Barrel Breakdown: Meet Your Cooper

Don’t be surprised if you hear bagpipes when you first arrive to Rolling Thunder Barrel Works just outside of Newport, Oregon. It’s one of the unexpected music genres the two-man crew inside jams to each day while coopering — the ancient art of barrel building. “It’s a craft that’s existed for millennia and we are lucky to be part of the tradition,” says Jake Holshue, head distiller for Rogue Ales & Spirits.

At this oceanfront cooperage, barrels are built by hand one stave at a time. First comes “mise en rose,” or raising the skirt. In one corner of the warehouse, cooper Nate Lindquist illustrates this by steadily piecing staves on the inside of a metal hoop. Each stave is hand-numbered just in case he ever needs to reassemble the barrel. Then he pounds two hoops using a cooper hammer over one end of the barrel.

The next task brings on the alluring aromatics of a campfire. Travis Bates, the second cooper, has been working on a barrel all morning that’s ready for toasting. Bates starts the fire in a metal bucket called a cresset using leftover oak scraps, then places the skirt over the small fire to toast the inside. “This caramelizes the wood sugars to bring out all those beautiful flavors,” he explains.

The toast level spans a four-point scale (light, medium, medium-plus, heavy) and corresponds to the length of time the barrel is toasted and how long it spends at the maximum toasting temperature. It’s paramount in the barrel process because the toast level significantly influences flavor characteristics of the liquid the barrel holds. The most common level of toasting for wine and beer is medium, but the preference varies widely for each person and vintage.

Lindquist and Bates have been making barrels since 2014, when Rogue Ales & Spirits decided to further embrace its extensive DIY ethos and sent the two employees to apprentice at Oregon Barrel Works with Rick DeFerrari in McMinnville, Oregon. These two craft-driven businesses comprise the only cooperages in the Pacific Northwest, keeping alive an ancient craft that’s like art in motion.

While the barrel makers at Rolling Thunder are in-house coopers for Rogue, DeFerrari and his crew make and repair barrels for winemakers and distillers across the Northwest. DeFerrari discovered his passion for the trade after alternating between part-time forestry work in Alaska, and working multiple harvests for Oregon wineries. After a few years in France, training under craftsmen at the Francois Freres cooperage in Burgundy, he moved back to Oregon and launched his business in 1993.

On average, Oregon Barrel Works crafts 800 custom barrels a year. “And each one is unique,” says DeFerrari. Not only do the barrels differ based on the type and terroir of the oak, size and toast levels, age and grain, but small processes shift with the seasons due to elements like temperature and humidity. “It’s kind of like baking bread — you can’t do it the same way all year long because of the variables.”

For both cooperages, oak is the wood of choice, in part because it has a tighter grain and holds liquid well. At Oregon Barrel Works, barrels are made using American oak (Quercus alba), French oak (Quercus robur) and Oregon oak (Quercus garryana). DeFerrari offers French oak from six different notable regions including the forests of Vosges and Bertranges. Each oak offers distinct (and desirable) qualities in aromatic character, and in turn, imparts those virtues to the beverage it preserves and matures.

Into the Barrel: Fermented Fruit

“There’s a romance to having barrels around,” says DeFerrari. But they also play an essential role in shaping the character, color and body of wine or cider. Foremost, because they are wood, barrels allow the introduction of oxygen to the maturing beverage in a slow manner. Oak also adds aroma compounds to a wine or cider and, depending on the type of wood, these oak lactones can have aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke or coconut.

“Barrels help build a better wine,” DeFerrari adds. “A more interesting wine.”

And there are infinite possibilities for a winemaker to consider with their barrel program. When DeFerrari works with a winemaker, part of his role as a cooper is to help them achieve what they want their wine to express each vintage. Throughout the year, he visits vineyard sites, experiments with toast levels and serves as a guide on the type of oak to use — from provenance to how long the wood has been air-dried.

In 2006 Oregon Barrel Works produced its first Oregon-grown oak barrel, and is currently the only cooper in the U.S. crafting Oregon oak for wine production. Evan and Sarah Martin of Willamette Valley’s Garryana, started working with DeFerrari in 2014, when the couple decided to use Oregon oak barrels exclusively. “We want to produce wines with the greatest sense of place possible,” says Evan Martin, and he feels using oak indigenous to Oregon is one way to pursue that goal.

For the past two years, the couple has been cutting staves from old oaks felled naturally by winter storms just steps away from their new winery in the foothills of the Coast Range. Last year, Martin had a new Oregon oak barrel built from three-year air-dried staves. “I asked Rick to experiment with a low-temperature, long-time toast,” he says. “I wanted to minimize the toasty aromatic impact generated by high temperature toasting, and maximize the softening of tannin as deep into the wood as possible.”

DeFerrari had the barrel toasting over embers for more than eight hours. “The results are fantastic — the Pinot Noir aging in this barrel is developing wonderfully, giving focus and tension to the wine on the mid-palate and delicately integrating aromas of fruit and wood spice,” says Martin. It’s one example of the collaborative effort that develops between winemaker and cooper.

Over the years, DeFerrari has seen a piqued interest in Oregon oak. For many, it’s an exciting opportunity to experiment; Quercus garryana was only recently pioneered in the Willamette Valley, and there is still much to discover. And with the Pacific Northwest’s local ethos, there’s a strong interest in sustainably sourced Oregon oak. He sources most of the native wood from non-industrial private landowners in the Willamette Valley, often located within a 100-mile radius of McMinnville.

At 2 Towns Ciderhouse, head cidermaker Dave Takush uses Oregon oak barrels to age the Bad Apple, an imperial hard cider that’s fermented with local meadowfoam honey. “Barrel aging is tons of fun, and we couldn’t wait to get started,” he says. With a background in wine and beer, Takush was familiar with the art of barrel aging and created a program for the Corvallis-based cidery in 2011.

“Just like wine, not all ciders are meant to be barrel-aged,” he says, noting two reasons he chooses to age a cider in oak. The first is to mellow or round out the tannins — this applies to ciders made with high tannin, high acid apples like bittersweets and bittersharps. “It’s the exact reason why many red wines must be barrel-aged, the slow oxygen ingress through the barrels mellows the tannins and you get a softer mouthfeel.”

The second reason Takush barrel ages cider is for the flavor profile and complexity it adds, like the roundness, structure and character he finds in the 2014 Traditions Afton Field, aged in former Chardonnay barrels for over a year.

For the Nice & Naughty, a seasonal spiced cider, Takush ages the blend with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in a former bourbon barrel for about six months. “You get a ton of sweet bourbon notes and caramel character out of it,” he adds.

In 2016, 2 Towns Ciderhouse launched a barrel aged vintage cider line called Traditions. Part of that collection is La Mûre, a sour blackberry cider (inspired by Belgian-style sour Lambic beer) that’s aged in Pinot Noir barrels with lactobacillus for over a year. That’s the third reason Takush is drawn to barrels: They are the perfect vessel for bacterial and wild yeast ferments. “Barrel aging is a great blend of art and science and often leads to creating some really cool beverages,” he says.

Into the Barrel: Grain

Back at Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, Rogue distiller Holshue walks from the cooperage to the adjacent Ocean Aging Room, a cavernous space with barrels stacked from floor to ceiling.

“Although there is a traditional sense of putting barrels on a ship and sailing them all over the world, we are lucky enough to be within a stone’s throw not only of the Pacific Ocean but the Yaquina Bay as well,” he says. “Which means we have a very high salinity rate in our air and that helps mature our whisky in a unique way.”

Part of the appeal of this coastal location is the extreme temperature fluctuation that happens from day to night. Because barrels are porous, they breathe in and out every single day — as temperatures rise, the whiskey expands into the wood. When temperatures drop, the liquor comes back out of the wood, each time adding more color and flavor.

Since 2012, Rogue has been distilling and maturing spirits, which makes it one of the oldest craft distilling houses in Oregon. Along the walls, Holshue points out barrels filled with longstanding top-sellers, like their Chipotle Whiskey made with jalapeño peppers grown on the producer’s Independence-based farm that are dried and smoked in-house over cherry and alder wood.

What’s new and inventive with Rogue’s program is not only the addition of the onsite cooperage, but the fearless experimentation with Oregon oak. Joining the ranks with Seattle’s Westland Distillery and its original foray into Oregon oak with the single malt Garryana whiskey, Rogue is in the works to release the first bourbon aged in Oregon oak.

In 2016, the brewery side of Rogue released its first-ever product aged in Oregon oak barrels made by the in-house cooperage, Rolling Thunder imperial stout. The process began in the distillery, where barrels were soaked with Dead Guy whiskey, then aged for a year. Next, eight different types of grains were brewed with hops, brown sugar, sweet dark cherries, vanilla and chocolate. The resulting brew was aged for six months in the whisky-soaked barrels, and then bottle conditioned before release. The rich, complex beer is packed with layers of chocolate, vanilla and of course, a kiss of whiskey.

After a tour, it’s clear the cooperage is pure passion, a commitment to artistry and a promise to keep a primal tradition alive. When asked if there are plans to expand beyond Rogue, Holshue shakes his head: “There’s a sense of beauty to what happens over here and once you get to a certain volume that tends to get lost.”

 Not Just for Bourbon

Barrel-Aged Products from the Pacific Northwest  

TEA » Steven Smith Teamaker » For the past few years, head tea master Tony Tellin has been creating limited edition barrel-scented teas. The process begins with Tellin selecting single origin varietals of tea to place in former liquor barrels. In 2016, the vintage included Wuyi Whiskey, a full leaf black tea smoked with pine needles, then scented in a Westward Whiskey Barrel, and Yaupon Brandy, scented in an apple brandy barrel from Stone Barn Brandyworks.   

COFFEE » Water Avenue Coffee » Since 2013, Brandon Smyth, co-owner of Water Avenue Coffee, has been experimenting with barrel aging coffee beans. On the menu now is a Pinot Noir Barrel Aged El Salvador, which takes coffee beans from the Menendez family farm and ages them for two weeks in former Pinot Noir barrels from Oregon’s Sokol Blosser Winery.

MAPLE SYRUP » Woodinville Whiskey Co. » Stock your pantry with this barrel-aged maple syrup that has a cult-like following. Here’s the scoop: After Woodinville Whiskey Co. empties their bourbon and rye whiskey barrels they refill them with pure, grade-A, dark amber maple syrup, then let the oak barrels work their magic.     

Sip Northwest | Summer 2017