THE image of a cooper making barrels for the brewing industry is a potent symbol of Burton’s heritage, but there are only a handful of trained practitioners left in the country.
Marston’s brewery has two of them, with full-time cooper Mark Newton looking after the historic Union System barrels which ensure that flagship brew Pedigree keeps its traditional character.
While other beers are fermented in closed steel vats, Pedigree simmers in union casks, made of prime oak that’s specially imported from a single forest in Germany.
The Union System is labour intensive, with each cask checked by hand during the fermentation process and kept in working order by Mark.
He admits that it’s a costly and never-ending cycle of maintenance to keep the operation running smoothly.
He says: “It’s a really expensive way of doing it, but the taste is unique.”
Mark has been at Marston’s for 18 years but started out as a cooper in Manchester, becoming interested in the art after watching barrels being by made by a friend’s father. After leaving school Mark got an apprenticeship.
He says: “In Manchester in the 1970s there weren’t that many jobs about so getting an apprenticeship was important. I had always liked working with my hands and we weren’t just doing brewery work back then – it was whisky jobs, stuff for museums, buckets for racing stables, gunpowder casks, all sorts of things.”
These days it’s a full-time job just to keep the famous Union System in trim.
Mark says: “I take a set out at a time, repair them, put them back in and we move them. It requires a lot of water and a lot of man hours to get it all clean to put the next brew in, so it’s not a cheap way of doing things. If it didn’t make any difference, Marston’s wouldn’t do it.
“The oak we use is grown in the Black Forest in Germany in the middle of pine forests so it grows upright. You don’t get as many knots in it and the grain is easier to work with. If there are any knots in the wood, the staves would break. We use what we call quartered timber and there’s quite a lot of waste in the process, which adds to the expense.”
Mark explains how the wood has to be cut in order to ensure it’s perfect and that the beer doesn’t seep through. There are 35 pieces in all that go into making each barrel.
The brewery sees all this craftsmanship and tradition as Pedigree’s big selling point – backed up by the fact that Mark’s face can be seen on Marston’s lorries and bottles, emphasising his important role in creating the beer’s unique flavour.
He says: “I thought it was just on the back of one wagon and then it was on the labels and it was originally just for export only – but it took off I suppose. It doesn’t make much difference to me but I do get a bit stick from friends, who say ‘I followed you going own the M6 last week’. They also tell me it’s a ‘safety thing’ and that no-one is going to run into the back of the trucks while I’m up there!”
Mark is also responsible for ensuring the Barrel Rolling Championships goes ahead as planned. He made the barrels in the first place and now keeps them in working order.
“The barrels they were using had come to the end of their day so I made new ones a couple of years back,” he says. “We keep them here now and, when it’s time for the championship, I look after them and get them back in shape. They race with four barrels, but always have a spare one in case any get damaged.
Mark hopes to keep on ensuring the cooper’s art is practiced in Burton for as long as possible. Now 52, he has no plans to hang up his tools any time soon.
“As long as people keep buying the beer I guess we will carry on, “ he says.
GARRY Harding is almost certainly the youngest qualified cooper in the country, having endured the traditional trussing-in initiation ceremony in the late 1990s.
Garry, now 35, says: “When I was trussed-in it was the first ceremony in Burton for more than 40 years.
“It was a four-year apprenticeship which I started straight from school. At the end of it I went through a trade test with master coopers watching me work and testing me with various tasks.
“It was then the trussing-in ceremony, which was more of a celebration.”
That ceremony involved Garry being put in a barrel with a few choice leftovers from around the Marston’s brewery yard and then being rolled around by his co-workers.
“I was a little apprehensive,” admits Garry. “I had heard some stories from the older hands who would wink at you when they were talking about it. It was a strange experience. You are literally rolling around in a barrel like in a cartoon and don’t know where you are.
“They threw in rotten beer, wood shavings and an extraction of soot – anything they could lay their hands on.”
Garry built go-karts as a child and was always ‘messing about with his dad’s tools’, so it was natural for him to take to woodwork at school.
When Marston’s put out a call for an apprentice cooper, he took the opportunity.
“There were hundreds of coopers in Burton at one time, but there are only six or seven left in England now,” he says.
“I believe I’m the youngest left. There was a trussing-in ceremony just after me but he started his apprenticeship at an older age than me.”
Garry says ‘it’s the blood, sweat and tears’ of coopering that appeals to him.
“There’s a high satisfaction at the end of the job,” he says.
Garry now works in the brewery’s process department and seldom gets the chance to practice his art, with Mark undertaking all the cooper’s duties at Marston’s.
But he says: “The skills never leave you; it’s like getting back on a bike.”
Garry and Mark have both had a go at the Barrel Rolling Championships.
“It was a few years back when we were fitter and more agile,” laughs Garry. “It was a good laugh. We were doing well at the start but the barrel hit a bump and it went one way as we went the other. We were in the lead at that point but were beaten by the Czechs.”
Being able to make the barrels isn’t therefore a guarantee of being able to roll them.
“Because of the surface area there’s little of the barrel in contact with the road so they can spin on a sixpence,” says Garry.
The Barrel Rolling Championships will be the centrepiece of a two-day festival and will take place on Saturday, October 5, between noon and 6pm.
The circuit will run round the National Brewery Centre and there will be three competitions – men’s singles, women’s singles and mixed doubles.
Keith Norris, of The National Brewery Heritage Trust and organiser of the event, says: “I am really pleased that we have been able to re-establish the Barrel Rolling Championships, which first took place in 1933 with 12 men from local breweries taking part. I would encourage individuals and companies to take part in this important tradition and have a great time.”
The championship is linked to the Small Independent Brewers Beer Festival, which takes place on October 4 and 5 at The National Brewery Centre.
This festival is being staged in association with SIBA – the Society of Independent Brewers.
Breweries from around the UK will be at the festival, offering the opportunity to taste around 50 real ales and keg beers, including some unusual beers brewed specially for the event.
Burton band The Ant Hill Mob will be on stage on Friday night and The Backline Blues on Saturday night. There will be a DJ/compere during the day on Saturday and a hog roast and barbecue.
A brewery workers’ reunion lunch will take place on Friday at 12.30pm. The lunch is open to any former or current brewery employees and will provide an opportunity to celebrate old times. Tickets are priced £9.50, which includes a sit-down meal and a pint of beer.
Festival tickets for Friday evening and Saturday daytime are £3 and £5 for Saturday evening. Children under 16 are free. Go to www.siba.co.uk/nbf or www.nationalbrewerycentre.co.uk, or call 01283 532880.