The fine art of Coopers

For over 2,000 years barrels have been crafted to hold liquid gold of varying types. The science behind the construction is fascinating, but the craftsmanship is exceptional and has evolved since Rome ruled the western world. The Romans adopted the method of storing and transporting beer in wooden containers instead of amphorae from the Celts. The process has changed little over the course of two millennia, but the nuances have become more refined, adjusted not only for technological advancements but the expertise and preference of the master coopers constructing them.

Coopers are artists, and each one operates on known, standard practices, but that is where the similarities end. Some coopers prefer uniform size staves for example, while others prefer alternating widths. Like many of the arts, it comes down to the preferences of the master craftsmen, and their own specialized techniques. The starting point is always same- the selection of the wood, traditionally oak. The wood will be weathered (aged) in preparation, and then both steamed to enable bending of the staves for construction (mise en rose), and fired (toasted) to specifications determined by the brewery, winery, or distillery. The characteristics of the wood comes through the process and into the brew, making it the most crucial decision before the first cut is ever made, or the first stave planed. It ultimately constructs the flavor profile of the liquid in the barrel to varying degrees based upon toasting, and length of ageing in the barrel. Master coopers always choose wisely, as that is part of their craft.

An intriguing aspect is the natural water tight seal achieved in the process, without seals, adhesives or other artificial methods. Dowels are used, notably for the head, along with metal hoops to secure the staves, but really nothing else. It all boils down to the craft. This harkens back to the ancient technology of boat building. Ancient shipbuilders also followed a similar process in achieving near water tight construction, but unlike coopers they chose to slather bitumen (pitch, or what is commonly known as tar today) on the finished vessel to procure (and perhaps guarantee) a completely water tight seal. Even when the Romans instituted the Celtic invention of barrel making to store beer and wine, they did not adapt this new ‘bitumen less’ technology toward their seafaring vessels.

Many of the Maryland breweries prior to Prohibition had coopers on site crafting barrels for their touted brews from John Frederick Wiessner to National Brewing. 10,000,000 barrels were in service in United States breweries prior to Prohibition. The invention of steel kegs coincided with Repeal, and threatened coopers traditional role in American breweries. Fortunately it would be another few decades before metal would completely supplant wood. When breweries did decide to turn away from wooden barrels, coopers remained the premier option of wineries and distilleries. All was not lost for coopers and breweries however, as they have seen a much welcomed resurgence in recent decades, not as the primary container for transport, but instead as the vessel to age and enhance golden, malted libations. Although it seems unlikely that barrels would unseat modern metal kegs as the choice for delivery, they have been lauded for their craft, their history, and their contribution to the renaissance of cask ales in America.

All hail the return of coopers to the brewing industry, like Free State Cooperage of Maryland, demonstrating a tradition thousands of years strong, and only getting better and more in demand.
Sláinte!