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A Rare Look Inside An Oak Vat.

Thatchers Cider takes care to preserve its heritage.

Master coopers have been at work this week at Myrtle Farm, the home of Thatchers Cider, ensuring that our 150 year old giant oak vats remain in top condition for maturing our Somerset cider.

Rarely seen from the inside, the eleven oak vats each hold 120,000 pints  – but occasionally the vats do need to be left void of cider so they are able to receive some expert care to keep them in the best possible condition.

Alastair Simms, Britain’s only master cooper and owner of White Rose Cooperage, the only independent cooperage in England, is entrusted with the upkeep of the Thatchers Cider vats.

“Regular maintenance is vital for such precious assets as these amazing vats. We’ve been replacing some of the staves in two of the vats this week by grafting in new pieces of wood. We use 140 year old English Oak from Herefordshire chosen for its pliability and versatility. It’s an amazing wood to work with – you can mould it and bend it into place to create the shape you want. And of course it’s got longevity on its side.”

“To be a cooper is a skilled craft you never stop learning. It’s an honour to be entrusted to care for these amazing pieces of Somerset cidermaking history.”

Constructed of three inch thick oak staves, each of Thatchers’ vats is over 30ft tall with its own distinctive character. Each of the vats were built by Carty and Sons of London (described by Alastair as the Rolls Royce of vat makers) dating back to the 1840s. In fact, the English Oak trees that were used to build these vats were probably growing in the early 1700s, if not before.

It would have taken three fully grown English Oak trees to make each vat. To hold the massive weight of thousands of gallons of cider, they are bound with inch thick steel bands that have to be tightened regularly.

Upon examination Alastair has discovered that the dowling that holds the staves together on the Thatchers vats are square and handmade – further evidence of the vat’s 150 year old heritage. After 1860, he says, dowling began to be manufactured by machine.

Apart from when the coopers are visiting, the huge vats at Myrtle Farm are always full of cider. If the wood dries out, it can shrink. The Thatchers team ensure that the vats are coated on the outside with linseed oil to feed the timber and keep it in good condition – even though the wood has been cut it is still a living product, which people often don’t realise.

So speed of work is essential for White Rose Cooperage – getting the work completed within 48 hours is the longest they recommend a vat is empty for.

While the cider, such as Thatchers Vintage, is held in the vats, usually for around six weeks, the oak softens and rounds the flavours, allowing the apple characteristics to shine through. Every day the Thatchers cidermakers taste the cider from each vat, to judge if it’s ready for the next step of its journey – if it’s not, it’s left to mature a little longer.

“Vats such as these are rare things nowadays,” continues Alastair. “There’s only a handful of cidermakers and brewers who still use them. So it’s a pleasure to see these at Thatchers so lovingly cared for.”

Martin Thatcher, fourth generation cidermaker says, “These oak vats are a part of our heritage. They also help give our ciders their distinctive, smooth character. Its goes without saying we take the greatest care in their upkeep as this is all about having the greatest respect for our history and the traditional skills that are so important.”

Alastair Simms is passionate about his craft, and wants to encourage young people to join the trade to ensure its survival. After all, he says, once upon a time every village in the country had a cooper.   He says to be a cooper you need patience and an eye for detail, good maths and common sense.

He loves the satisfaction of a job completed well.  “Quite often I’m in the pub drinking a pint of Thatchers, knowing that very pint came out of one of the vats I’ve worked on. That’s satisfaction.”

More information, please call: Penny Adair, Tel: 07967 047464

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