until the barrel yields into its characteristic shape, originally designed to make it easy to roll.
Work remains fireside if a toast or char – burning the interior to a desired shade – is required. A lightly toasted barrel will create sweeter flavours, a heavy toast provides aromas of charcoal, coffee bean and toasted bread, while a char is the extreme. “A whisky barrel will tend to be charred,” Alastair explains. “That’s when it is black and practically burned inside. All whisky is clear when it goes in, and anything from straw-coloured to amber or dark brown when it comes out.” A top and bottom are produced from more timber, then joined with dowels, a pair of compasses and a well-trained eye. Finally, a watertight seal, made from river reed sourced from Bedfordshire, is fitted.
Standing over the barrel, Alastair hammers the hoops into place, knocking off the rusty ‘guides’ and replacing them with shimmering silver circles that will hold the barrel until the next remaking. Protecting himself with ear defenders, safety glasses and thick leather gloves, he works with an ease that belies the exertion required, but it is a career that has left its mark. “I put an axe in my thumb when I was an apprentice,” he says. “You hit your hands a lot in this trade, but you also have those accidents that you learn from – the type of stuff you do only once.”
Alastair’s interest in coopering began with work experience during the school holidays at Theakston Brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire, where he was born. The man in charge caught him eyeing his workmanship and rewarded his inquisitiveness by assigning him the task of dressing – or smoothing – the inside of a cask. As the hours passed without any sign of the cooper returning, Alastair continued until the entire interior was smoothed. “Not bad – I think you’ve done this before,” was the eventual verdict. On protesting his innocence, Alastair was told that he must have been a cooper in a previous life – a belief his mentor maintained until the day he died.
Four years on, in 1983, Alastair qualified as a ‘journeyman’ cooper, the title being a throwback to the days when workers travelled between breweries to make a living. His graduation took the form of a traditional ‘trussing in’ ceremony. Attended by some of the 100-or-so coopers then working in the country, this ancient ritual involved graduates being rolled in a 54-gallon hogshead of the coopers’ own creation filled with stale beer, treacle, wood shavings and anything else to hand. The barrel was then hammered by a gang of coopers using the tools of their trade before the graduate arose, soaked and dazed, to be christened as a newly qualified professional.
A little over ten years later, Alastair was awarded the additional title of ‘master’ cooper. Conscious of how perilous the future of the craft is, he is keen to raise awareness before it’s too late. He also plans to carry on coopering as long as possible. “I’m going to bury myself in one,” he says, patting an Alastair-sized barrel. “And just in case I come back as a cooper, I’m going to put in a loose bottom and all my best tools.” Now that’s true dedication.
THIS PAGE AND OPPOSITE Employing the same tools and materials their forefathers used, today’s coopers continue to make every barrel the traditional way – by hand, with the utmost care and attention
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT Wood is charred to impart flavour to the liquor; hand smoothing gives a seamless finish; a few of the brews still stored in traditional barrelsOPPOSITE Shaping the individual wood sections is still done painstakingly by hand
RIGHT Alastair stokes the cresset fire that softens the staves so they can be bent to fit inside the hoops
BELOW Templates, marked with the names of ales and liquors, are used as a trimming guide for staves
LEFT Apprentice Kean Hiscock is taking the craft into the next generation
BELOW Cutting barrel heads requires a good eye and a steady hand