Country Living (UK) - - Con­tents - words by caro­line stacey pho­to­graphs by nato wel­ton

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

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