Old Peculier skills have Theakstons over a barrel

Jonathan Manby, cooper at Theakstons Brewery, has made 66 small traditional casks. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Jonathan Manby, cooper at Theakstons Brewery, has made 66 small traditional casks. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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IT MAY be a dying art to craft traditional wooden casks entirely by hand, but it is a skill being put to good use by Jonathan Manby in the run up to Christmas.

Hundreds of casks have been produced by the 39-year-old, for family-run T&R Theakston Ltd, since he passed a four-year apprenticeship and became a fully qualified cooper at the Masham brewery in 1999.

In time for the seasonal festivities, he has spent the last month hand-crafting and shaping 70 special edition ‘pins’ to hold 4.5 gallons - or 36 pints - of the brewery’s best-selling Old Peculier ale.

It has become a Theakston tradition to make the limited edition pins available for members of the public to buy so that they can then serve the award-winning dark tipple straight from the cask at home.

There was a time when every brewery in Britain would employ a cooper, but the advent of metal and plastic casks, which are cheaper to produce, has made coopers like Jonathan a rare breed, so much so that he is now the only craft brewery employed cooper in the country.

A cooper must study the craft for years and become skilled in the use of an array of specialist tools before they can be considered fully qualified professionals.

Each cask he makes is made using staves, boards of seasoned oak which are curved into a barrel shape using heat. These are then bound together by iron hoops. It is important that a cask is robust enough to withstand the rigours of being bounced into position in pub cellars.

Different names are given to casks of different capacities. A ‘firkin’ cask, which contains nine gallons or 72 pints of beer, is the size that Theakston supplies to pubs, but he has also been making a limited supply of the smaller pins in his cooperage based at the brewery.

He gives regular public demonstrations of his skills and his coopers’ shop can be seen from the brewery’s visitor centre in Masham.

Theakston’s has employed coopers ever since the company was founded 186 years ago.

Victoria Bramley, the brewery’s marketing manager, said: “Jonathan joined us as an apprentice and has always enjoyed working with wood, particularly with oak which all of our casks are made from.

“Years ago there were hundreds and hundreds of coopers. Every brewery would have had them.

“From our point of view, we love that we can still send out our beer in wood casks. It is the traditional method of sending out beer and we are a traditional brewery.

“We are very proud of Jonathan. He’s a fantastic character and he always draws huge crowds when he practices his art at trade shows.”

Mr Manby, who was 20 when he joined Theakston’s as an apprentice, has a life-long passion for working with wood.

Coopering was a natural progression for him, having already obtained a City and Guilds qualification in cabinet making and furniture renovation.

A strict routine must be followed to build the Christmas pins.

He starts with a larger cask that has already been used to carry beer. The large cask is knocked down to a smaller size using a selection of tools such as axes and hammers.

The smaller cask is then raised up over a fire for half an hour so that the timber sets and the springiness is drawn out of the wood to ensure it holds its curved shape. The ‘heads’ or lids are then attached to either end of the cask.

Mild steel hoops are then fitted around the staves and are riveted on by hand.

Silicon fitments are added to where the cask will be filled to inside as well as where the tap is to be fitted.

The cask is then branded with a unique number and the Theakston stamp.

The heads are painted red and finally the finished product is left to soak for 24 hours before it is filled with beer and delivered to customers.

Mr Manby said: “It’s great to see something that will last a long time.

“If it’s treated right it is going to last 10 to 15 years.”

Simon Theakston, the brewery’s executive director, said his work paid off.

“At this time every year Jonathan can be found in his cooperage making our Christmas Pins, one at a time. It’s impossible to move for them in his shop,” he said.

“Over the next two weeks, the pins will be filled with our Christmas Old Peculier and will be available for collection by customers from all over the country who have ordered them.

“They are proving to be a very popular additional Christmas tradition.”