Historically oak casks were a critical part of daily life. They stored everything from dry goods to liquid goods and were used extensively for shipping. Coopers were an important part of the community, and skilled craftsman who’s trade took years to perfect. Nowadays oak casks are no longer widely used, they are mostly for aging wine and spirits with a few cooperage houses or Tonnellieres still in operation. With less need for Coopers their skills are becoming a dying art form. At Crooked Stave oak barrels make up the focal point of our product and are very important in our process. I have had the fortune of being taught by Peter Bouckaert the Brewmaster of New Belgium and formerly from Rodenbach in Belgium a few of the techniques used by Coopers to keep oak barrels holding liquids and in good condition. I was able to purchase some of the tools needed for Cooperageing and make the rest.
Given the importance of the oak barrels in shaping the beer into the final product it’s important that barrels be well taken care of and the barrel staves on the inside be in good condition. Before filling each barrel we have been removing the heads through loosening the stave hoops and reconditioning the insides of the barrels. Since our oak barrels are used wine barrels there is often times lots of work to be done. Depending on the age of the barrel and how many times it was refilled with wine, there can be a thick layer of Potassium Bitartrate or wine crystals that have accumulated throughout the entire barrel. These wine crystals are scraped away with the use of a wood working knife as well as going over the entire insides with a steel wire brush. All this allows the pores of the wood to open back up and gives some character back to the barrel. The other important reason for taking the barrels apart is to remove blisters on the inner staves formed during the barrel making. Removing these limits the oxidation that could occur as well as giving acetic acid producing bacteria a place to hide as it’s not possible to clean/rinse with hot water behind the blisters. Once this is done the barrel heads are put back on, the hoops driven into place and the barrels rinsed multiple times with hot water and soaked before being tested to see if they hold pressure. After, they are left with the bung facing down to dry over night and beer transferred into to them the following day. It’s quite a process, but it’s worth knowing that the barrels are in the best condition they can possibly be and the beer will be aging in a good home!