Laura visits Theakston’s brewery in Masham and meets the country’s last-remaining full-time cooper while also learning of the painstaking work which goes into creating the perfect pint.
Only the last remaining craft cooper in the country could call rolling down a hill in a self-built butt-sized cask filled with brewery waste “highly fun”.
But for Jonathan Manby – who is employed full-time at Theakston’s legendary brewery in Masham to hand-build wooden casks for ales – the ritual of the “trussing-in” ceremony back in 1999 marked the end of a four-year apprenticeship and his fully-fledged entry into an almost extinct profession.
As part of the ancient initiation ceremony, Jonathan was not only splattered in left-overs from the brewing process while being hurtled down a hill but was also granted the first sip of beer produced from the hand-crafted barrel.
“You certainly need a drink afterwards,” laughs Jonathan, sitting on a wooden stool inside his enigmatic workshop custom-made for cask creation – an underground cellar room which looks like it might have sprung from the pages of a JRR Tolkien novel.
Even with his towering 6ft 2in frame, climbing into the 108-gallon vessel for the ceremony wasn’t a problem for Jonathan.
“I’d recommended it to anyone,” he says. “You have plenty of spirit afterwards.”
A couple of centuries ago, hundreds of coopers were scattered across Britain carving wooden casks to store ales.
But in the second decade of the 21st century, if not for Jonathan it would be an obsolete craft.
“He is single-handedly keeping up the tradition,” enthuses Victoria Bramley, the brewery’s consumer market manager as she watches Jonathan tinker with a variety of impressive tools as he adeptly constructs his latest cask.
“I can’t see a time when Theakston’s won’t employ a cooper and brew using wooden barrels.”
But what’s the difference in taste between a beer conditioned inside a wooden cask rather than one made of metal – the standard material now used for casks by breweries across the country?
Not much, concedes Victoria, who says sampling and assessing the brewery’s portfolio of ales is done by the brewery’s own staff rather than an external professional taster.
“But someone with a very discriminating palate would be able to taste the difference,” she adds.
Which prompts the question: why continue with a tradition more time-consuming for the brewery than using metal casks when arguably it doesn’t add any flavour improvements to the finished beer?
“The wooden barrels are recyclable so they’re a very green product. And they look beautiful. People like the idea of the ‘Old Peculier’,” Victoria says.
Old Peculier is one of Theakston’s most famous beers, now sold all over the world, bursting with rich and aromatic flavours imparted by the grains and whole-leaf English hops.
Along with Old Peculier, Theakstons’s impressive catalogue of ales includes Cooper’s Butt, Masham Ale – the brewery’s strongest beer at 6.5 per cent ABV – Lightfoot, and Hosgshead Bitter – a special brew created in 1994 to commemorate the trussing-in ceremony.
This month’s seasonal brew is Paradise Ale, a beer named after founder Robert Theakston’s “Paradise” field where he first built the brewery in 1850 – and where the brewery still sits today.
“I like the fact every single beer is so different,” says Victoria. “I just love beer full stop.
“Everybody who works here has got that passion.”
And for the brewers themselves, working at Theakston’s involves the continuation of a unique and important tradition which has retained its familial roots with Robert Theakston’s descendents – brothers Simon, Edward, Nick and Tim – still heading the business.
Stood beside a huge cast iron vat bubbling over with fermenting ale, second brewer David Sopko talks about how attitudes to real ale in the UK differ from his native Canada.
“It’s charming to work somewhere with so much tradition,” he grins.
Thirty-year-old David, who immigrated to the UK in 2006 to study for a specialist brewing degree in Edinburgh, adds: “I see this as my career for the next couple of decades.
“There is a lot more lager in Canada!”
To make their ales, Theakston’s soak English barley grist in hot water (called “liquor”, in brewerspeak) in a huge mash tun where starches in the grain are converted to sugars.
Following this mashing period, the grains and sugar are rinsed and the extract (called “wort”, rhymes with “hurt”) is transferred to a boiler where whole-leaf hops are added to create bitterness and aroma in the finished product.
Once the boil is over, the wort is cooled and put in the fermentation vats where the yeast convert the sugars to alcohol.
Whereas most keg beers and lagers you find on the bar of a British pub are force-carbonated (where carbon dioxide is added extraneously to give it fizziness), real ale undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask where carbon dioxide is created naturally by the yeast to bring the beer into condition for drinking.
And it is near the end of my brewery tour I discover that for the staff working at Theakston’s, “lager” – or at least what passes for it in most UK pubs, as opposed to the more genuine article found on the continent – is still a dirty word.
Sipping a tumbler of Paradise Light in the brewery tap I admit to being a fan of real ale’s poorer cousin – or as CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) might describe it, ice-cold, weakly-hopped, force-carbonated Anglo- lager.
“Don’t swear at me,” one of the bar staff exclaims as I make my terrible faux-pas.
After spending a day witnessing the passion, the experience and the sheer physical graft which goes into developing a perfect pint of Theakston’s beer, I think I’ve just had my real ale epiphany.