Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
The Cooper's Craft
A&K Cooperage is bullish on wine barrels
made from Missouri oak

by Jim McCarty

At A&K Cooperage of Higbee, barrels resemble fine furniture. Each one gets a lot of individualized attention from Chris Phelps before it leaves the shop.

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 past.

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.

The 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 cardboard boxes.

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 success.

“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. There weren’t too many people around to show you how. At one time it got down to just three cooperages in the United States.”

None 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.

White oak 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 back.”

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 timberland.

“It’s 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 very interesting.”

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 wine.

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.

Quarter-sawn 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 for barrelheads.

Hydraulic machines 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.

But 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.

“It’s 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 high-tech equipment.

Virtually 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.

His Cooper’s 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 says.

To contact A&K Cooperage, call (660) 456-7227 or visit the cooperage Web site at akcooperage.com.

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