Farewell to the wooden beer barrel as steel kegs are rolled-out across Sydney

Eric Rooney Tooheys Brewery Sydney 1951
ERIC ROONEY, a floorman at Tooheys brewery, rolling one of the new stainless steel 18-gallons beer kegs from the filling syphons yesterday. The new kegs will be used in Sydney hotels tomorrow. A brewery spokesman said yesterday the steel kegs speeded up chilling and did not affect the taste of the beer – Sydney Daily Telegraph Wednesday 19 September 1951.

The introduction of stainless steel beer kegs into the pubs of Sydney, and across Australia, during the early 1950s also meant the demise of the skillful craft of the cooper. The Fairfield Biz reported on an industry that was in its “death throes” on March 13, 1963: 

George Bubinin “rolling out the barrel” at Bert Hughes’ cooperage at Cabramatta.

Cabramatta cooper, Mr. Bert Hughes, is one of Sydney’s only remaining links with a highly-skilled craft that is now in its death throes.

Bert has been making and repairing kegs, casks and barrels for the past 36 years since the age of 14. He served his apprenticeship at Balmain, the early home of the cooperages, and launched his first cooperage in the late 1930’s in Kent Street under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

For the past 18 years he has carried on the craft at his cooperage in Church Street, Cabramatta. In the early days, the cooper was a highly paid, important crafts-man in the world of commerce and industry. The only means of carrying and storing liquid and some solid commodities, the barrel in those days had a far greater importance than even the glass container of today. Beers, wines, spirits, paint, tallow, oil, water, butter, salt beef and a host of other different products, even ice cream, found themselves at one time or another in a barrel. But things have changed now. The ad-vent of steel has completely revolutionised the method of storing.

The steel ‘keg’ is slowly “forcing the bottom” out of the cooperage industry.

“There haven’t been any wooden barrels produced in Sydney in the last ten years,” Bert told a “Biz” reporter last week.

“We just carry out repairs to the only barrels still used by a big Sydney brewery,” he said.

Bert (right) and one of his employees, “Hanzel” Hanzelmann start re-constructing a repaired cask.

According to Bert, the capital cost of steel is the only thing that is keeping wooden barrels in the picture nowdays. But the end is slowly drawing near — tallow, paint and beer are only three of the many commodities which have been “lost” to the steel container in the past few years.

Experts say there are only another ten years ‘left’ in the cooperage industry. But what about the future for Bert Hughes and his craft.

“We have a favourite saying that has been with the trade for many years,” Bert said.

“A cooper can make a cabinet, but a cabinet maker can’t make a cask.”

The site of one of Sydney’s last cooperages (Hughes’ Cooperage), at the northern corner of Railway Parade and Mallee Street Cabramatta, is now a vehicle repair shop. Picture: Google Streetview

In response to a link to this story on social media, a few members of the Facebook Group, Liverpool-Cabramatta-Fairfield Memories wrote on June 26, 2021:

Chris Martin: “My grandfather Robert Martin and my nanna lived on the south corner of Railway Parade and Mallee St in between the knitting mills in Railway Parade and Hughes’ factory in Mallee St. My grandfather worked in timber mills around Taree on the north coast before shifting to Sydney in the 1920’s where he worked in timber mills in Homebush Bay. He shifted to Liverpool in the 1940’s before retiring to Cabramatta in the early 1950’s. He then helped out in Hughes cleaning up and doing odd jobs until just before it closed down. I remember well the sound and smell of the barrels being made and repaired, trucks delivering and picking up the barrels. By the look of it the building is still there – now K-Car Repairs.”

Gary Johnsone: “We lived in church st, I used to walk down and see dales soft drinks being made, walk over and have a talk to old Bert about the barrels, I had a Aunty that worked in the the mill in railway pde, the Hugh’s house burn down years ago… I was about 9 at the time…”

Chicka Low: “Bert was one of the first blokes to welcome my parents to our new country back in 1954 Cabramatta and remained a firm and respected friend till Dad passed away. Coincidently I would later work in Bert’s old Mallee Street factory for many years when it became a printing factory.

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