Maine's only cooperage grows by the barrel in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Ed Lutjens found himself in the middle of an immense learning curve when, as a woodworker with no experience as a cooper, he was asked to make barrels for a Portland distiller when the business was running short.

Lutjens, who lives just three blocks from his Breakwater Drive workshop, said he initially considered the process simple, but was “shocked, intimidated and dismayed all at the same time,” when he first tried coopering. 

But the opportunity has created a growing business called Portland Barrel Co., allowed Lutjens to learn a new craft, and connected him with interesting people and projects. 

Lutjens, now in his sixth year, is the only cooper in the state and one of only a handful in the country. His workshop space is also home to ax makers Brant & Cochran, and the businesses are hosting a monthly open house 1-5 p.m. Friday, July 20.

Lutjens now works full time at the cooperage; he made 200 barrels by himself last year and is now transitioning to managing the business, with a goal of recruiting four employees to make 500 to 1,000 barrels annually.

Carpentry was physically taxing, and the switch to making barrels is something that had legs and was able to grow. It’s work he hopes to retire from, Lutjens said. 

In the past three or four decades, there were no cooperages in New England, though Swans Island once had a thriving coopering community. A photograph of the long-ago coopers on the island hangs on the wall at Portland Barrel, like a sentry watching over the shop. 

Lutjens said he has no desire to expand his market beyond a 100-mile radius, since there’s plenty of in-state business. There’s also a lot of demand locally, and he is able to grow with projects as they develop into larger businesses.

“The craft piece is important,” he said of working with local clients. 

While he technically knew how to make a barrel, he said he had to learn what each barrel brings to a product.

Lutjens said he often turns to history to improve his technique, reverting to using 200-year-old tools made by John Bradford, who was once a well-known Portland toolmaker. “It informs my path a little bit,” he said of defaulting back to thinking how barrels were once made.

In reference to a barrel, he also noted, the correct Old World lingo refers to a “barrel” as a size – 30 gallons – not the container itself. In contrast, a 50-gallon container is known as a hogshead.

He learned the basics from a cooperage in Kentucky and then did a lot of experimentation on his own. 

Lutjens is also a member of the Maine Craft Association, a more than 220-year-old organization for tradespeople, where Bradford was also a member.

His previous carpentry work ran the gamut, he said, but now he focuses on producing barrels for five clients – four in Maine and one in Boston. He works with distillers, winemakers and cider and beer producers. He mostly sells to commercial business, but also makes smaller, 5-gallon barrels for home brewers.

Thirty- and 50-gallon barrels are his bread and butter, and it takes about a day to make one, Lutjens said. That includes milling the lumber, cutting staves, steaming the wood to make it flexible enough to shape, and then burning the wood over a fire on a scale of one to four – from toasted to charred. 

The charring filters the spirits and adds flavor – from oak to coffee to caramel notes – as well as color. Sugar in the wood is also caramelized during the process. The wood, he said, provides about 70 percent of a whiskey’s flavor, and the 10-15-year-old aged bottles are prized for their mellow flavor. The younger the liquor, the more bite it has, Lutjens explained. 

The only wood Lutjens uses, Maine white oak, is harvested in southern Maine; the growing line stops around Augusta. Lutjens goes into the woods with lot owners and foresters to pick out the trees. The logs are aged outside his shop for one to two years, depending on the client’s preferences. 

The aging process is necessary to season the wood: the longer it seasons, the more mellow the oak flavors, balancing tannins naturally found in the wood. 

White oak is used for three reasons — strength and flexibility, it’s rot resistant, and it’s a closed-cell wood that provides a good, distinct flavor. American chestnut was also once commonly used, but the species was wiped out by a blight, Lutjens said. 

Typically, winemakers prefer the wood to age from 18 months to two years, and distillers like a one-year natural age for their products, Lutjens said. 

The cooper said tasting the difference in how his work affects a product has been fascinating, adding that being invited to tastings has been a fun component of the work, allowing him to evaluate what barrels bring to the spirit. 

Lutjens said it has allowed him to tweak flavors and helps him understand the value of the barrel in the process.

“It’s vexing,” he said, “and also really fun to think about.”

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext., 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka. 

Ed Lutjens in his South Portland workshop at Portland Barrel Co., where he produces barrels for local distillers. 

Ed Lutjens shows off antique tools at his South Portland cooperage, Portland Barrel Co. 

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