John Babidge has been a traditional travelling cooper for more than three decades.

Story +  Photos Jeanette Severs

Every year, John Babidge travels a well-worn route from Stanthorpe, Qld, to Ararat, Vic, stopping at the same places at about the same time of year. It is a route he has followed for 33 years, plying his traditional craft of coopering. 

“If I’m going to be late, I’ll phone them,” John says. ‘Them’ are the medium-sized boutique wineries he has been visiting ever since he set up his own coopering factory in McLaren Vale, SA, continuing a three-generation family involvement.

His grandfather, Richard Foord Babidge, was a carpenter in England and began coopering after he arrived in Australia in 1865. He worked in several locations in South Australia and in partnership with other coopers before the family firm of R Babidge & Sons was formed in 1898 in Adelaide. 

While the Barossa Valley was already being touted for its vineyards, and wine-making was well underway, it was the beer trade that was being serviced by the coopers. 

R Babidge & Sons thrived, soon dominating the beer-cask market in South Australia. They were the exclusive cask builders for Cooper’s Brewery and made most casks for the South Australian Brewing Company. “We made barrels for stout out of American oak for Cooper’s Brewery,” John says. “The barrels – or puncheons, as we called them – were lined with a black paint with ether added to thin it, to reduce the taint from the American oak. Other casks would be pitch lined – with a molten wax-like liquid covering the inside.”

Wineries were also seeking Babidge’s coopering services, including Hardy and Sons, Seppelt and Sons, Reynell and Sons, Auldana Ltd, Basedows and Chateau Tanunda. 

By 1920, the second generation of Richard and Jack Babidge were managing the company, but by the late 1930s both men had passed on and yet another generation had stepped up to manage a workforce that included a large number of family members. Babidges was also servicing the needs of soft-drink manufacturers, grocers, confectioners, butchers and tanners, making 150 65-gallon hogshead casks a day during peak season. 

John started coopering at age 15, when he joined the family firm. In 1984, after starting his own factory, he grew contract vines in McLaren Vale. With 12 workers including his son, Richard, the factory turned out 2000 wine barrels annually. 

“The wooden beer barrel had gone by then,” John says. “We were building and servicing wine barrels in the coopering shop, but about 50 percent of our work was onsite in wine cellars. My customers are medium-sized boutique wineries on the eastern seaboard. I visit about 50 customers in three months.”

In his younger days, he worked with mostly Tasmanian oak, West Australian kauri and American oak. “Now it’s all American, French and German oaks,” John says. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #122

Outback Magazine: December/January 2019