Today, we live in an automated society with debit cards, movies on demand and smart phones bringing things instantly to our fingertips. Everywhere we turn, automation has made our work less manual and more efficient. Today, fewer things are truly handcrafted than ever before.
Craft brewing has traditionally been best served by artisans who adopted a handcrafted mantra to separate themselves from megabreweries. Yet many craft brewers are now cranking out beer on systems that look as if they are being guided by the ground crew from NASA’s Mission Control. Specialized mechanization and machines have relegated handcrafted to the click of a mouse as computers are handling more than ever before.
Automation has created fewer opportunities for tradesmen to learn from a master anymore. Where once it was common for the unskilled to be apprentices before joining the work force, the term now rarely comes up in conversation unless, of course, you’re talking about reality TV show involving Donald Trump. Thing is, it used to be that to learn skills in life, you had to spend years working as an apprentice to become a true craftsman.
I’ve been lucky enough to apprentice several skills since my youth, culminating most recently in the art and science of brewing. I’m certain my first apprenticeship began some 30 years ago when Prometheus (my father) let me build—then ignite—the family campfire for the very first time. This was the first of many different father-son apprenticeships I would spend under his tutelage.
That summer, I mastered the art of splitting oak logs into kindling. We then perfected crinkling newspaper before moving on to thermal engineering and the structural design of making a teepee out of small splintered logs. As summer came to close, I was allowed to strike my first match to the edifice I had erected, thus ending my campfire-building apprenticeship. We celebrated by making s’mores.
As a lover of amazing spirited liquids, I have come to respect the mighty oak. While not quite as regal as the majestic redwood, the mighty oak is truly one bad-ass and versatile tree. From the humble smoking pits of Austin, TX, to the cellars of Bordeaux, oak remains the portal to our pre-Industrial Revolution woodworking past. It also connects us to a skilled labor force known as coopers who remain the stewards of an Old World tradition of bending oak staves into liquid-tight barrels.
Amazingly there are more than 500 species of oak in the world, yet barrel builders typically rely on only three species for building wine and spirit barrels. Yet, in spite of the automation creep into industries all around the world, the use of oak for barrel production, aging of spirits and storage remains a patient slog.
The mighty oak is a slow-growing tree and exists as the preferred material for barrel making, since it is a pure wood free from resins. American oak species grow at a rate about double that of French counterparts. Sourced trees must reach at least 50-80 feet before being harvested. This growth takes at least 50 years. Some of the most prized French oak trees can take between 80 and 150 years to become harvestable.
Once suitable trees have been located, they are cut down and sent for processing. Typically only the base of the tree below the first limb offshoots is suitable for barrel production. Each tree yields enough oak to make only one or two 59-gallon barrels.
After the logs are broken down into pieces called staves, they are sent out to an outdoor maturation area where they will “silver” in the elements for two years. This process breaks down many of the harsher tannins, making the staves better suited for aging precious liquids. The process of sourcing suitable wood is a slow one. It’s just not the sort of wood you select from the lumber yard.