The Art of Barrel Making
There are fewer than 50 master coopers in the entire United States. These men and women are highly skilled in the time-honored craft of barrel-making, having honed their trade through years of back-breaking labor at “the block,” as coopers say. [ 1 ]
Wineries and distillers are increasingly investing in the cooperage process as barrels are an essential component of product style. After being co-owner since 2000, in 2015 Silver Oak became the first American winery to own its own cooperage when it fully acquired The Oak in Higbee, Missouri. Having complete control of the production process guarantees Silver Oak a consistent and high-quality supply of American oak barrels.
Building a Silver Oak Barrel
Parts of a Barrel
- Hoops: Metal rings which surround the barrel and are attached with rivets.
- Head: The two flat ends of a barrel, typically stamped with a cooperage’s logo. American oak barrel heads are typically toasted, vs. French oak barrel heads which are not.
- Bilge: The widest part of a barrel.
- Stave: One of the wooden strips that are used to make a barrel.
- Bung Hole: The small opening in a barrel, usually closed with a stopper, that allows for sampling of the wine as well as moving wine from barrel to barrel (also known as racking).
Step 1: Set Up
The master cooper selects the optimal staves for a Silver Oak barrel. He inspects the grain, sap flow marks, knots, worm holes and even the pattern in the grain. Every barrel has 32 staves carefully arranged in a specific pattern. The set-up is a puzzle as each stave varies slightly in width and a barrel cannot have any gaps.
Step 2: Bending
To bend the staves into the barrel shape without cracking the wood, each barrel is warmed over an open fire. Once the outside of the barrel reaches 300˚F, temporary hoops are placed on the barrel by a hydraulic machine to force the barrel into shape.
Step 3: Toasting
The newly shaped barrel returns to the fire for toasting. It takes approximately 40 minutes to obtain the medium light toasting preferred for Silver Oak barrels. Toasting crystalizes natural sugars in the wood, releasing aromas of freshly baked bread and roasted marshmallows. The freshly toasted barrels go through another round of quality control after which the barrel is capped with round barrel heads.
Step 4: Hooping
The temporary hoops that had been applied to the ends of the barrel during bending are removed and replaced with two new, clean and permanent galvanized steel hoops on each end. Temporary hoops around the belly of the barrel are removed, but before new hoops are secured, the outside of the barrel is sanded down, creating a pristine and smooth finish. After sanding, the final hoops are hammered and nailed on.
Step 5: The Final Touches
Each finished barrel is iron-branded with The Oak Cooperage logo and sanded one last time to remove any final scuff marks before being shipped to Silver Oak.
Wine and Whiskey Barrel Sizes
Cooperages offer a wide selection of barrel sizes. The larger the barrel, the more subtle the flavor and aroma influence on the final wine or spirit.
30 gallons/113 liters,
53 gallons/200 liters
59 gallons/225 liters,
60 gallons/228 liters
70 gallons/265 liters
Master Cooper, The Oak Cooperage
Q: What does a master cooper do?
A master cooper takes unprocessed wood and makes a barrel – also called a cast – with unmechanized tools. At The Oak the master cooper oversees the whole barrel crafting process, from prepping the wood and setting the staves, to bending and toasting the wood, all the way to the final sanding. I love making barrels and take great pride in the work we do at The Oak.
Q: How did you become a master cooper?
Master coopers – there are fewer than 50 in the US – apprentice at a cooperage for at least four years. I started out 16 years ago prepping wood. I went from prep work to making and installing barrel heads, to setting and raising the barrels. You learn step-by-step each phase of making a barrel.
Q: Where do you source the wood for The Oak’s barrels?
We buy wood from suppliers here in Missouri. Missouri white oak has the perfect blend of tannins, acid and glucose. A tree’s region has a huge impact on wine. The soil in which a tree grows influences the tree’s structure, how fast or slow it grows, and the amount of sugars and flavors, like vanilla, that come into contact with the wine.
Danny Orton of the Oak Cooperage is one of fewer than 50 master coopers in the United States
Q: How do you and the winemaking team at Silver Oak work together?
We work closely together throughout the process, from the aging of the wood to the toasting of the barrels. Right now we’re in the process of doing barrel trials with different seasoning lengths (that’s the length of the time the staves age outside before being made into barrels) and toast levels. Just as the Duncans, owners of Silver Oak say, “we have yet to make our best bottle of wine,” at The Oak we have yet to make our best barrel.
In addition to making wine barrels, we also make a small supply of barrels for the whiskey industry.
Q: What is the future of barrel making?
I believe there is much more to learn about barrel making – regional oak variations, toasting levels, innovative craftsmanship. And it’s my personal opinion that we won’t find an alternative for the oak barrel. Barrels provide structure, tannins and stability while exposing wine to a controlled amount of oxygen. It’s a beautiful marriage between wine and oak.
About the Oak Cooperage
Located in Higbee, Missouri, The Oak Cooperage (formerly known as A&K) produces handcrafted, American oak barrels for the wine, whiskey and bourbon industries since 1972.