The Cooper and the Cask

Industrialization has drastically changed our day-to-day lives. Our diets, for example, have become much more varied thanks to refrigeration and fossil fuel-powered transportation. Despite the many obvious advantages of modern materials like plastics, one thing that has not changed much in the past two hundred years is how most wines are aged after fermentation. There is a romantic story of the cooper and the cask–or how wine is aged in Oak Barrels.[1]

brown wooden barrels on brown brick wall

What Is A Cask?

The terms “cask” and “barrel” describe a cylindrical wooden container that is small enough to roll.[2] Indeed, the ease with which a barrel filled with gallons of liquid is transported from place to place constitutes a cask’s main advantage as a storage device.[3] Whereas “cask” most often refers to a container to store wine or other spirits, barrels are used to store much more than liquids. For example, a ship stocked for a trans-Atlantic voyage would have historically had many salted beef, fish, or biscuits barrels.

How Do They Work?

Casks and oak barrels are a technology that relies on the architectural strength of a double arch. The wooden barrels we still use today are ancient tools made from thin slabs of durable but flexible wood (most often oak or Douglas fir) called “staves” and bound together with “hoops,” forming a cylindrical shape with a bulge in the middle.

The two types of barrels are “tight” and “slack.” Tight barrels require a snug, watertight fit between the staves to keep liquid. On the other hand, slack barrels are primarily used for dry goods, like coffee beans or tobacco leaves, and thus don’t need to be quite as watertight. Casks’ characteristic bulge reduces rolling friction and makes it relatively easy to move hundreds of pounds!

anatomy of a french wine barrelStaves of a wine barrel

How Were Casks And Barrels Made Before Industrialization?

“The Cooper” from an 1815 children’s book, Jack of All Trades

In ages past, to hold wine fast,

And keep it good and long,

They made a bag, with skin of nag,

And sew’d it neat and strong.

But now-a-day, the Cooper lays

The staves so close together,

That, with his cask, it is no task

To keep out ev’ry weather.

Then, if you need work done with speed,

You’ll find me very handy,

To make a tun that will not run,

To keep your ale and brandy.[4]

Before the mid-nineteenth century, the production of barrels was the job of a cooper, a skilled craftsman who also created other wooden containers like milk pails and butter churns. As with most trades, coopers trained as apprentices with an experienced master before opening their facility—also known as a cooperage. A good cooper could produce two barrels a day.[5]

Did You Know: A good Cooper could produce two oak barrels a day.[5]

In medieval European cities, coopers and their craft were part of a guild that participated in its city’s administration, organized charity events, and regulated training and production standards. The Worshipful Company of Coopers in London continues the legacy of that philanthropic work from offices in their medieval guildhall.

Coopers were an integral part of pre-industrial society. Their labour made long-distance trade and storage possible. A perceived shortage of qualified coopers was a very real problem for much of early American history. For example, when the Massachusetts Mechanics Association launched a competition to encourage young men to pick up essential trades, some of the first prizes they announced were about barrel-making.[6]

How Are Barrels and Casks Made Today?

Any challenge surrounding barrel production affected the production of slack barrels more quickly than the production of tight barrels because early machines could not create a watertight fit. Most goods, once stored and transported in barrels, are now kept in other materials like cardboard (e.g., cookies and biscuits), treated paper (e.g., flour), plastic, or metal drums (e.g., oil).

Modern barrels are produced in factories, and the world’s largest barrel manufacturer, Independent Stave Company, founded in 1912 by T. W. Boswell in Missouri, operates mills and cooperages across the United States and the globe.[7]

Want to read more? Try these books!

Over a Barrel- The Rise and Fall of New York's Taylor Wine Company (Excelsior Editions) Wood, Whiskey and Wine- A History of Barrels


[1] Diana Twede, “Basket, Barrel and Box: The Secret Role of Crafted Wooden Containers in the History of Marketing.” In Proceedings of the Conference on Historical Analysis and Research in Marketing, vol. 11 (2003), 153.

[2] “Cask” in The Oxford Companion to Wine, ed. Jancis Robinson (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1994).

[3] Twede, “Basket, Barrel and Box,” 153.

[4] William Darton and William Darton. Jack of All Trades,[.]. Philadelphia: Published by Johnson and Warner, no. 147, Market-Street., 1815, 80-81.

[5] Twede, “Basket, Barrel and Box,” 156.

[6] William Woods, Encouragement to Apprentices. The President of the Massachusetts Mechanic Association, Is Authorized to Offer the Following Premiums, to Encourage Improvements in a Branch of the Mechanic Arts Essential to Commerce, and the Preservation of an Important Export of Our Country … Boston: Russell, Cutler & Co. printers., 1818.

[7] Clay Risen, “Cooperage packs technology into the timeless wooden barrel,” Seattle Times, 5 September 2016. Available

Categories: Wine, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , , By Published On: July 14, 2022Last Updated: February 20, 2024

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