The ancient trade of making traditional casks from wooden staves for beer, wine, cider and spirits took on a new lease of life last year when Master Cooper Alastair Simms returned to God’s Own County to establish the White Rose Cooperage Ltd on the Thorp Arch Estate near Wetherby. Alastair, the last remaining Master Cooper, who, together with three Journeyman Coopers, preserves the ancient craft of making wooden casks bound by metal hoops for the brewing industry.
Born in Masham, North Yorkshire, Alastair became an apprentice cooper at Theakston’s Brewery in his home town in May 1979. Following a six month trial period he signed his indentures and went on to undertake his four year apprenticeship under the supervision of Master Cooper Clive Hollis. He successfully completed his training in 1983 with the “trussing in” ceremony and became a Journeyman Cooper. In 1994 he became a Master Cooper following the completion of his training of Peter Coates as a Journeyman Cooper. A year later, after sixteen years at Theakston’s Alastair moved to Wadworth Brewery at Devises where he took over from the retiring Eddy Hodder.
Meanwhile, at Theakston’s Clive Hollis passed away and his apprentice Jonathan Manby completed his apprenticeship under the guidance of Alastair in 1999. Eleven years later in 2010 he was admitted as a Liveryman to the Worshipful Company of Coopers which dates back over five hundred years.
After eighteen years at Wadworth, Alastair returned to his native Yorkshire to establish White Rose Cooperage at Thorp Arch on his 50th birthday in May 2013 as the country’s only independent commercial cooper. When he began back in the 1970’s, there were still around one hundred coopers in the UK but the advent of metal casks in the 1960’s saw numbers decline resulting in the craft almost fading away but for the handful of skilled craftsmen existing today.
However, the amazing growth in numbers of real ale microbreweries in Britain as a whole and Yorkshire in particular has meant that there is hope and the revival of demand for wooden casks is already taking place. Leading the way are Maureen Shaw and Neil Midgley at the Junction pub in Castleford, West Yorkshire where only wooden casks are now used for real ale. After purchasing the run down, empty, failed pubco pub, not only have they transformed it into a wonderful traditional local with many unique features but have backed it up with the gradual introduction of wooden casks. Now “wood only” is their mantra and people are taking notice of this revolution.
Neil and Maureen have invested in over 100 casks from Alastair and have around 10 local breweries supplying beers in the wood on a regular basis. The first and most regular supplier is Simon Bolderson and his Ridgeside brewery located in Leeds. Together, the pub and the breweries have proved that great beer can have that extra dimension if stored in wood. They have experimented with spirit casks and have also had great success with “Ageing in Wood”. Not only do wooden casks add a depth of taste to the stronger, darker beers which metal casks cannot provide but successful recent trials with lighter beers also show that they certainly add that something extra to them too.
Several progressive brewers in Yorkshire and a few from around the country have also take note of this great revival and have already purchased casks or placed orders from White Rose Cooperage. Alastair has also carried out contracts and orders from more pubs (e.g. Engineers Arms at Henlow), traditional cider makers and produces custom made bespoke furniture. From the beer and cider perspective, perhaps the most interesting creations are the glass head casks which enable the viewing of the activity and changes that occur when traditional real ales are clarified in wooden casks.
Alastair is hoping to take on an apprentice and wife Julie also plans to join the business. The long-term aim is to buy a few acres of land to build a cooperage and visitor centre so people can learn about this historic trade and watch coopers at work.
Back to the future – long may it continue.