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"

 

The State of Coopering

A century ago, there were enough coopers to form unions, with the famed Bass Brewery in Burton-on-Trent employing 400 coopers alone. In fact, London’s cooper union was officially chartered all the way back in 1501, and was thought to have existed hundreds of years prior. Today, those numbers have dwindled to a fraction. In America, there are thought to be around 25 cooperages of varying size and purpose, and England is down to single digits. Recently, an article appeared in the UK’s Telegraph billing Alistair Simms, owner of White Rose Cooperage as England’s last “Master Cooper,” a title that took 14 years to achieve. Simms voiced his concerns about finding an apprentice to keep the tradition alive in today’s world. A similar article posted by the same publication ran in 2009 – no one’s taken the bait… yet.

Nevertheless, the practice lives on. Rodenbach keeps a cooper in-residence to maintain its giant foeders, which require an even further specialized knowledge, due to their size and delicacy. Generally, the construction of one foeder requires an entire team of “foudriers,” and can take weeks or months, depending on the size. If coopers are skilled builders, then foudriers are architects. We’ll take a closer look at foeders later on.

The majority of coopering in America is focused on whiskey and winemaking. Thus, the strongholds of Kentucky and Tennessee produce many of the barrels that are purchased second hand for use with beer, while California boasts the largest number of wine-focused barrelmakers. Production aside, the industry that remains also sees a focus on maintenance, with some businesses solely devoted to barrel repair, while others act as brokerages, acquiring and often maintaining barrels from all over the world. Were you to desire a Portuguese chestnut barrel used for wine, such brokerages would be a good place to start.

When barrels aren’t available, which is a common problem due to the many limitations faced by modern coopers amidst heavy demand, alternatives include wood chips, often soaked in a spirit, or specifically designed wooden contraptions designed to maximize contact with the liquid and impart flavor rapidly. Minnesota’s Black Swan cooperage, a family-owned operation, offers a patent-pending “Honey Comb Barrel Alternative” (pictured) in nine different wood “flavors.” Sassafras, for example, will imbue your brew with notes of vanilla, mint, sage and root beer.

Wood use in beer isn’t always for flavor, though. Budweiser’s famed beechwood aging process imparts zero flavor, and they boil the wood specifically to ensure it’s as sterile as possible. Why use beechwood at all then? It helps create more surface area, which keeps the yeast active and working as quickly and efficiently as possible. The use of beechwood for this purpose was a common practice in the 19th century, and while it’s no longer technically necessary, it is tradition (and a nice marketing tactic).

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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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