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Number Of Beer Barrel Builders In England Are Declining


Tradition has it that when the Romans invaded Britain in the year 43 A.D., or about the time that BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music, they brought with them the already ancient art of barrel-making, or cooperage. The craft has been passed on from master to apprentice there ever since. But now there's just one master cooper left in all of Britain. Vicki Barker went to meet him.

ALASTAIR SIMMS: We're going to use a short-handled adze, an ancient tool. And we're going to put the slope on the cask.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: In a warehouse in a suburban business park on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, Alastair Simms is bent over his work, hammering an iron ring around curved oak ribs. They are shaped to help the deliverymen deliver them to pubs all over Britain.

SIMMS: Do you see? It puts the slope on as we go around. These slopes are quite flat 'cause these are for beer casks, so there's chains the draymen use for dropping them into the cellar - have got to fit nice and tight around there.

BARKER: If coopers were animals, the British species would be classified endangered, reduced to a single breeding pair. The profession was decimated by the introduction of metal and plastic kegs in the 1960s and '70s. Here in Britain, only two venerable breweries keep the old ways alive. But their coopers are classed as journeyman. You don't assume the hallowed title of master until you've trained up an apprentice, and that takes four years.

SIMMS: We can see if this works on - lean the cask against your block - all the work's done against a wooden tree stump, or the block, as call it. And it's just a nice sweeping movement.

BARKER: Simms deftly wields a planing tool called a croze, gouging a groove inside the mouth of a cask.

A lot of these tools - something tells me a medieval cooper would probably be able to get straight to work.

SIMMS: Or even a Roman cooper, probably. I mean, I've got one of these crozes and with all the different block marks on it, it's got to make it at least 250 years old.

BARKER: The skills are similar to a blacksmith's. But in the craft of cooperage, it is the wood, not the metal, that is made supple by heat, with the unyielding iron hoops creating seams so tight the wooden vessels need no lining and can withstand pressures of 30 to 40 pounds per square inch of living, fermenting beer.

Simms says the job calls for a steady hand, a feeling for wood and keen vision.

SIMMS: I mean, when we joint the sides of the staves, we work within two thousandths of an inch by eye. So you have got to have a good eye.

BARKER: The rise of microbreweries breathed new life into the trade here. David Litten is a consultant to the cask ale industry. He says a new generation of consumers is awakening to the unique and varied tastes wooden barrels can impart.

DAVID LITTEN: They give a softer taste, generally. Amazing - it's hard to explain to people because I'm not a great talker about flavors and things. But I know when I drink it, it's a lot better.

BARKER: Simms now has an apprentice after a Facebook, Twitter and publicity campaign went viral and generated 186 responses from all over the world. In the end, he chose local talent, 18-year-old Kean Hiscock.

KEAN HISCOCK: It's such a rare skill. Only a handful of people in the U.K. are qualified, and to be amongst those would be an absolute privilege.

BARKER: He is entering a trade that could prove vulnerable to economic downdrafts if consumers lose their taste for boutique beers. But Alastair Simms insists the ancient craft of cooperage isn't going to die on his watch.

SIMMS: I regard myself as a guardian of the trade. This isn't a job to me. This is a way of life.

BARKER: And he goes back to work marrying oak to metal. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Wetherby, Yorkshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicki Barker was UPR's Moab correspondent from 2011 - 2012.