In response to a question poised by S. on one of my previous posts about coopering beer barrels, I’m going to briefly talk about modern coopering. I am no means an expert on coopering, but for those that are interested, here we go!
Wooden beer barrels are rarely made today as they have been replaced by steel and aluminum barrels in most commercial breweries. The vast majority of wooden barrels are made for the wine and spirit industry. Wine and spirits rely on interaction with the charred staves of the barrel to obtain flavour. For beer, contact with the wood increases the chance of spoilage as it is more difficult to completely disinfect wood than steel or aluminum. Historically, many brewers lined their barrels with pitch (check out my post!), sterilized them with sulphur (another post on here) or knocked them down (took them apart) and thoroughly cleaned the staves between brews and reassembled the barrels in an attempt to eliminate bacteria. Due to the lack of modern production of wooden beer barrels we are actually brewing in wooden barrels designed for wine or spirits. Barrels made for brewing beer, have thicker staves, a more rounded appearance and stand up to internal pressure better than wine or spirit barrels. The thicker staves hold in the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting beer allowing it to dissolve back into the beer producing natural carbonation. Wine and spirit barrels do not need to hold pressure in, and their thinner walls allow it to escape. Today, coopering is a mixture of manual and mechanical work. Check out this film at BritishPathe for a historic view, and this film from Tonnellerie-Berger or this episode from the Canadian series How It’s Made for a more modern version. In terms of the tools used for modern coopering, they really have not changed substantially from historic tools. The advent of machinery has eliminated many of the more difficult manual aspects of the job, such as hooping and chiming, but even modern factories rely on the knowledge and ability of their employees to select the wood and align the staves correctly. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the tools in our cooperage and discuss their usage in making barrels.