The last master cooper

From Port Magazine: The Last Master Cooper.

In November 1983, a young Alastair Simms was placed in the barrel he had just made, doused in water, and covered in a ‘muck’ of soot, feathers, shavings, beer and treacle. The outside of his barrel was then hammered by a dozen strong-armed coopers and rolled around and around. They lifted him out, tossed him in the air three times while singing, then dumped him back in again, only for him to emerge a few seconds later to be christened a fully-fledged journeyman cooper. In otherwards, a practitioner of the ancient craft of barrel making.

Thirty-two years on, a framed black and white photograph captures that moment: a teenage lad, face masked in filth, beaming as he crawls out of a beer barrel. It was, Simms confirms, a momentous day. “The initiation ceremony’s called ‘Trussing the Cooper’,” he says proudly, standing in his own cooperage White Rose in North Yorkshire, England. “It’s not changed since the 14th century.” Needless to say, it makes the rugby initiations at British universities look tame.

If becoming a cooper is a feat in itself, remaining one in the 21st century is a triumph. Last time Alastair Simms approached the media, it was to sound the alarm bells for the death of the coopering trade. “There are only four breweries left who employ coopers in the country and I’m the only master,” he announced back in 2009. He’d trained an apprentice while working with Weston’s Brewery in the 1990s – hence the ‘master’ title – yet he was struggling to find a new protégé. “Coopering is a proper historic, old-fashioned trade and if you don’t have a skill with your hands from a very young age then you can’t learn it,” he continued. Without a 16-year-old apprentice prepared to stick with him for five years, the art of coopering would follow him to the grave. [continue]

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