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A cooper is a craftsman who builds slatted wooden containers such as barrels and butter churns. Building such containers requires a great deal of skill, and traditionally, coopers learned their trade over the course of a long apprenticeship. Coopering was once a vital and widespread profession which, among other purposes, supplied manufacturers with containers in which to store and ship their products. During the 20th century, however, steel containers began to be favored over wooden ones, causing coopering jobs to dwindle.
The containers built by a cooper are known generally as casks. These casks typically consist of thin slats of wood which are arranged vertically to create a container. They usually feature round “head” pieces, also crafted by the cooper, at one or both ends, as well as a number of metal hoops which help the casks retain their shape. Usually, a cask’s widest point is at its middle. Its body may feature a small, round hole into which products such as whiskey can be poured.
Building casks requires a great deal of skill. In addition to providing useful storage containers for a wide range of dry goods, casks have also played an important role in the distillation and transport of alcoholic beverages such as beer, whiskey, and wine. To facilitate liquid storage, the wood used in coopering must be hewn and arranged with extreme precision so that the resulting cask is watertight. Traditionally, a cooper learned this craft over the course of an apprenticeship which could last for five years or more.
While coopering is extremely physically strenuous, historically, the job of a cooper was held in high regard. In fact, the cooper was once so fundamental to the storage and distribution of goods that many companies operated their own on-site cooperages. For instance, Dublin’s Saint James Gate Brewery, maker of Guinness stout, employed in-house coopers up until the second half of the 20th century.
During the 20th century, however, steel casks began to be favored over wooden ones, primarily because the former are more cheaply produced and easily reused than the latter. As a consequence, once-plentiful coopering positions became increasingly rare. In the 21st century, one of the sole remaining strongholds for coopers is the artisanal alcohol industry. For instance, some specialty cognac manufacturers retain the use of a cooper, believing that hand-crafted distillation casks lend a flavor to their product that is unattainable through the use of mass-produced containers made from cheap materials.