All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 5
November 1, 2012 By

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.

As a student of brewing and fermentation, I had already digested much of this information about oak growth and usage. But I had never seen the coopering process in action. And so it was that some friends and I boarded a flight to Scotland with the express purpose of visiting the Speyside Cooperage. We tagged along with James Watt, co-owner of the Scottish brewery BrewDog, for the express purpose of visiting one of the largest barrel coopering facilities in the world. Our tour guide was Ronnie, who had been employed with the cooperage for more than 30 years. He spoke with a very thick brogue.

Our first stop involved examining staves from barrels shipped from bourbon producers in Kentucky. We all nodded our heads appreciatively as Ronnie described the process of acquiring American oak barrels and shipping them to Scotland. “Aye,” he said, as I commented we knew the bulk of single-malt whisky now slumbers away in discarded bourbon barrels.

Ronnie pulled open a door revealing the workshop where a crew of master coopers and apprentices were dutifully laboring. Given my research, I half expected to open the door and find seven gray-bearded old dwarves hammering away in unison belting out a “Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go” sort of song. But what I found were workmen in aprons noisily hammering away and using all sorts of strange-looking manual tools practicing Old World handcrafted methods of making barrels without the use of any adhesives.

The pace of the workers is what stuck with me the most. As American craft brewers, we’re used to working fast with a sense of purpose as if we’re being chased—in a time-is-money sort of way. But the coopers work methodically, as a leaky barrel is no friend of theirs. Each cooper churns out only 8-10 barrels per day.

Our tour continued with Ronnie shuffling his feet as we headed out to the barrel yard. It looked to me as if he was checking the dirt to see if it might rain. Thing is, it always rains in Scotland. No one seems to, including the sheep. Certainly the stacks of barrels in the storage yard showed no concern for threatening skies.

Ronnie closed the door to the workshop behind us. We were now staring at some 500,000 empty oak barrels in the Speyside Cooperage yard. Many of them were stacked on top of each others’ sides seemingly reaching to the heavens like the Great Pyramids of Giza. We continued to follow Ronnie as he led us around to discuss the different lots and provenance of the barrels for sale. We got a really good laugh at nodding our heads while nosing the inside of whisky barrels, each taking a turn exclaiming “Aye.” I wondered whether exclaiming “Aye” was the first thing taught to an apprentice cooper.

The tour ended as we headed off to a distillery. In the car ride, it became apparent to us that we were being guided around by a man who clearly spoke English, but the only word many of us understood was, “Aye .” He might as well have been speaking Mandarin because none of us could figure out what he was saying. But Ronnie was passionate about good wood and whisky, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

Seated at the distillery and reminiscing about the tour of over a whisky that slumbered in a barrel for 15 years, I realized these people embrace the slow pace that is a cooper’s life. Every day, they punch the clock and head to their stations, where they will work all day hammering hoops and assembling barrels.

There are barrel-making facilities in far-reaching corners of the globe. Each of them specializes in the very peculiar art of transforming planks of oak into round wooden barrels for aging precious liquids. And while there are many coopers working at each of these facilities, you get the sense that they could very easily be sent to any other operation in the world and continue their trade with no need of assistance. In this way, handcrafted is still very much a meaningful term in their world.