This interesting article appeared in the Telegraph 14/01/09
“England’s last remaining master cooper Alastair Simms has predicted that the nation’s barrel-making trade will go to the grave with him. “
Mr Simms, 45, began working as an apprentice cooper on his sixteenth birthday and finally attained the rank of master in 1994.
When he joined the trade there were thousands of barrel makers across England practising a craft that dates back to Roman times.
But timber shortages and the emergence of modern metal casks has seen the number of master coopers dwindle until he is now the only one left.
Mr Simms, a father-of-two who lives in Devizes, Wilts., said his “only regret” is that no one will carry on the trade when he retires.
He said: “Coopering is not just a dying trade it’s already dead. There are only four breweries left who employ coopers in the country and I’m the only master.
“It’s a proper old-fashioned, historic trade and if you don’t have a natural ability for woodworking and skill with your hands then you can’t learn it.
“I’m going to keep working as a master cooper until I’m dead but I’m very keen to pass on my knowledge to another generation.
“I have loved my career and have no regrets except that no one will carry it on.
Hopefully we will find an apprentice soon so that we are secure for the future.”
Mr Simms currently works for Wadworth Brewery in Devizes, Wilts., where he makes wooden barrels for beers such as 6x and IPA.
He became a master cooper in 1994 when his apprentice Peter Coates finished his training and became a journeyman cooper.
In 2000 there were fewer than a dozen master coopers still practising in England but following retirements and deaths he is now the only one remaining.
Mr Simms added: “You can definitely taste the difference between a beer brewed in a wooden barrel and one brewed in a metal cask.
“The one from the wood will have a far better flavour because the oak finishes it off with a more rounded taste.
“I accept metal barrels are necessary for the long distance transportation of beer but it’s a shame that has led to a decline in the coopering trade.
“In the past wooden barrels were the only way to store liquids and food. They used to be essential for trade but faded away with the emergence of cheap metal and plastics.
“I don’t really know why I’m the only master cooper left. It’s just one of those trades that has died a slow, sad death over the years.”
Mr Simms begins the barrel making process by splitting seasoned English oak planks into staves and then shaping their edges into precise angles.
Around 20 of the staves are then slotted inside metal hoops before they are left in a steam-room where they expand and lock into one another.
The heads are then fitted onto the top and bottom of the barrel before it is finished by hand and tested ready for use.
*In England an apprentice cooper becomes a journeyman cooper upon completion of his four-and-a-half year training.
He gains the rank of master when he successfully trains his first apprentice. Training is overseen by the National Joint Industrial Council of the Cooperage Industry.
However, in Scotland the rank of master cooper is given to anyone who owns their own distillery and cooperage.”
This link takes you to a bbc interview
here is the link to the telegraph article