• March 8, 2017
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The (Almost) Lost Art of Barrel Making

The (Almost) Lost Art of Barrel Making

The Sullivan family have been in the barrel-making, or ‘cooperage’ trade for over 60 years, and have no plans on leaving now. Noel Sullivan, patriarch of the Sullivan family business Roll Out the Barrel Cooperage, has been making barrels since he was 15 years old. Noel’s son Trevor, now an expert cooper himself, give us an insight into this niche industry and the challenges it faces.

In 1950, wooden beer kegs were all the rage with the Australian brewing industry. These beautiful, hand-crafted vessels have been used to store beer, wine and spirits for hundreds of years. English master cooper, Alastair Simms notes that cooperage was even mentioned in the insurance documents of early English settlers to America as ‘important cargo’. More recently however, cheaper and less refined storage options have seen the cooperage trade deplete in Australia. As Trevor explains, the wooden keg is an expensive option for breweries.

“It’s a lot more expensive! For 15 or 20 years, the breweries stopped using wooden kegs altogether. Dad was a cooper for Castlemaine Perkins but was offered a job in advertising when they stopped using wooden kegs (that didn’t last long). Now we’ve seen a resurgence. It’s one area that’s rejuvenated our business.”

Noel went on to start his own business, and to carry on the trade of coopering with his first workshop on the Redcliffe Peninsula, north of Brisbane in 1982. Since then, Trevor has learned the family trade and helps his dad, who still works full time at almost 83 years of age, to run the business.

“I started out when I was 12. I went away for a while to the building industry. In the beginning, it was tough for us. Building a small business, it takes a while to get on your feet, and up and running. I’ve now been back in the family business for 15 or 16 years.”

Trevor explains that breweries are now turning back to the good old wooden keg for luxury markets, which has seen a resurgence for their business. Popular destinations such as the Breakfast Creek Hotel are now requesting wooden kegs for their beer, in order to cater to a high-end demand for luxury dining and drinking. Roll Out the Barrel Cooperage have manufactured around 40 wooden beer kegs for Breakfast Creek in the last two years, and have another dozen or so on production line now.

Another area which has boomed in the last decade are the home distillers.

“20 years ago, nobody made their own spirits. Now it’s a huge market. People want their barrels made by a real tradesman, and preferably an Australian tradesman. They want quality. There are only two cooperages like ours in Australia.”

Despite the popularity of home distilling, Trevor notes that they’ve seen a marked decline in demand from that market in the last couple of years. He puts it down to political climate and tense election campaigns, where the economy suffers as a whole due to the uncertainty these events create. That’s not to say that Trevor, Noel and their business are hard-up for work. According to Trevor, they don’t advertise at all, due to the demand they have for their unique, quality products. Working with large brands such as Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Bundaberg Rum, their corporate contracts keep them busy.

Another key market for Trevor and his family is the maintenance and repair of kegs and barrels.

“A well-made barrel should last a lifetime. There is no reason to ever have to replace it, if it’s taken care of”

Many Australian wineries and distilleries rely on Roll Out the Barrel Cooperage to maintain their investment in quality Australian barrels and kegs, unlike many of the overseas markets. Trevor notes that he often buys used barrels from overseas, such as wineries in Elizabeth, South Africa; where the wine industry is booming. Their French and American cooperages supply the wineries with new barrels, and the old ones are sold on to other markets.  The Australian market is quite different, as Australian wineries simply cannot afford to purchase new barrels, and choose to repair them instead.

So, while the business is going as strong as ever, and the demand for their high-quality product is keeping them busy, what hope does Trevor have for the future of the industry?

“There just isn’t one. The government won’t provide any funding for apprenticeships, and I don’t know of any cooperages who are taking on apprentices. None of the bigger cooperages have anyone on board who can make a barrel from scratch, it’s all a production line. An experienced carpenter can’t even do it.”

The art of cooperage is so specialised that Trevor won’t consider taking on carpenters as trainees in their business – they simply have too many ingrained habits which aren’t compatible with the trade. The tools for cooperage can’t simply be bought at your local hardware store, and many of them are handmade specially for the task. So what tips does Trevor have for those who would like to take on cooperage as a hobby?

“You just can’t do it unless you’ve been taught. The chances [of a hobbyist making a keg or wine barrel from scratch] are minuscule. It’s just too involved. The tools can’t be bought.”

The future of the cooperage industry, with the current state (or lack of, as the case may be) of enthusiasm for providing apprenticeship funding, is uncertain. The Sullivan family business is going strong, and continues to enjoy a demand for their products, however where to from here? It’s too hard to say, says Trevor.

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