Alastair the Cooper makes casks
Alastair Simms is a cooper: he makes wooden casks, most commonly seen as beer barrels. He began, he recalls, “When I had a school holiday job at Theakston’s brewery in Masham. I was sent to help the cooper, and I really enjoyed it. So my school holiday job became a proper job.”
After working elsewhere, Alastair returned to Yorkshire to found his own independent Cooperage, White Rose Cooperage, near Wetherby.
He enjoys the satisfaction of seeing something he’s made. A well-made barrel last for 150 years or more. Alastair muses, “I wonder what they’d tell me if they could talk.”
It’s an ancient skill, known to be at least five thousand years old. Before plastic, all sorts of things were stored and transported in cooperage: flour, gunpowder, nails, fish, salt beef, water, and drinks including wine, beer and spirits.
It’s for the drinks industry that cooperage is in demand today. Oak vessels impart a complexity of flavour that steel or plastic cannot rival, says Alastair. In fact, there’s a growing machine cooperage industry in Scotland, to support the whisky industry.
But Alastair’s casks are made by hand, ‘with tender loving care’.
Each cask is made from a ring of carefully shaped and curved staves, held together by hoops made of wood or iron. The ends are sealed with flat discs of wood. The skill lies in cutting the joints to make watertight seals – and to the size to create the desired capacity.
“When you’re working,” says Alastair, “You’re applying mathematics, so your brain is ticking all the time.”
Before the age of plastic tubs, coopers made vessels for many uses. There would be tubs for laundry, salting meat, making cheese, and brewing beer. Buckets for drawing water, and barrels for storing apples and other goods.
Today, plastic storage and shipping vessels are far cheaper, but cooperage is in demand for its unique contribution to the flavours of alcoholic beverages.
Alastair says his customers include the English wine industry, micro-brewers, and the cider industry. He comments, “We also make wooden vats, like big upside down buckets, used for storage and ageing. I’m currently making a 5400 gallon oak vat for an anonymous client. Vats are a cross between coopering and joinery.”
Museums and Film
They also receive commissions from museums and the film industry.
“I made the water barrel for the replica of Stephenson’s Rocket at York,” relates Alastair. “It wasn’t historically accurate and I said so, but they wanted it as cheap as possible. The difference was that as cheap as possible was a big whisky barrel, while historical accuracy would have been bigger, more cylindrical with a bit of a belly, more custom rather than a standard barrel.
Another museum wanted coopered dairying equipment. “Oak turns milk black, so anything for dairying was made from ash. We do a lot of repairs of butter churns, kept in families, but not used.”
Not using a cask isn’t good for it. The liquid keeps the wood hydrated, if the cask is empty, the wood will shrink and warp, resulting in loose joints, moving hoops, and a leaky vessel.
For historical work, hazel hoops are sometimes required. In the old days, says Alastair, these were made by a specialist hooper. Nowadays, he has had to learn this skill too. “The hardest bit is getting the right sort of hazel. I have to talk to people who do coppicing.”
He buys metal hoops from a specialist in Scotland. “They come in the right length and width, with the right degrees of splay – beer is 12º of splay, whisky is 10º – and we rivet them,” he says.
Alastair says, “I’ve had to work hard to get here, but it’s worth it because when I finish at the end of the day, I can see something I’ve done. And if I’m in the pub having a beer, I can think – did I make that barrel? Or if it’s cider, did I make the vat? So when I’m out socially, it adds interest. And with the resurgence in real ale, there’s always someone who says, you’re the cooper, I want to talk to you.”
Read more about Alastair’s coopering in Dalesman Magazine
Contact Alastair at http://whiterosecooperage.com/