Monday, 3 March 2014

The Last Cooper in Chiclana

Paco Gomez Morales has spent 50 years among Sherry barrels. He was only 14 years old when he became an apprentice at the cooperage of Juan “El Chinche”, and it never occurred to him that he would be the last cooper in the town until he noticed he was the last apprentice, the old men were retiring, and there were no more cooperages. When he began his career there were three in Chiclana alone. Now there are only two in Jerez itself.

Now, at 64, he is in his last year of work, at the cooperative bodega Union de Viticultores Chiclaneras, and remembers how he began. “I loved it from the start, though I had never been involved with this world. I lived near the workshop of “El Chinche” and when I passed by, I saw the men working. I asked a friend who worked there if he would let me know if a vacancy for an apprentice arose, and two days later he got in touch.”

Next year Paco will retire, and Chiclana will no longer have a cooper. Falling sales and modernisation mean he is no longer indispensable. The butts were once used for storage and transport of wine, but now are only used in the soleras themselves, some being over a century old.  Huge stainless steel tanks have replaced many butts, and are now used for fermentation and storage, meaning that while there used to be three coopers at each bodega, there are no longer any.

Paco works the hoops on a butt (Imagen Voz Digital)
“As butts are only used now in soleras, they live quietly, while before the shipping and storage butts  were constantly being moved around and taken apart for cleaning and subsequent re-use. Thus latterly, the cooper’s job has been more the repair of casks than the making of them, and the skills required have been less and less needed with the introduction of machinery and purchase of barrels from elsewhere.”

Chestnut wood was used more in the past, but that changed to oak, and the cooper’s hammer blows and skills in shaping and bending staves produce consistent leak-free butts. Chiclana’s last cooper will retire next year at 65. He says he will miss the bodega, but after 50 years he fancies a rest.

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