Craft Culture: Handcrafted barrels from Black Swan Cooperage

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Black Swan Cooperage in Park Rapids, Minnesota, is one of the top barrel makers for craft distillers and brewers in the United States // Photo by Sarah Miller

The whining of saw blades and smell of singed wood greet you first. Then comes Whiskey. Not the drink, but the dog: a giant, bounding, playful-yet-imposing German Shepherd.

Heidi Korb follows soon after, apologizing for her dog’s overeager greeting. With knee-high brown boots, skinny jeans, flowing highlighted hair, and nails painted with gold-fleck sparkles—remnants of her recent wedding—the petite 28-year-old isn’t exactly who you’d picture to be in charge of Black Swan Cooperage, one of the top barrel makers for craft distillers and brewers in the United States. One imagines a burly, bearded man with callused hands and a ruddy face; a sturdy gentleman who’s quick with a saw and sees the same potential in a piece of wood that a painter sees in a blank canvas. Someone like Russ Karasch, Heidi’s father.

He’s there, too, his handlebar mustache camouflaged by a curly white beard. “I don’t want to interrupt anything,” he says, extending a handshake. “Just wanted to say hello and that I’m here if you have questions about anything. But of course, Heidi knows everything. You’re in good hands.”

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Heidi Korb and Russ Karasch // Photo by Sarah Miller

From the time she was a little girl, Heidi would join her dad at the cooperage, sweeping floors and watching him build barrels. Russ has worked with wood his whole life. In addition to building log homes and crafting furniture, he is also a master cooper, meaning he can craft a barrel, from log to completion, using nothing but hand tools. But Heidi’s the boss at Black Swan, and her dad is just fine with that.

Even with a cooper as a father, Heidi didn’t automatically envision herself following in his footsteps. She studied marketing and sales in college, and was thinking of pursuing a career in photography, not running her own business.

It wasn’t until Russ and MaryAnn, Heidi’s mom, contemplated leaving the cooperage business in 2008 that Heidi switched paths. “It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants decision,” she says. “I was just out of college and saw an opportunity.”

With her parents’ support, Heidi became the owner of Black Swan Cooperage. She and her dad began making barrels in a 3,000-square-foot building in Long Prairie, Minnesota, and quickly realized they needed more space—and more help. They moved to their current 10,000-square-foot location in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in November 2011. With MaryAnn operating the office, Russ and the cooperage’s 15 employees building barrels, and Heidi running the rest, Black Swan has seen steady growth.

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Heidi Korb gives a tour of Black Swan Cooperage // Photo by Sarah Miller

Black Swan Cooperage is a menagerie of wood, metal, and machinery. Outside, stumps and pre-cut boards of American white oak—a requirement for American straight whiskey is that it must be aged in new charred-oak barrels—create miniature mountains alongside the long, mostly windowless, dull-white building. Inside, sawdust coats the floor and shelves holding inch-thick, 21- to- 35-inch-tall wood boards divide the rectangular warehouse into assembly zones. Aromas of vanilla-sweet, roasting wood fill the air.

Against the far wall, a medium sized, green-and-yellow machine tapers both ends of the straight-edged boards into narrow-wide-narrow shaped panels called staves, which fit together to form barrel walls. Piles of wood waiting their turn stand in Jenga-like piles around the machine.

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Honeycomb barrel staves // Photo by Sarah Miller

Each stave at Black Swan is destined to be one of three things: traditional (no modification), cross-grooved, or honeycombed. For cross-grooving, ruts are carved into the side of the stave that will face the interior of the barrel. Honeycombed staves get dozens of small circles burrowed into them. Each groove and hole exposes more end-grain, and the more end-grain that’s exposed, the faster flavors can be extracted from the wood. Each technique speeds up the aging process, says Heidi, and faster aging leads to quicker turnaround time (read: quicker profits) for distillers.

“We’re the only cooperage doing end-grain extraction,” Russ says. They’re also the only cooperage in the world to use the honeycomb technique, a creation of Russ’ that is currently under review for a patent. Since debuting their HONEY COMB® Barrel in 2010, which combines honeycomb and cross-grooved staves, it’s become Black Swan’s most popular style.

Next page: The process

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she’s not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she’s on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.