Making beer barrels in Wetherby with England’s last Master Cooper.
Alastair Simms, a Master Cooper based in Wetherby, West Yorkshire is the last remaining Master Cooper in England. A job he thought would die a death after he retires in a few years, but as luck would have it, the recent surge in microbreweries has kept him pretty busy – so much so that he’s even taken on an apprentice. The art of coopering goes back a very long way and techniques haven’t really changed since the 14th century. It’s a tricky business – Alastair begins by splitting lengths of seasoned English oak wood into staves, the edges of the staves are then cut and planed to precise angles. Metal hoops are made at various sizes to fit around the barrel. Between 20-25 staves are then inserted into the bottom hoop, the other hoops are then fitted around the barrel and are hammered down to tighten the staves together. The barrel is then put into a steam-room where the staves expand and lock into each other forming a tight seal. It is finally finished by hand and checked for quality and most importantly any leaks.
As a bit of a beer fan myself and a great lover of traditional crafts, I decided spend a couple of hours photographing Alastair and his apprentice Kean Hiscock in their workshop in Wetherby.