July 12, 2017

Maine Food Insider: New England's lone liquor barrel maker adds flavor to whiskey and beer

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Portland Barrel Co. owner Ed Lutjens tightens up staves in a barrel before putting it into a steam oven, winching the bottom staves together to band them with hoops, then placing the barrel over a wood fire and hammering the staves tight.

VIEW: Making a barrel

The unique taste in bourbon, Scotch, rum and other hard liquors is in the barrel, the tannins and sugars that caramelize as the white oak staves are aged, heated and charred and then formed into the familiar wooden barrel with metal rings.

"The alcohol put into the barrel by distillers acts as a solvent to leach the sugary oakiness and tannins to give it flavor," Ed Lutjens, owner of Portland Barrel, told Mainebiz from his shop near Bug Light in South Portland. "The barrel can only be used once for whiskey, and then it goes to brewers." That's because whiskey takes so much of the flavor out of the barrel wood that it can only be used subsequently for lighter taste in other alcohol products.

He said his cooperage, which is about four years old, is the only one making such barrels for alcohol commercially north of New York. He hand makes about 200 a year — that's about four per week — ranging in price from $175 for a 5-gallon barrel aged one year to $450 for a 53-gallon barrel. Customers include Maine Craft Distilling in Freeport and Bluet, a blueberry winemaker in Jefferson, Maine.

A couple other coopers, The Barrel Man in Scarborough and River Drive in Buxton, recycle and resell used barrels to beer makers and others.

Barrel basics

Lutjens said there are three types of barrels. The first is for dry goods, nails and candy and doesn't have to be as tightly sealed as his barrels. The second is "white" coopering of buckets for butter churns that are watertight and typically made of local white cedar or white oak. The third is wet or tight coopering for food and liquid stored long term. That is the type he makes.

He starts by aging the wood at least a year, and recently got a CEI loan of $25,000 so he could buy more wood to age. He said there's a lot of demand for barrels so he has no trouble selling out. The white oak for the barrels is only available from Augusta south; he sources most of his wood from Hiram, Porter and Fryeburg.

The first step to assembling the barrel is the staves, which are quartersawn in wedges rather than the typical parallel wood sawing of lumber. That keeps the liquids from traveling laterally and potentially leaking, he said.

Lutjens works alone, planing staves so they fit together tightly, sculpting the staves' inside and shearing off some wood outside so they'll form a round barrel when set into hoops. He starts from the top of the barrel, placing the staves, which are of different widths, inside a metal hoop that he also hand makes. No glue is involved, so the sides of the staves need to be planed flat and fitted carefully.

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Portland Barrel Co. owner Ed Lutjens shows how staves are quartersawn from a log of aged white oak in wedges (left chalk marks) compared to traditional parallel sawing (right marks). The wedges keep liquid from traveling horizontally through the barrel staves, avoiding potential leaks at the seams between the staves.

At this point the bottom staves still aren't pulled side-by-side or fitted with a hoop, and he must put the barrel in a steam oven for about an hour to make the wood malleable, then use a winch to push those staves together tightly and fit hoops over them. The barrel is then put over a wooden fire for about 20 minutes to dry it so he can hammer the hoops tightly. Finally he chars the inside to create more flavor for the spirits' makers.

"It's physical," says Lutjens, a former carpenter and metal smith born in Michigan, but who grew up in Winter Harbor. "I enjoy it thoroughly but it's mentally exhausting. There's a lot of math involved with the complex curves and volume."

He became a cooper after talking to a locally distillery and discovering there was a long waiting list for barrels. The large whiskey makers in the southern United States have their own cooperages nearby, running three shifts a day with 300 people on each, he said.

Coopers were common in Maine until the 1960s, he said, when the industry, like textiles and shoes, dwindled until he's the only one left locally. Hamlen Co. of Portland made over 300,000 barrels annually at one point, shipping its barrels to the West Indies for rum production. The cooperage on Swans Island profited from the local packing of salted clams and production of cod liver oil, he noted.

Small coopers leave their mark on the barrels they make. In fact, Lutjens said he can look at a barrel and tell who made it.

Downstream business

Just as craft brewers collaborate, so too do coopers, who Lutjens sees as being on the periphery of the craft beer business.

For example, he is talking to Matt Albrecht, owner of River Drive, to repurpose some barrels from Hungary that Albrecht is importing. They are used wine barrels that Lutjens may rework so they are tight and usable again.

River Drive buys and sells used barrels that it repairs, reconditions and then resells. It has a patent-pending process to infuse some of the flavors lost in the first use of the barrel by hard liquor makers.

"You can make bourbon in a charred new barrel, but then the second use is for whiskey, rum, scotch or beer. The barrel imparts the flavors at different levels. The first use has the strongest impact of flavor."

Albrecht said barrels can be kept more than 60 years if they are hydrated and cared for correctly.

Many Maine craft brewers are barrel aging now, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild. "Allagash barrel ages a lot. Barreled Souls barrel ages most, or all of their beer, and Bissell has plans to do so. Orono Brewing uses their second locale to do so." Bear Bones Beer of Lewiston plans to expand its barrel-aging operation in the basement of its second location in Bridgton.

"Those barrels create the final product and balance out the flavors," Sullivan said. "They also can be used to blend beers.

"We are in the midst of a beer brewing renaissance in America, and Maine brewers are exploring the unique flavors and styles that can only be created when aging beer in barrels. While barrel-aging has long been associated with brewing dark, malty beers such as stouts aged in rum barrels, the use of wild and cultivated yeasts, bacteria, fruits ... etc. is opening the door to a whole new palette of beer."


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