Page last updated at 01:48 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Barrel-maker seeking apprentice

By Treeva Fenwick
BBC News, Devizes


Alastair Simms shares some of the tricks of his old trade

The man thought to be England's last master cooper has been struggling to find an apprentice to pass his ancient barrel-making skills to.

A cooper is someone who makes wooden casks, usually for beer. Alastair Simms, 45, works at the Wadworth brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire.

He began working as an apprentice himself when he was 16 and wants someone "with a good feel for wood".

He measures the casks by instinct, uses traditional tools and has no glue.

"It's not about the money for me. It's a job and a social life. It's a lifestyle.

"It's hard, physical work and needs good hand-to-eye co-ordination," he said.

Dying art

It takes at least four-and-a-half years to train someone to become a cooper.

There are lots of coopers in Scotland and France, for the whisky and wine industries respectively. It seems to be a dying art in England, although a few remain.

It's just got to be somebody that's got a really good feel for wood
Alistair Simms
Master cooper

It took Mr Simms 15 years to earn the title of "master" and it means he has successfully trained an apprentice.

Cooperage dates back to Roman times and Mr Simms does not want the craft to die out.

He said: "Because there aren't that many of us, I don't think young kids know the job is available any more.

"Metal casks have been about since about 1969 and that's been the decline of the cooperage industry really.

"I'm looking for male or female apprentice, I'm not bothered which.

"It's just got to be somebody that's got a really good feel for wood.

"It's experience that tells you when the right person comes along."

'Living product'

There are five different sizes of cask. A barrel is simply the name of one of those sizes.

Wooden casks can last 80 years. Normally they are made from oak and they need much more care than metal ones.

Alastair Simms
Alastair Simms took 15 years to earn the title of "master cooper"

Pub landlords and landladies have to take special care when storing and serving beer in oak casks.

Adrian Wood is a trade quality brewer for Wadworth brewery.

His job is to ensure that the pubs keep their wooden cask beer in good condition.

"You're almost dealing with a living product, in that the wood gives you all sorts of different flavours," he said.

"It needs looking after carefully, it must never be allowed to dry out because they'll leak.

"We take them out of trade and rest them for six months and fill them with water, treat them and keep them sweet."

Particular flavour

When a wooden cask is tapped (opened), it has to be left for 24 hours before the beer can be drunk, so that all the finings settle to the bottom.

The beer must then be used within about four weeks or it goes off.

Wooden casks are used because of the particular flavour they give to the beer.

Adrian Softley, landlord of the Bridge Inn in Devizes, said: "We do use metal casks for the lagers.

"There's nothing wrong with the metal casks, they probably actually last a little bit longer.

"But our preference on taste with beer is from the natural wood product. You get that oaky taste."

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