Jim Dykstra's picture

The Role of Coopering in Barrel-Aged Beers

The Art of Coopering: Part 1 (Issue 25)
Rogue Rolling Thunder Barrelworks
Rogue's Nate Lindquist Heats the "Bunghole Cauterizer"

At this point, wood-aged beers are far from obscurity. They are the Bender in The Breakfast Club of trending beer styles: brooding, powerful and often surprising in their character arcs throughout the aging process. For most, the flavors imparted from wood aging is where the line of focus is drawn. However, the path to wort on wood action is anything but dull, requiring expertise in an esoteric profession whose fate teeters on the brink of obsolescence.

The profession is coopering, which involves the creation of wooden, staved vessels held together with hoops and flat heads. Though the technological revolution has whittled it down to an oaken shell of its former industrial glory, coopering has found new life in the craft brewniverse, blending the line between art and science. Throughout upcoming issues, we’re going to pull the nail, open the bung and take a look at the intersection of wood, beer and the proud few who burn the torch of a bygone era.

So where’d this almighty vessel come from?

The earliest origins of the barrel are thought to have been natural, rather than man-made. The typical plot line of legend involves a hirsute ancestor stumbling upon a hollow tree stump full of rainwater. Recognizing its value as a storage container, it wouldn’t take a giant leap to slap an animal skin over the top, making a proto-barrel. In fact, Oregon-based Ale Apothecary has put this into practice, brewing a Nordic Sahti in a hollowed-out white spruce log lined with juniper. 

What we know for sure is that the basis for the modern barrel evolved in northern Europe and Celtic territories between 1000 and 500 BCE, beginning as a simple wooden bucket and developing alongside the tools needed for more exacting craftsmanship; from early stone tools to bronze, then iron. Such tools allowed for pieces to be joined and eventually enclosed entirely, making for a more portable and shatterproof container than the clay amphorae, which we know to have been used in conjunction with alcoholic beverages since at least 3000 BCE.



A barrel is hoisted at the famed Brasserie Cantillon, which brews lambics that are then aged and blended in barrels.


(Bottom Photo Courtesy Nicholas Landemard)

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Comments

John_Manus@hotmail.com's picture
Very interesting article. Thanks!
Rowland.rd@Gmail.com's picture
There is a museum in Portsmouth, NH that has a full time cooper. Makes barrows for lots of uses including numerous local breweries (Moat Mountain, Red Hook, etc).

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Comments

John_Manus@hotmail.com's picture
Very interesting article. Thanks!
Rowland.rd@Gmail.com's picture
There is a museum in Portsmouth, NH that has a full time cooper. Makes barrows for lots of uses including numerous local breweries (Moat Mountain, Red Hook, etc).

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