Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Coopers double just like that

The number of coopers believed to be working in the British brewing industry has doubled. In one fell swoop, brewery-employed wooden cask-makers has risen to two.

T&R Theakston, the Masham, North Yorkshire family brewer, has appointed Ashley Thompson as an apprentice cooper to learn the trade under journeyman Jonathan Manby. Theakstons regularly sends its Old Peculier out to pubs in wooden casks – and indeed some landlords demand it.

Ashley Thompson comes from a farming background in nearby Thornton Watlass, so perhaps he has a head start in what will be a tough, demanding, strength-sapping career. But he’s been preparing for it ever since he was mesmerised by a Jonathan Manby cooperage display at the Great Yorkshire Show.

Ashley says: “When I saw the advert for an apprentice cooper, I thought ‘that’s my job, it’s got my name written all over it’.”

He started work in mid-October under the Jonathan’s steely eye – who himself learned the hard way under the even steelier eye of Clive Hollis. From now his vocabulary will be peppered with words like flogger, auger, topping plane and knocker-upper.

“There were a large number of applicants and Ashley was an outstanding candidate,” says Theakston’s executive director Simon Theakston. “He’s a delightful young man. And Jonathan is a very skilled worker, the sort of tradesman any young apprentice would love to work and learn under. Ashley will reap the benefits, as will we all.

“They’re part of a small, tightly-knit team at T&R Theakston where it’s about the quality of the product and the quality of customer service.”

Theakston’s has been employing coopers since the brewery was founded in 1827 by Robert Theakston and John Wood. But beer served from oak casks has taken a dramatic rise in public awareness in recent months to the extent that a North East branch of the Society For The Preservation Of Beer From The Wood has been set up by former publican Rob Shacklock. A celebratory festival at Oddfellows in North Shields was a huge success.

Simon Theakston says: “Wooden casks are about sustainability and charm, but also there are some flavour changes, but not much. Casks are steeped in salted water to leech out all the tannins. Wooden beer casks were, after all, used only as a means of transportation, not like in the wine and whisky industries where it’s part of the maturation and flavour-enhancing process.

“Wood doesn’t transfer heat very well, so the beer is kept cooler for longer, even on hot days. There’s a massive growth in the sector and we’re experimenting all the time and plan to put one of our seasonal ales production into wood.

“I can only see a great future for Ashley and the cooperage. It’s a four-year apprenticeship – making and repairing – but coopers are still rare these days in the brewing industry and we consider ourselves very fortunate to be part of that and are very proud to carry on the tradition.”

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Alastair Gilmour

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