Heidi Karasch, at the age of 23, is the only known female cooper in the midwest. As with any good apprentice in an artisan’s shop, she started by sweeping the floors of her dad’s cooperage.  “She knows 95 percent of the operation,” Russ Karasch proudly said of his daughter who has taken over the reins of a business with roots in Greif Barrel Company in South St. Paul. Now known as Black Swan Cooperage, the business will be moving from rural Eagle Bend to the Park Rapids / Osage area this fall. “I started making parts for the barrel company in 1992,” says Russ who went on to become a barrel craftsman and history buff on the industry. “Greif was the biggest and last cooperage in the Midwest,” he says, noting that in the 1800s there were no fewer than 150 cooperages in the Twin Cities alone.
At that time, most commodities, from fish to nuts, were shipped in wooden barrels. When he took over the business eight years later, Russ says that 95 percent of their barrels were decorative or used by the Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee Company which exported their beans solely in barrels. “Those barrels were made of aspen, had thin staves, were light weight and didn’t have to be water tight.” Russ’s company made 16,000 of the 20 gallon coffee bean barrels in 2000. Two years later, hurricanes had so adversely affected Jamaica’s coffee growing region that the need for barrels dropped drastically. “We made only 1,000 barrels in 2002.” Fast forward to the fall of 2009. The company is now under Heidi’s ownership. “We’re not going to make coffee barrels,” she says. “I like the quality of the wine and whiskey barrels.” There’s more demand for the barrels than they can produce. She and her employees can only make about ten a day in their current location north of Clotho, adjacent to the Berkness Saw Mill which produces some of the white oak used in the barrels. The need for a larger building as well as family connections in the Park Rapids area is leading the Black Swan Cooperage northward. Heidi, lithe and blonde, wields a bung borer, a tool for boring the holes (plugged with a bung) in the finished barrels. “We use a drill press now,” she says, foregoing some of the older tools for the ease of modern ones. Yet, Heidi and her dad appreciate the old tools, many of which came from Italian cooper John Giacalone. “John was dying and wanted his tools to go to someone who would appreciate them,” says Russ. “Mary Ann (Russ’s wife) and I went to see him. We talked for two hours before he showed us the tools.” The tools are specific to the cooper’s craft and include: draw knives, cooper’s axe, planes, chive, croze, chiming adze, bung borer, bung reamer, hammers, and anvils. Russ and Heidi treasure the Giacalone collection. Wooden barrels have a quaint and traditional appeal with construction methods basically unchanged for 4,000 years. Dry cooperage produces barrels to contain dry products with no need to be leak-proof. Tight seams, however, are of primary importance for a barrel to be used in aging alcohol. Quarter sawn oak staves of the proper profile, bevel and bend are assembled and held tightly together with galvanized steel hoops. Proper toasting and charring of the barrels is what make them in high demand for aging alcohols. Radial arm saws and other mechanizations make stave cutting and shaping, as well as hoop assembly, easier than a century ago. “Each stave is handled seven times,” says Heidi of the attention to detail that is required to make a tight barrel. And lighting a fire in a cresset to caramelize the wood’s sugars and toast a barrel’s interior can only be done properly with a 30-45 minute slow toast. Charring – adding compressed air in a flash-firing of wood shavings directly in the barrel – raises the temperature to 1800 degrees in less than a minute. That controlled conflagration results in a #1 to #5 char, depending on the duration of flame exposure. While the exteriors of their barrels look good, the toasting and charring of the inside are crucial. “Our focus is on the inside of the barrel. It’s very important,” says Russ. “The difference in the toast levels is huge in the flavoring.” No finish is applied to the exterior of the barrels since the wood breathes. This allows micro-oxygenation (a good thing). Russ and Heidi’s attention to the flavoring components of barrels may be put to use when Black Swan establishes its own distillery, something that’s on the back burner for now. The Karaschs have a family history of involvement in that avocation back in the prohibition days. “All four of my grandparents were bootleggers,” Russ says. “People were poor; they did it to survive.” Some of the relatives did time for it, too. Meanwhile the whole Karasch family gets into the barrel making act. Heidi’s brother, Jacob, is going to school for law enforcement but likes all aspects of coopering. Her 14 year-old sister, Rebecca, is at the floor sweeping stage and Mom helps with the book keeping. Various employees fill out the ranks in the cooperage. “We grew up with sawdust in our hair,” says Heidi. “It’s a great industry to be a part of.” With relatives in the Osage area, Russ and MaryAnn will be moving from Avon to MaryAnn’s family home near Big Toad Lake. It makes sense to move Black Swan Cooperage, too. They hope to have everything up and running at their new site in Park Rapids/Osage area this month.