Recouping a Barrel
By Evan Knezic
To start to some this may be a light bulb moment and to others kindergarten, but it needs to be said. The word recoup is of French origin basically meaning to regain something lost or expended according to Oxford. A cooper is the guy that makes the barrel in the first place. So, recouping a barrel is seeking to regain some of the oak flavor and microxygenation that takes place in a barrel during aging.
There may be several reasons why you would want to recoup a barrel and an equal number of reasons that you’re scared to recoup a barrel. I mean, honestly, if you’ve paid several hundreds of dollars for a barrel that is liquid tight, why in the world would you want to take it apart and risk it not sealing when you put it back together again. If Humpty hasn’t fallen yet, why push him? It might seem a little twisted to say, but sometimes just to see if you can!
Let’s start with the basics, depending on what’s been aged in the barrel and the length of time that liquid has been in the barrel the penetration of liquid and exchange of flavors between the barrel and liquid will vary. This will also depend greatly on the size of your barrel and variety of wood that the barrel is made of and even the forest that it comes from. But let’s leave all that to a different article. Let’s assume that you have a barrel like the one I’m going to recoup today. It’s a 50-liter (roughly 13 gallon) French oak barrel that has been used for several vintages of wine. You could safely say that it’s “neutral” or that it isn’t imparting any oak flavor anymore. It also has a large buildup of tartaric crystals inside. Just a side note, recouping won’t restore all the flavor that you get from a new barrel.
8 steps to recoop a Barrel
Step one: make sure that the barrel is completely empty, otherwise you might make a mess. Once I’ve fully racked the wine or beer from the barrel, I like to rinse the inside a few times and then let the barrel drip dry with the bung down to allow for proper drainage. Depending on the ambient humidity and temperature one to two days is good. You can also just take it apart right away, but again that’s messier.
Step two: make sure to label both sides and the barrel, for example, top and bottom, A and B or Moe and Larry, or whatever works for you. You need to label the heads and staves. The cooper who originally built your barrel made some minor tweaks during the construction of the barrel and you need to put it back exactly the same way. Personally, I like to make my marks on the side of the barrel that isn’t going to show as much. Starting with one stave I put a #1 in pencil and work my way around the barrel until all of the staves are numbered. I also make a small line on the head and one of the staves so that I can line up the heads in exactly the same direction as well. Label the rings as well to be able to put them back in the same order.
Step three: the scary part. Remove any tacks, nails, or screws that are holding the rings in place. With a coopers hammer or a regular hammer with a pry bar or other weapon of choice begin evenly tapping off the outside ring of one side. One or two taps every 3-4” or so. Continue repeating the process until the ring easily slides off. Repeat this for each successive ring until you get to the middle. At this point the one end may have opened up enough to be able to spread the staves apart enough to remove the head from one side. Again, make sure that you have made some marks to line up the head again before you remove it. Then move to the other side and repeat the process until all of the rings have been removed and you’re able to remove the other head. If the barrel has sat for some time without any liquid inside and has already dried out this may be easier.
Now you have a pile of wood and are wondering what in the world you’ve got yourself in to. But you’ve already come this far so let’s keep going.
Step 4: removing a layer of wood from every stave. The easiest way that I’ve found is to clamp one end of the stave to a secure bench and the using a spokeshave hand planer pull the planer towards yourself allowing the planer to shave off a thin amount of wood at a time. The thinner the amount that you shave off the easier it will be and the more control that you’ll have. The first few staves will be tough, and it’ll seem like a never-ending process, but you’ll get the feel for it and it will speed up as you go. Now if you’re like me at like all things wood flavored, you’re going to want to save all the shavings for your smoker or BBQ, they impart a wonderful aroma and flavor to your cooking. Continue this process until you see the fresh unstained wood. Be very careful not to damage the edges of the staves as this will potentially impact the ability of the barrel to reseal. Be careful as well to not damage the area of the staves where the barrel head seals in place. Shaving the heads is easier with a belt sander or a planer if you have a big enough planer or small enough barrel head.
Step 5: putting the barrel back together. This is easier with a few extra hands like your wife’s if she’s supportive of your hobbies or maybe your brew buddy. If no extra hands are readily available, then a few clamps will be helpful. Start by laying half of the barrel rings one inside of the other of the floor. Next take two opposing staves and the smallest ring from the other side of the barrel. Make sure you line up the correct side of the staves with the correct side of the rings. Use the extra hands or the clamps to hold the staves up with the ring. Then begin to line up in order the rest of the rings. Some additional clamps can come in handy at this point. If you plan on toasting the inside of the barrel do not install either of the barrel heads at this point. You may have to use a little bit of force to get all the staves in and lined up but once they are all in place, add the next rings progressively. Lightly tap them into place on the upper side of the barrel until snug. At this point you should be able to turn the barrel over and repeat the process with the other rings. Once the rings are in place and the barrel is semi solid and open on both sides, you’re ready to toast it!
Step 6: toasting the barrel. There are several ways to go about this, you can use welding torch, a propane burner like the one you use for a turkey fry, beer brewing, seafood boils etc. I like to use natural charcoal in a chimney starter with a small grill grate from my smokey joe. Tip, the old rule of garbage in garbage out comes in to play with the fuel that you use to toast the barrel. Use scrape construction lumber and your barrel will taste like construction trash. Or a resinous wood like pine and it’ll come out pitchy. Fill the chimney starter with charcoal, light, and once it’s hot place the grill grate on top of the chimney starter and the place the barrel on the grill grate. The temperature and time will all play a role in the flavor that your barrel will impart. But that’s a whole different article. You may need to start more charcoal at some point depending on the level of toast that you want. Keep an eye on the barrel to make sure it doesn't catch fire. I like to place one of the barrel heads on top of the barrel to toast it and keep the heat inside the barrel. I rotate between the heads to get an even toast on both. A remote thermometer can help you know what’s going on inside and trust your nose, if it smells good it’s working. If it smells burnt, you’ve gone to far unless your aging bourbon or whiskey and are into that kind of thing. Once the toast level is achieved remove the barrel from the chimney starter and allow to cool. Don’t force cool it or the wood might crack.
Step 7: Final assembly of the barrel. Remove the rings one by one again. This will be similar to step 5 but this time we’ll put the heads in. Start with the second smallest and the opposite largest ring. Place the second smallest ring on the ground and with the clamps or the second set of hands begin placing the staves inside the rings using the opposite largest ring to hold the staves. You want the staves loose enough that once they’re all in place you can still fit the head inside. Make sure to line up the head with marks made earlier. Some people like to try to use a fancy tool for this process, but I’ve successfully done it with just my hands every time. Line up the head and add the next ring. Slowly tap the ring in to place while keeping the head in place. As the ring tightens, the head will lock into place. Add the smallest ring and tap with the hammer in to place. Then turn the barrel over and repeat the process.
Step 8: Did it work? Fill the barrel with water to “swell” the barrel. This allows the wood to soak up some water and expand until it’s watertight again. You can use beer or wine for this process, but you will lose a lot in the beginning. You can always soak smaller barrels in a larger container of water. But make sure that the water you use is filtered so as not to impart any unwanted flavors. Once the barrel is watertight you can drain the barrel. Side note, this water is rich in oak flavor and has a variety of uses like making a porter or stout, or a rum, again that’s another story. Allow the barrel to drain and dry for 1-2 days before adding the beer or wine that you wish to age. Then stand back and take pride in quite an accomplishment!
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