A&K Cooperage is bullish on wine barrels
from Missouri oak
|At A&K Cooperage
of Higbee, barrels resemble fine furniture. Each one gets a lot
of individualized attention from Chris Phelps before it leaves
Ask Dale Kirby how
he got in the barrel business and he’ll loosely
quote a line from a John Lennon song. “Life is what happens when
you plan something else,” says Dale, the owner of what might be
Missouri’s most unusual business. Since 1967, Dale has been the
K in A&K Cooperage, which today turns out thousands of oak barrels
from a cluster of cavernous buildings in Higbee.
But Dale, who is
the president of Howard Electric Cooperative’s board,
never set out to be a barrelmaker. His first plan for his life’s work
was to be an auto mechanic. Then he was going to be a teacher. Those false
starts found new direction when he married his wife, Carol, and began working
with her late father, D.L. Andrews.
D.L. brought the
A to A&K Cooperage,
and Dale gives him all the credit for getting the business off the ground
40 years ago. “It was all his idea,” Dale
says. “I was just along for the ride.”
When Dale first came
into the picture, D.L. was running a mill that produced white oak staves,
the long tapered slats that make up a barrel. His operation shipped
staves all over the world, to places like Scotland, Spain and Australia.
But some of the wood couldn’t be sold.
“We had a lot
of small stuff that wasn’t really suitable for export,” Dale
recalls. “My father-in-law said, ‘We could make kegs.’ So
we started out making 5-gallon kegs.”
|Toasting specialist Jack Zike knows just how long to
keep a barrel over the fire. Toasting adds flavor to wine as it
ages in the barrels and is specified by the customer.
The results weren’t
pretty at first, Dale says. Still, hobbyist winemakers bought the kegs
to age their homemade wine. Others used them for flower pots or just
decorations during an era when Americans were rediscovering their Colonial
After the two neophyte
barrelmakers mastered smaller kegs they expanded into increasingly
larger barrels. And that’s when the
two discovered they were on the cutting edge of something big.
nation’s wine industry, devastated by Prohibition, was beginning
a tremendous comeback. Yet the cooperages that once dotted the landscape
were nearly all gone.
The barrel as we know it goes back nearly 5,000 years. Its double-arch
design has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Wooden staves
are tapered on both ends.
When they are pulled
together, the center arches out, creating tremendous strength.
Barrels once held everything from crackers to salted meat to water,
whiskey, wine and even oil. But just after World War II, the barrel
fell out of favor thanks to the advancement of metal buckets and
When Dale started
helping his father-in-law, only a handful of cooperages remained. They
could find machinery used in the industry. But few books had been written
on the subject. Dale says they were fortunate to find an old cooper
from Arkansas who offered advice. D.L. had also been to Spain, where
he learned some of the techniques that would prove vital to their future
“He kind of
knew the process,” Dale says. “But
you really don’t
learn what it’s like until you sit down and do it.
too many people around to show you how. At one time it got
down to just three cooperages in the United States.”
of these cooperages were doing what A&K set out to
do. They wanted to produce a European-style wine barrel
using American white oak. Before his death, D.L. mastered
the craft of making 59-gallon wine barrels using a combination
of hand techniques and unruly modern machinery.
|Dale Kirby assembles
white oak staves into another barrel. His cooperage makes about
5,000 barrels a year.
grows well in the soil and climate of Missouri. In fact,
the state is about the tail end of white oak growth as
hardwoods turn to prairie farther west. The clay soil
and deep water table produce a tree that grows slowly, with
tight growth rings. This combination, in the hands of a master
cooper like Dale Kirby, produces a barrel that is prized
by the nation’s winemakers.
“We are just
stuck on American oak,” says
Dave Cofran, retired general manager of Silver Oak winery in California’s
Napa Valley. “It seems
like our customers like it too because they keep coming
It was Dave who began
the relationship between A&K Cooperage
and Silver Oak, which today buys all of its barrels from the Missouri maker.
Impressed with the quality of Missouri white oak in the hands of Dale’s
employees, Silver Oak bought half the business and also invested in Missouri
not only where the wood grows but also how the barrel is made as well,” Dave
says in describing how barrels made in Higbee, Mo., lend themselves
so well to the success of Silver Oak’s
red wines. “It
can give some chocolate, vanilla type of character
to the wine. It certainly raises the complexity of the wine, makes it
While Dale has experimented
with wood from all over Missouri as well as Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania
and Illinois, he says the best barrels are made from wood
that grew in north-central Missouri, from Moberly north.
His partner says variables such as the soil, water
table and whether the tree grew on a hillside or flat
land all contribute to the flavor it imparts to the
|Dale’s son, Matthew, checks the progress of wine at his Cooper’s
Oak winery. Adding the winery will let the Kirby’s experiment
with different barrel woods and give visitors another reason to stop
at the cooperage located in Higbee.
“It gives up
the flavors at different rates depending on where the tree grows,” the
California vintner says.
Most of the lumber
Dale uses comes from sawmills in Farmington or Novelty. It’s
all white oak, and only the highest quality
will do. The oak has to be quarter sawn, a laborious process that involves
splitting the log into four pieces before milling it into lumber.
oak is the stuff fine furniture is made from, and an A&K Cooperage
barrel is just that. When it leaves the
cooperage, each barrel will undergo dozens of hand processes and
will more closely resemble a piece of furniture than the utilitarian
product of old.
A visit to the cooperage
reveals a curious blend of Old World and 21st-century techniques. Many
of the machines the dozen employees use are variations on designs patented
in the 1850s. Some joint the edges on staves that will make
them fit tightly together. Others cut the grooves
help squeeze the staves together and force on the steel hoops, six
to the barrel, that keep the shape in place. Air compressors test each
barrel to ensure it will hold wine without leaking. Powerful belt sanders
smooth the sides. Finally, a laser etches the A&K logo on top.
occasionally employees have to resort to old-fashioned hammering
to force stubborn hoops into place.
Perhaps the most
important step is the toasting, or heating of each barrel over a fire
kindled from oak scraps. Toasting serves two purposes: It softens the
staves so they will bend without breaking and it gives each barrel
its unique flavor.
got to look good, it’s got
to hold, but if it doesn’t
taste right it doesn’t
matter how it looks,” Dale
says of the toasting process. “It
adds a little different spice
to the barrel. That’s
what we are doing with our oak.
It’s a spice.”
|A bung hole is placed in the side of a barrel with a red-hot tool.
It's a time-honored method at a facility that is increasingly adopting
the entire production from
the cooperage is sold before it is
made. However, individuals
needing one or two barrels can get them.
Always looking to
the future, Dale is pleased with the contributions
his son, Matthew, is making to the business.
Dale, who is 57, has turned over the critical lumber-buying decisions to
his son. Matthew, in turn, is adding to the business by launching a
winery based at the cooperage.
Oak winery will initially offer four wines, ranging from a sweet red
named for Matthew’s wife,
Michelle, to drier Vidal and Norton varieties. Through connections with the
California industry, Cooper’s Oak
will also offer Merlot
and Cabernet varieties made from California grapes.
With a winery so
close, Dale says the barrel side of the business
will benefit from experiments
using different woods and toasting
methods. And visitors to the
winery will certainly enjoy seeing
how barrels are made.
What started as an
experiment in using up scrap lumber has turned into a vibrant business
producing more than 5,000 barrels a year. Recent machinery purchases
show Dale is still looking toward the future, hoping to double production
in the coming years.
“Whether I’m here or dead and gone,
there’s going to be a future
here for somebody,” Dale
To contact A&K
Cooperage, call (660) 456-7227 or visit the cooperage Web site at akcooperage.com.