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"

 

As advances in technology go, the techniques used to make a ship seaworthy also applied to creating watertight barrels, and as our ability to sail improved, so did our barrel-making. It helped that the primary method of storage and transportation of goods was the barrel. By the Middle Ages, the barrel ruled, and would continue to do so until the early to mid-20th century, as steel and glass began to usher in a new era, relegating the barrel to part novelty, part antiquity; the flip-phone of containers. Today, around 2.5 million new barrels are produced each year, largely for alcoholic beverages. In the heyday of the barrel, the number was closer to 200 million, including wooden barrels used for oil.

But barrels refuse to go quietly. Wooden containers have long remained at the heart of the whiskey and wine industries, and beer has created an entirely new market for used barrels, and in some cases, new ones constructed specifically for the enhancement of beer.


Though there are no hard and fast rules, oak is the wood of choice for coopering, due to its strength, durability and the flavor characteristics it imparts.


What kind of wood is ideal for a beer-tight barrel? The short answer is oak, which is strong yet light, malleable and relatively impermeable compared to other woods due to its unique physiology. As a slow growing tree, an oak tree’s grains are tight and liquid-resistant. It can take anywhere from 80 to 300 years for an oak to be ready for harvest, with regulations in place to ensure sustainability. Oak also has a singular quality in that its sap channels, which initially allow nutrients to move through the tree, later fill with a material called tylose, essentially shoring up its conductive capillaries. The tree uses tylose as a mechanism for defense against rot and infection, but for the cooper it helps to create an ideal material. Oak also boasts extensive medullary rays, another form of protection and strength, which exists perpendicular to the tree’s rings. [1] 

Oak is also a chemically pure wood that produces pleasant flavors ranging from coconut, sweet vanilla, clove, butterscotch, spice and smoke when heat-treated. While oak is the accepted industry standard, it’s by no means the only wood used to impart flavors to beer. There are many kinds of wood, and many species within each kind, some of which are more suited to wood-aging than others.

You may recognize cedar, cherry, chestnut, pecan, palo santo (most notably used in Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron) and a host of others used to imbue all ranges of beers, wines and spirits with countless qualities of variable desirability. The intricacies of wood are myriad, and it takes a practiced hand to navigate them.

Like most trades, aspiring coopers learned through committed apprenticeships, usually for a period of seven years. Today, with modern machinery in the mix, the time period ranges from two to four years. The dedication required highlights certain traits that one must possess to even consider the work: patience, a desire and ability to work skillfully with the hands, as measurements can be as exact as one-two thousandth of an inch, and a finely tuned sensory palate – coopering is much more than placement of wood. Much of the work requires a trained nose to gauge the desired char of the barrel, or a keen eye to determine the worthiness of a stave.

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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).

Pages

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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