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A Revolution In Fire, Wood and Spirits

At Rogue’s Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, the 2,000 Year Old Art Of Hand Crafted Coopering is Burning Hot.


Chances are, you’ve never met a real cooper. (Sorry, but your friend Cooper doesn’t count.)

So let’s take care of that now. We’d like to introduce you to Nate, the cooper at Rolling Thunder Barrel Works in Newport, Oregon.

Nate is one of the few true practitioners of the barrel making arts. These days, most oak barrels in the United States are made in factories. But coopers like Nate, who can hand craft a whole barrel from start to finish? They number in the dozens.

With Nate as our guide, here’s how some funny shaped pieces of Oregon White Oak become barrels for aging Rogue Ales and Spirits.

Assembling the Staves and Raising Skirts

Staves are the pieces of wood that give a barrel it’s round, bulging shape. Since each Rolling Thunder Barrel is unique, Nate numbers the staves. That way, if he ever needs to take the barrel apart he knows how to put it back together.

The practice of numbering staves dates back to the days of the Roman Empire.
The practice of numbering staves dates back to the days of the Roman Empire.
Assembling the staves, the first step in barrel making.
Assembling the staves, the first step in barrel making.

When all the staves are put together and hooped at one end, the barrel is called a skirt. The French call this part of coopering, mise en rose, or raising the skirt.

Skirts.
Skirts.

Toasting and Charring

These two steps may be the most important part of coopering. Barrel aged spirits such as whiskey, get two-thirds of their flavor and most of their color from the wood of the barrel.

Toasting. The fires are started in small metal buckets called cressets.
Toasting. The fires are started in small metal buckets called cressets.

Nate places the skirts over small fires to toast the insides. Toasting caramelizes the wood sugars and brings out the flavors. The level of toast varies depending on what flavors we want to emphasize during aging.

Charring is more intense. Nate lights the barrel on fire with a blowtorch and lets it burn for about 45 seconds.

Charring is one of the most dramatic parts of coopering. Old timers called it, “45 seconds of hell.”
Charring is one of the most dramatic parts of coopering. Old timers called it, “45 seconds of hell.”
Seconds later, the flames are leaping several feet into the air.
Seconds later, the flames are leaping several feet into the air.

Knowing when to stop is critical. Nate slowly counts down the seconds (not always to 45) and when the char smells right to him, he puts out the fire.

Nate dampens the flames with water and closes the top with a piece of wood.
Nate dampens the flames with water and closes the top with a piece of wood.

Just as toasting adds flavor, charring gives a barrel aged spirits color and that familiar smoky taste. The char also filters out unwanted flavors and impurities.

Hooping

The metal rings that hold the staves together are called hoops. The length depends on what part of the barrel it’s designed to fit. Hoops that slip over the middle are longer than ones on the end.

Nate hoops the barrels twice. The first time to bend the wood while it’s toasting, the second time to hold the heads in place.

Nate pounds the hoops into place with a cooper’s hammer and a driving iron.
Nate pounds the hoops into place with a cooper’s hammer and a driving iron.

Getting A Head

For our coopering ancestors, this was the most difficult piece of the barrel making puzzle. Without heads on both ends, a barrel won’t hold water, beer, spirits or pretty much anything else.

It wasn’t until around 350BC that the Celts of Central Europe figured it out. This was the Iron Age and humans finally had tools that were sharp enough and precise enough to make the cuts that allowed them to put heads on barrels.

This was their breakthrough, a groove cut into the ends of barrels to hold the heads in place. It’s called a croze.

The strange contraption Nate is operating is called a crozer, it cuts the grooves that will hold the barrel heads in place.
The strange contraption Nate is operating is called a crozer, it cuts the grooves that will hold the barrel heads in place.
Nate measuring a croze. He’s got to match the shape of the heads perfectly to the croze or the barrel will leak.
Nate measuring a croze. He’s got to match the shape of the heads perfectly to the croze or the barrel will leak.

The croze allows the cooper to loosen one end of the barrel, slip in a round piece of wood called the head, and hoop everything back together. Precision is critical. The head and the croze must fit perfectly or the barrel will leak.

After shaping the head with a rounding saw, Nate double checks his work.
After shaping the head with a rounding saw, Nate double checks his work.

The Bunghole

Yes kids, bunghole is a legitimate word in the cooper’s vocabulary. It’s the hole where spirits and beer are poured into the barrel.

Nate drills the hole in the widest stave. Now comes the fun part, sealing the wood around the bunghole with a tool called the bunghole cauterizer.

Feeling squeamish yet?

Nate heats up the cauterizer with the blow torch.
Nate heats up the cauterizer with the blow torch.
And shoves it into the bunghole, creating a waterproof seal in the wood surrounding the hole.
And shoves it into the bunghole, creating a waterproof seal in the wood surrounding the hole.

After some sanding and other finishing touches, he’s done and another Rolling Thunder Barrel heads off to our ocean aging room to age one of our Rogue Ales and Spirits in the salty air of Yaquina Bay.

Nate hand crafts one barrel per day. A barrel factory out east can churn out hundreds of barrels in one shift. With the odds so clearly stacked against us, why do we bother making our own using these old fashioned techniques?

The answers are DIY and terroir.

Do It Yourself

DIY is at the heart of the Rogue Revolution. It’s why we grow our own ingredients at Rogue Farms in Independence and Tygh Valley, Oregon. It’s why we floor malt our barley and rye in small artisan batches at the Farmstead Malt House, and why we bought a used coffee roaster to roast our own malts.

Doing it yourself means we really know what’s going into our beers and spirits. We have an emotional connection to what we grow, and how our crops are crafted into ingredients.

The hop harvest at Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon.
The hop harvest at Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon.
Flipping our floor malt by hand at the Farmstead Malt House in Tygh Valley, Oregon.
Flipping our floor malt by hand at the Farmstead Malt House in Tygh Valley, Oregon.
Rogue Brewmaster John Maier roasts his own malts at the Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon.
Rogue Brewmaster John Maier roasts his own malts at the Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon.

Rolling Thunder Barrel Works is the newest phase of the DIY Revolution and our dedication to reviving heritage, hands-on, artisan ways of making beer and spirits.

Terroir: Wood Is Also An Ingredient

Remember what we said about where barrel aged spirits get their flavor?

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Wood is as much of an ingredient as anything we put in our beers and spirits. So it was important to us that the wood in our barrels share the same terroir as our other ingredients.

That’s why we craft our barrels with Oregon White Oak harvested from the Coast Range, just an hour or so from our Brewery and Distillery in Newport. Rolling Thunder Barrels share the same Oregon terroir as our water, barley, hops and other Rogue Farms crops.

At Rogue Ales and Spirits, we’re dedicated to saving the terroir of Oregon hops, barley, beer and spirits — one acre and one barrel at a time.

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Join Rogue Ales & Spirits at the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference in Tampa this July to learn even more about Rolling Thunder.

Do you want to see the Grow Your Own Barrel Revolution for yourself? Rolling Thunder Barrel Works is open daily for tours. For more information visit us at Rogue.com.

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