Into the barrel-making world of Oak Cooperage

By Lauren Casey

HIGBEE, Mo.— Higbee fits most traditional expectations of a small mid-Missouri rural town, with flat farm land stretching out of view and, according to the 2013 US census, a population hovering around 560 for the past seven years. If you are unfamiliar with Higbee, there is little reason to know about the gem that sits on Highway A, just north of town. It is the best kind of find, one that you smell before you see, like great barbecue joints or a wood fired pizzeria, Oak Cooperage and their white American oak barrel operation perfumes the air of Higbee with scents of toasted marshmallows and still-too-hot-to-touch, just out of the oven, bread.

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Oak Cooperage inspiration near the wood pallets. Photo by Lauren Casey

The Oak Cooperage, formerly known as A&K, has been producing artisan American oak barrels for wine, bourbon and whiskey dating back to 1972. In 2015, the cooperage was sold to Silver Oak, a California ­winery and leading producer of the beloved Cabernet Sauvignon – a grape varietal that plays well with oak flavor notes.

Jack Zike, one of less than an estimated 50 master coopers in the world, has been a contributing member of the cooperage team for 26 years. When conducting tours, Zike walks visitors through the five stages of barrel making: setting up the barrels, bending the staves, toasting the oak, hooping the barrels and perfecting the finish.

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Master Cooper Jack Zike explains stave selection and barrel sealing techniques to MU food writers at the Oak Cooperage, Higbee, Mo. Photo by Lauren Casey

Preparing the wood to make the barrels consumes the most time—two years-plus at Oak Cooperage. The Cooperage mostly sources its oak from Missouri, but some is harvested in Iowa and Illinois, Zike said. It takes 80 years for an American oak tree to be large enough to be used to make barrel staves, and each tree generates between two and four barrels, Zike said. Once cut, the oak is then aged or “seasoned,” outside for two years, then placed in a drying room for 14 days. The process makes it possible for flavors drawn from the oak to subtly integrate into wine and ensures the wood’s proper moisture content of 12-14 percent.

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Master Cooper Danny Orton picking the staves. Photo by Lauren Casey

After the staves have been cut from the aged wood, the master cooper’s work begins with assembling the barrel from the different sized staves. Danny Orton, another master cooper, carefully hand selects the 32 staves for each barrel. All staves are not created equal, and double checking quality and placement is key to creating an optimal barrel.

On this particular tour, John Stricker, another cooper, was both hooping and toasting the barrels – a process that appeared to go seamlessly hand in hand. Maneuvering the 125 pound barrels between four separate fires and two large machines seemed like art or dance. Once the external temperature of the barrel registered 300 degrees F, they were ready to be hooped, topped with the caps and checked for leaks.

At the last stop in coopering, the barrel imperfections are perfected. Each barrel is hand sanded to ensure Silver Oak level aesthetics are achieved. After a laser brands the barrel tops, the finished products are stored in the warehouse until exactly 276 properly aged and dried barrels are ready to go– the perfect fit in for a California-bound freight truck.

The process is spectacular to witness: small-town men and women in rural Missouri creating beautiful artisan products for high dollar wine makers out west, whose 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet retails for $125 per bottle. If you are ever in the area, or even if you are just really excited about wine, call for a visit the incredibly talented and friendly staff over at the Oak Cooperage. Your mind and nose will thank you for it. The Cooperage will take visits by reservation only at 660-456-7227.

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Filed under Coopering, Science ad Agricultual Journalism, wine

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