Thousands of wooden barrels, both new and used, arrive and depart from the loading docks of Louisville, Kentucky’s Kelvin Cooperage each day.
Interested in the allied trade industries spurred by the craft brewing industry here in Iowa, I jumped at the chance over the weekend to tag along with Rex Stancil and Jason Mason of Rework Enterprises as they set off for Louisville, Kentucky to pick up a load of whiskey barrels.
A couple of years back, these gentlemen partnered to haul scrap, junk, and miscellany in an effort to stay busy with a second occupation, and re-purpose used goods. At some point, they acquired a pocketful of whiskey barrels and sold them for old-school lawn and gardening purposes. And then they discovered the craft beer market. Today, dealing largely on Craigslist, they’re increasingly focusing on barrels, IBC totes, and other items in this “container” family of product. Centrally located in Earlham, Iowa, they’ve engaged a number of Iowa brewers and are keen to up their game in the barrel brokering business.
Workers saw staves that will be crafted into 350 new barrels per day.
The timing seems right. A few years ago, a brewery or individual might have contacted a distillery directly for a small number of barrels. While that’s still possible with smaller craft distillers, acquiring barrels from the likes of Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and other larger distilleries now requires a middle man.
And so it was that I took a field trip to Kentucky on Sunday. Rex (a non-drinking pastor that grew up in a bar), Jason (a chemical mixer by day), and I departed for a quick over-nighter on Sunday. Our destination was Kelvin Cooperage, a family-run cooperage with Scottish roots.
During the process of charring the barrels, a worker feeds the fire with scraps of lumber.
Ed McLaughlin started out on the banks of the Kelvin River in Glasgow in 1963. His eldest son Kevin brought the operation to Kentucky to take advantage of the proximity to both bourbon country and a hearty supply of white American oak. Kevin started the modest United States facility in 1991 with six employees, and today, he and his brother Paul employ over 60 individuals at a facility that produces 350 barrels per day.
In addition to new barrel production, Kelvin trades in used barrels by the semi load. Kevin’s warehouse held some twelve thousand used barrels on the day I visited, but has maxed out at over a hundred and fifty thousand.
A cooper bangs rings into place.
Brokers like Rex and Jason travel from around the country to pick up loads of wet barrels to serve brewers’ needs. We arrived shortly before 9 a.m. on a Monday morning to watch a vast loading dock steadily fill with wooden barrels from a number of sources. Damaged barrels were rolled inside for pressure testing and any necessary repairs, while those in good shape would soon depart on a trailer like ours. Kevin’s hardworking army sorted through their vast inventory to fulfill our needs for barrels from Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Buffalo Trace.
Shorty pressure tests a used barrel as Kevin explains the process to barrel brokers Rex and Jason.
Meanwhile, Kevin showed me the coopering operation, an impressive hive of activity. “The beer business has been good for us,” said Kevin. “It really keeps the barrels moving.”
Dozens of coopers did everything from sawing staves and shaping barrels to drilling bung holes and charring the insides of the nearly-completed products. It was loud, dangerous, hot, and physical work. With the smell of burning oak in the air, it was a fairly chaotic ballet, beautiful to behold. For a beer nerd, the visage was a priceless experience.
While Kelvin Cooperage produces 350 new barrels per day, it also moves thousands and thousands of used wine and whiskey barrels.
Out on the dock, there was a price involved. The days of the five-dollar used barrel that Kevin recalls early in his career are long gone, and thousands of dollars changed hands on the dock today (probably over and over). And more transactions will proceed as these barrels work their way through their next incarnation or two.
With our trailer grimacing under its burden, we took our leave and trekked westward toward home and the breweries of Iowa and surrounding states. There, those barrels will take on another life, re-working one beer into another. Perhaps the barrels will serve more than one turn in that capacity before rising, phoenix-like, for another purpose altogether. Maybe they’ll become a table or sign or chair or speaker cabinet. Or perhaps they’ll serve as (a very expensive) petunia planter with a rich history earned on a long and winding road like the one I traveled to see the freshies being crafted at their source.
Jason helps to load the barrels as Kevin and Rex look on.
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