“Englands last master Cooper”

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. “

Alastair Simms - England's only master cooper predicts demise of barrel making

Mr Simms said his “only regret” is that no one will carry on the trade when he retires

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

8 Responses to “Englands last master Cooper”

  1. Rechru January 24, 2009 at 11:54 pm #

    Hi Robin Thanks for posting it. “If you don’t have a natural ability for woodworking and skill with your hands then you can’t learn it”The same could be said for woodturning couldn’t it?

  2. Kajohnson March 20, 2009 at 6:58 am #

    My name is Kurt Johnson, I live in Portland Oregon in the United States. I have been working with wood with my Dad my whole life. Witin the last 4 years I have been in the wine industry. I am looking for a mentor to begin my apprentice as a cooper. Is there someone looking for a student?

  3. Robin Wood March 20, 2009 at 7:08 am #

    Well the good news is that since all Mr Simms publicity he has had over 1000 people asking to be his apprentice.Personally if I was looking to apprentice as a cooper I would go to France or better still Eastern Europe where you could learn the whole process from tree to cask. Most brewery coopers in Britain have for over 50 years been engaged in repair work so they break down large old casks and make new small ones. I like to get mt raw material right back to the tree if possible.

  4. Kajohnson March 21, 2009 at 4:51 am #

    So for me to begin my career as a Cooper I have to go to England or France? Do you know anyone in the United States that I could contact to possibly fiqure out how someone would get into this trade. Any help would be greatly appreciated.Thanks

  5. Kajohnson March 21, 2009 at 4:54 am #

    How would I contact someone in England or France about this?

  6. Robin Wood March 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Well I would ask first, why in particular do you want to be a cooper? If you are sure that is what you want to do then ask where do they use oak casks? I don’t know if new oak casks are used in the US in either wine or whiskey production.In the UK the have not made new barrels for many years which is why we only have the few brewery coopers left doing repair work. In France they are made in large numbers, also in Easern Europe where they also make many other coopered vessels.I have just been reading “Apprenticeship” by Lida Kindersley and she makes the clear point that if you are going to make it through a 5 year apprenticeship on subsistence income to come out at the end into a low income job with poor long term prospects you need to have a lot of dedication. You will be a liability to anyone taking you into their workshop for the first couple of years so they will want to see a lot of dedication and commitment on your part. That starts with doing the research.

  7. Rick DeFerrari July 15, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    Hi Robin and Kurt,My Name is Rick DeFerrari and I live in McMinnville, Oregon about 40 miles away from Portland. I own a small company called Oregon Barrel Works. We make barrels for the wine industry. Small World.I justed started a blog and posted a responce reguarding this article. You can see it at oregonbarrelworks.blogspot.comKurt, you can contact me via the blog or there is a link to our website.ThanksRick

  8. Robin Wood July 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    Small world, Rick do let me know if you get in touch with Kurt, it would be very pleasing to know that the two of you met up as a result of a blog in the UK.Robin