Photo: L to R; Apprentice Kean Hiscock, Vivian Bairstow of The Worshipful Company of Coopers and business owner Alastair Simms.
Once a relatively common trade, there are now so few coopers about that you may not have even heard of the job. A cooper is someone who makes and repairs casks and barrels and Alastair Simms of White Rose Cooperage in Thorp Arch is England’s last working independent Master Cooper. However, thanks to a huge soar in the popularity of micro-breweries, distilleries and cider makers, this cooper has never been busier. That’s why, as well as employing Cassandra, a qualified wine cooper from Australia, in 2015 Alastair began his search for an apprentice. Not one to do things by halves Alastair made not one but two TV appearances in his quest to find the perfect future cooper, as he recalls:
“I did Channel Four, Sunday Brunch with Johnny Vegas in Glastonbury week, then I did the One Show and we put the message out on our own social media too but we got nothing!”
At this point, Alastair was hugely overworked, sometimes putting in up to 110 hours a week to keep up with orders. Although he held out hope that his double TV appeal would attract interest from potential apprentices, it wasn’t until a journalist friend covered Alastair’s plight in specialist beer publication CAMRA that interest started to grow:
“The story made it to the Yorkshire Post too and I also advertised with the Yorkshire Apprentice Scheme. Then it went viral!”
The multi-pronged approach to recruitment eventually yielded some 186 applicants. Having sifted that number down to 12, Alastair invited the potential apprentices to attend White Rose Cooperage one Saturday:
“I hired an HR firm to conduct the formal interviews but before that I set the candidates tasks in the workshop. It came down to two people in the end.”
The competition was tough but Alastair eventually offered the post to 18-year-old Kean Hiscock from Garforth near Leeds. Although Kean had no woodwork training or experience at all, he showed a natural affinity for the task he was set. Now, Kean is 12 weeks into his four-year apprenticeship and already doing well:
“We’ve picked the right lad. He sometimes gets frustrated that he can’t help and there’s lots of things he can’t do yet but to me that’s a good sign he wants to learn. He’s been given a new task to do this week and taken to it like a duck to water.”
Alastair, who has had an apprentice before in the early 1990s, and was one himself many years ago, has had to make some adjustments for his new apprentice:
“Occasionally, I might think ‘I haven’t got time to bother with this today’ but you’ve got to make time. It’s been good for me because I’m managing my time a bit better than I would if I was on my own.”
Because cooperage apprenticeships are so rare, there is actually no college course available for Kean to attend. Instead, his programme will be overseen by the National Cooperage Federation, which will award the youngster indenture following a carefully documented four-year learning period at White Rose Cooperage. Funding for the apprenticeship meanwhile, has come from the Worshipful Company of Coopers. So, what about Kean himself, how does he feel right now at the start of his four-year apprenticeship journey?
“It’s hard physical labour and there’s a lot to learn. It’s a very, very rare trade that not a lot of people have and it’s nice to see something come together and know that you’ve made it. It’s a totally new direction for me and I am really enjoying myself.”