At the age of 15, David Schmeider faced the crucial decision of selecting a profession, and he ultimately chose a relatively lesser-known trade: cooperage.
If you’ve ever savored the rich, buttery notes of an oaked chardonnay or experienced the festive spices in a smooth sherry whisky, your gratitude extends beyond the vintner or distiller.
Coopers, practitioners of one of the world’s oldest crafts, meticulously craft the barrels and casks used for aging wines and spirits like whiskey through a process that involves meticulous steps such as stripping, toasting, charring, and sealing.
“The precision is of utmost importance,” David emphasizes, “Considering that these casks often hold valuable spirits worth thousands of dollars. The last thing you’d want is to lose it all due to a flaw at the end of the maturation process.”
David embarked on his journey as a cooper apprentice at the Bundaberg Rum Distillery in Queensland during the 1970s.
“I had no prior knowledge of a cooper’s role, but woodworking intrigued me,” David recalls, reflecting on the inception of his career.
“Despite being physically demanding, every task was a learning opportunity.”
After honing his skills at the Bundaberg cooperage, David relocated to Perth, Tasmania, where he established his own cooperage, Transwood Master Coopers. He currently manages the enterprise alongside his wife, daughter, and son, Laurie.
However, the recent closure of two major cooperages in Tasmania has posed challenges for David in meeting the burgeoning demand.
“While we cater to approximately 20 percent of Tasmania’s whisky market, the workload has surged, especially following the closure of Master Cask.”
“At the age of 68, I’m far from youthful, yet I find myself working seven days a week. Leisure time has become scarce, and the toll on my body is evident.”
Both David and his son Laurie are deeply committed to the industry’s growth but highlight the difficulty in recruiting new talent.
“Our trade no longer receives recognition for apprenticeships. Consequently, we’re left with two options: seek individuals training as wood machinists or bring in talent from overseas, an avenue some cooperages have pursued.”
In an endeavor to secure Australia’s skilled workforce for the future, the Howard government restructured the nation’s apprenticeship program in 1996, emphasizing construction trades, culinary arts, and hairdressing.
While this restructuring undeniably enhanced the quality and safety of various trades for both practitioners and consumers, it had implications for smaller trades like coopers and blacksmiths.
“These traditional trades used to offer apprenticeships coupled with mentoring and classroom instruction,” explains Victoria Pearce, director of Endangered Heritage.
“However, a perception emerged that these trades would become obsolete and that cheaper imports could serve as substitutes.”
With certain specialized trades excluded from state apprenticeship programs, businesses find themselves lacking succession plans or additional staff for training and sharing the workload.
“These professions are now prohibited from taking on trainees or apprentices due to legislative constraints. This is the reason behind their decline, not a lack of demand,” she asserts.
Victoria contends that revitalizing the apprenticeship system benefits not only these small businesses but also provides opportunities for individuals marginalized by conventional work avenues.
“In the past two decades, digital advancements have severely restricted employment opportunities for individuals with lower literacy and numeracy skills. Revamping the apprenticeship scheme can help counteract this trend and open new doors.”