I am a craftsman. At the moment the craft that occupies me most is brewing, but I am also obsessed with instrument building, and carpentry
in general. People look at a guitar and think “that must be difficult”, but I have built instruments and studied their construction closely, and to my mind it is the coopers that are the forgotten alchemists of wood. They take some rough oak, and without measurement or form they fashion a vessel that holds the same amount of liquid each time, and what’s more it holds liquid, without glue or any type of sealant. They judge by the wisdom of their eyes alone, they gouge and plane, they steam and bend. They hammer the iron hoops that hold the staves in place.
Brewing is a hobby of course. By day, and at times by night, I engage in far more sensible pursuits, I’m writing a PhD in philosophy. Ha! could there be a link between philosophy and cooperage? But of course. Diogenes, legendary Cynic lived in a barrel. Probably not a wooden one, but something more like a barrel shaped cellar. Nonetheless he has gone down in history as the man who lived in the barrel. Not only that but he used to masturbate in the marketplace, just to show his contempt for civil society. He is a personal philosophical hero of mine. The humble barrel has immense philosophical pedigree, as though its very form straddles the gulf between theoretical and practical reason!
But my extolling of the cooper’s virtue eventually relates back to brewing. Some brewing friends and I have decided to fill a whiskey barrel fully of extra strong stout, and age it in the oak for several months. to this end Peter and I visited our local distillery to purchase a barrel, which Peter promptly christened “Rotunda”. For the Dorty Foredners amongst you the name of one of the main maternity hospitals in Dublin is the Rotunda. Furthermore the Barrel has of course a pleasing, almost pregnant fullness to it, and as Peter pointed out it will soon give birth to a beautiful strong black stout, weighing in at about 10% abv.
The barrel is originally a Kentucky Bourbon barrel, US health and safety laws stipulate that food vessels cannot be reused. Bourbon barrels are used once and then sold to Europe, notably here and Scotland, for whiskey aging. The hold 53 US Gallons, or about 200L. That’s going to mean about 4 or so batches of stout, at least. Peter, Kevin and I are going to have to brew flat out to fill Rotunda.
The guy in charge of the barrel store was extremely helpful, and really friendly. When we told him we were brewers he said immediately “I’ll find ye a good one, just emptied”. We chatted to him about our plans for ages, and he was very encouraging. When we were there he was waiting for a truck to turn up to take the whiskey elsewhere for bottling, the barrels sat over a trough so they could drain fully before being filtered ofcharcoal and pumped into a large holding vessel. He took a glass and scooped it into the trough and we had a sip. It burned, but in a nice way. “Cask strength” he told us. “About 67%”.
We rolled Rotunda to the car. Oddly, the Renault Laguna seems to have been built with this barrel in mind. It fit perfectly in the boot! Oddly they’ve never based an advertising campaign around that. A busload of German tourists filed past as we were documenting this proud moment on film. The bus driver asked how much a barrel of whiskey cost. He seemed disappointed when we told him it was empty.
We took a tour (self guided) of the distillery. There were many similarities with a brewery, the mashing process for one seems identical. The old copper vessels also looked like we could have put them to good use!
When we got back to the car the smell was divine. I had images of the police pulling us over and as the window rolled down, the smell wafting out. “Honestly hofficer, it was empty when we got it!”
More updates when we manage to fill Rotunda up.