17 August 2001


NOWADAYS you see them in gardens with flowers growing out of the top, but once barrels were the standard storage container.

A painting from about 2700BC shows the Egyptians with barrel-like wooden pails bound with wooden hoops.

The barrel in varying sizes was the universal container for packing and transporting both dry and wet goods. Once thousands worked as coopers in Britain making barrels, but today there are only a few, working mostly for the brewery industry. But even here, the move to metal barrels has been such that the number of men working as coopers has gone down to only seven.

One of them is Master Cooper Alistair Simms working at Wadworth Brewery in Wiltshire. "Its a traditional brewery going back to 1875 and is family owned, with 42 pubs selling traditional beer from my barrels," says Alistair. "It takes half a day to make a good barrel which will last for 80 years."

He works with oak from Germany, cutting the staves which make up the sides of the barrel, using tools, some of which come from Victorian coopers. After cutting the staves to shape, they are placed vertically around a hot steam jet, to make the oak pliable. Then metal hoops are pushed down around the staves to secure the barrel shape, then its put over a fire made from oak cutting to dry out. Reeds from a river are used to seal the top and bottom.

Most barrels are firkins which contain nine gallons; the largest is a hogshead with 54 gallons.

"I think beer tastes better from a good oak barrel," says Alistair. "It keeps the beer in better condition, as the wood keeps it at a stable temperature." Paul Felix

See more