Alastair Simms is one of Britain’s few remaining traditional coopers. John Goodall caught up with him to talk about barrels, birthdays, and beer that tastes of plastic.
‘It was all an accident,’ admits Alastair Simms. ‘I was destined to be a bricklayer by my father, but I went to work in the local brewery at Masham one school holiday and was asked to give the cooper a helping hand. I didn’t even know what a cooper was. He was renewing some barrels from Nottingham – we used to do that a lot, there was a huge trade in second-hand barrels – but I watched him at work and thought that I’d like to have a go at that.’
The master cooper goes on to outline the main events in his career with unusual exactitude. ‘I started my apprenticeship four days after my 16th birthday. After 41/2 years, I became a journeyman and then a master cooper in July 1994.’
‘If you drink beer out of plastic, it tastes of plastic; if you drink it out of metal, it tastes harsh. Wood softens the flavour and makes it fuller.’
He initially remained at Masham, but then moved for a period to work in a brewery at Devizes. In 2013, he moved back North to work for himself. ‘The company was incorporated on my 50th birthday – 50 years too late,’ he chuckles.
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Mr Simms has worked in the drinks industry all his life and has made beer and wine barrels, as well as whisky casks. When I ask him what difference the barrels make to the drink, he clarifies: ‘If you drink beer out of plastic, it tastes of plastic; if you drink it out of metal, it tastes harsh. Wood softens the flavour and makes it fuller.’
Although he’s worked on much more besides – including buckets, casks, butter churns, plant pots and film props – he’s not alone in this particular craft: at least two other brewers employ coopers and the popularity of microbreweries is also stimulating interest in the trade.