Retrotechtacular: Coopering Guinness Barrels By Hand

For almost exactly 200 years, the Guinness brewery in Dublin, Ireland employed extremely skilled craftsmen to shape and construct wooden casks by hand. These men were called coopers, and plying their trade required several years of apprenticeship. The cooperage was a kind of closed society as many of the positions were passed down through generations of families. With the rise of aluminium and then stainless steel barrels in the late 1950s, the master coopers of Guinness became a dying breed.

Almost every step of the coopering process shown in this film is done without any kind of precise measurement. A master cooper like [Dick Flanagan] here needs only his eyes and his practiced judgment. His barrels start out as oak planks called ‘staves’ that have been drying in racks for at least two years. A cooper selects the staves that strike his fancy and he saws off the ends. This seems to be the only part of the process where a power tool is used.

The cooper shapes each stave by hand with axe and adze so that its ends are tapered just so. Once he has shaped enough of them to make a barrel, he arranges them in a cylinder around the inside of a metal band known as a hoop. The bound staves are steamed for half an hour to make them pliable enough for shaping.

After steaming, the splayed end of the staves are bound with wire rope to pull them close enough together that a hoop can be fitted over them. The inside of the cask is then charred with burning oak shavings, a process that seals the wood and removes its acidity. After this, the ends are sanded and the bunghole is drilled.

For each barrel, the cooper crafts a custom set of hoops. These are installed after the outside of the barrel has been shaved smooth. Finally, the heads that cap each end of the cask are made from more oak staves held together with dowel rods. This is the only time the cooper uses a tool to measure anything, and he does so to achieve the proper circumference on the heads. He bevels the edges so the heads will fit into bored-out grooves in the cask walls. Once they’re seated, the keg is ready for dark, rich stout.

Thanks for the tip, [fajita].

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

22 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Coopering Guinness Barrels By Hand

  1. Visited the guiness brewery in dublin, expected it to be cheesy but was actually v.interesting lots of techy stuff oldy stuff and rather well laid out. If you ever find yourself in dublin you cant not go really.

    1. No, depending on the use they can be recycled but the flavors transfer. For instance, wine barrels are popular for brandy because of the inherent sweetness of wine. Scotch barrels give bourbon a delightful flavor. And of course, you can buy barrel chips that give barbecue a hint of bourbon or whiskey. you’ll find Jack Daniels brand wood chips in most grocery stores, but some brands just soak cheap wood chips in the used mash. mileage may vary,

    2. To add to phosphor, bourbon that can’t be aged in a previously used barrel. But those barrels can be used for aging other things. Barrels get reused a lot for other drinks and probably even foods. When they can’t be re-used as barrels anymore, the material can still be used again. One local brewery is using the staves to make stowable adirondack chairs.

  2. We too went on the Dublin Brewery tour some years ago. I recorded a copy of this video then by holding my camera in front of the monitor. It is very impressive indeed! Real skill. I am not a beer drinker and thought the tour would be a waste of my time but would echo denis’ recommendation to go and see it if you can. Very worth while.

  3. I never realized the barrels were so thick, I guess I am used to wine and whiskey barrels which are much thinner since they dont have to deal with fermentation pressure.

    1. Not sure what this is to be evidence of. I really doubt the product contained, cares if contained in was made on a modern mass production line or crafted using old construction methods, as long as the interior surface is the same.

      1. Is it wrong to admire the factory method? While they can’t take the pressure of the Guinness barrels, they are still beautiful. The skills that went into developing the more automated method should be honored as well.

  4. This still goes on at the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie (Scotland), . I’ve been there a few times, there’s a viewing gallery and it’s really impressive watching them work, high speed craftsmanship. IIRC, they are paid per barrel, but only after it’s passed a pressure test, so there’s a big incentive for fast accurate work.

  5. For the smaller barrels, the guys’ couldn’t fit their brawny arms inside, so they had to hire kids or little people to make those barrels. They were called…wait for it…”mini coopers”

    // badum – tish

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