Keeping a Cooperage Alive
By Jake Lewis
It is difficult to look around a craft beer bar or bottle shop and not see at least one barrel-aged beer of some kind. Often times, it’s these beers that command the highest prices and the most attention from craft beer drinkers. It’s fascinating how the craft beer industry flocks to experiment with pouring their brews into these vessels—new, used, and even just using pieces of them.
The Hobbs family purchased The Barrel Mill cooperage in Avon, Minnesota in 2004 as a curiosity. Having been in the lumber business for over 90 years, they put that knowledge in to the manufacturing of their barrels at the Barrel Mill. Business wasn’t always booming though. The purchase of the business arose because the original owner went out of business. Richard Hobbs joined his father at he cooperage after their purchase of the company and is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “We started off doing just $300 thousand in sales and losing our ass and thought that maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” says Hobbs. “We made a lot of changes and this year we’ll do like $4 million.“
Many of those changes focused on creating a force that would drive sales. Now, the business focuses on three main areas of products. Whiskey and wine barrels, infusion spirals, and point of purchase marketing displays. The whiskey and wine barrels are traditionally produced, though not traditionally sized. Since the Barrel Mill produces such a variety of products, they’ve chosen to leave the traditional wine barrels, 52 gallons and 59 gallons, to the coopers that make only those products. Instead, they focus on producing 30 gallon barrels or smaller, which in turn has given them the business of some craft distillers and less tradition-following alcohol producers.
Among purists in the wine and spirits business, the smaller barrels are frowned upon. For small producers, it is important to be able to turn product much more quickly, and smaller vessels or even ‘oak alternatives’ make the use of oak much more reasonable. It will forever be a hot topic, but the fact of the matter is that these small barrels make it possible for hobbyists, homebrewers, and start-ups to have oak character in their products, because size does matter.
Smaller vessels accelerate the oaking process through increasing the ratio of wood to liquid contact. This causes the aging process to accelerate, making a product that could traditionally take 5 years to make be ready in 75 percent less time. There are some regulations involved in parts of the alcohol industry preventing this, but it’s still a practice among artisanal producers.
The Barrel Mill’s previous owner invented what many brewers are most familiar with when it comes to an oak treatment. Infusion spirals. The Hobbs’ patented the Infusion Spiral, and it has become a major part of their business. These spirals have a unique spiral cut design that increases surface area in contact with the liquid, speeding the affect of the oak. The spirals are frequently used by the wine and beer industries, where they are put into neutral barrels (barrels that have been used for more than three years), or stainless steel tanks, providing the same characteristics as a full-size barrel.
Additionally, the Barrel Mill makes point of purchase marketing displays—the whiskey barrels, or tiny barrels with the name of a tequila on them at bars. “If you ever see anything in a bar… that is something made out of wood, there’s a good chance that we made it,” says Hobbs. Display barrels are very prominent among some major producers. The Barrel Mill has even just invested in a laser engraver that burns labels onto the barrels. If you do ever get your hands on one, I wouldn’t fill it with your homebrewed Russian Imperial Stout though, because they’re made of pine instead of oak.
All of the Barrel Mill’s products that are designed for production are French and American white oak. They also choose to use only oak that is good enough for wine barrels, leaving the whiskey grade out of the mix. Whiskey grade wood tends to be less fine grained, and can be knotty, which can create a less than fine product. Barrels and Infusion Spirals come in a variety of toast levels, creating a variety of flavor characteristics.
The technique for making a barrel is more of an art and has gone nearly unchanged for centuries. Even the machinery that the Barrel Mill uses would make for some nasty medieval torture equipment. The staves are picked by hand to fit snugly inside a metal hoop that acts as a guide. Larger hoops are then forced over the wood compressing the staves together. Halfway through the process, the barrel is placed over a fire. This is where the barrel is toasted. A lighter toast creates lighter flavors, and a heavier toast is much more aggressive. The barrel is then finished off with a few more hoops, and a head (the top and bottom of the barrel), and filled with water to check for leaks. After it is deemed a good seal, the barrel gets a sanding to enhance the workmanship.
There is also the option of charring a barrel. At the Barrel Mill, a fire is started in a nearly complete barrel and compressed air is blasted into it. This causes the fire to burn incredibly hot and it actually sounds like a jet engine. It only takes a few seconds to char a barrel.
Pouring a wine, beer, or spirit into a barrel has a number of affects. Wood aging imparts additional flavor to wine and encourages natural clarification and stabilization. For spirits, it is crucial for the mellowing of the harshness of alcohol, as well as flavor and color. Brown spirits like bourbon or brandy would fail to exist without a wood treatment (not including those colored with caramel or chemicals). Craft breweries use oak barrels that were previously filled with spirits or wine to impart unique flavors to their beers. Oak barrels are crucial to sour beer programs, as the porous nature of the wood grain provide the perfect home for yeasts like Brettanomyces to live.
The affect oak has on our beverages is lasting and profound. The Barrel Mill has made its mark on the industry in Minnesota and the world through their marketing products, oak barrels, and Infusion Spirals. What started out as a hobby has been turned into a successful business that has kept the cooperage tradition alive in Avon.