Small business in Higbee thrives using a natural resource unique to the state—Missouri white oak.

A&K Cooperage

Forty years ago, the legal drinking age in Missouri was exactly the same as it is today: 21. Which means Matt Kirby was less than halfway to the mark in 1972, the year his father and grandfather founded A&K Cooperage in the Randolph County burg of Higbee.

But young Matt was old enough at age 10 to start learning the art of making barrels for aging fine wines and whiskeys. He’s been a fixture at A&K ever since. He watched as the company was built from the ground up—twice. “The day Elvis died, the factory burned to the ground and we had to start all over again,” Kirby recalls.

With its staff of 11, A&K relies on native Missouri white oak to make American and French oak barrels—30 gallons for whiskey, 60 for wine. Technology hasn’t changed the process much; each barrel is still made by hand and toasted over an oak fire to produce the characteristics that make Missouri white oak a standard for barrel production in the United States.

What, though, accounts for that popularity? “Part of it is the tight grain, so it doesn’t leak, but once the barrel is toasted, it’s the profile that really comes out,” Kirby said. “It smells like vanilla, and that’s what you’re looking for. Missouri white oak is the best for that.”

The process starts with good trees that are 80 to 100 years old. Oddly, traditional laws of supply and demand don’t seem to be at work with the source material. Even though white oak is in great demand, “The wood is growing faster than we can source it,” Kirby says. “It’s a very good product for us in the state, and a good problem to have.”

Once the right trees have been sourced and cut, the boards are cleaned and the individual staves are wrapped in cables and drawn into the correct shapes. The stock requires up to three years of drying time, which means a cooperage will invest heavily in supply chain facilities. In A&K’s case, that means enough wood on hand to accommodate production of up to 5,000 barrels a year.

Those go mainly to Texas and California, particularly to Napa Valley. A key customer is Silver Oak Cellars, which uses the barrels in its production of cabernet sauvignon; another is Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, Texas. “We’re also working on a deal to send some to Ireland,” says Kirby, but the company has also shipped to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Mexico. And not always for wine. Some of the product destined for Mexico is used in tequila production, some buyers use them for aging tobacco, and in a growing trend, barrels are regaining their popularity in home and commercial décor. “The decorative demand is getting bigger; people want to use them for weddings or to make bars. The stuff that’s not good for wine or whisky, we put into decorative.”

Kirby’s own interest in the end product inspired him to go vertical, planting some of his own vines and buying from local vineyards to launch Cooper’s Oak Winery about seven years ago. Today, he runs the only bonded winery and cooperage on the same grounds in the United States, producing 12 varieties that total about 5,000 cases a year.

Among the biggest changes in the company during his tenure—other than assisting in the reconstruction after the fire in ’77—was upgrading the equipment about a decade ago.

 “Some of the equipment running before 2003 or 2004 was probably 70, 80, even up to 100 years old,” Kirby said. “There was a cooperative in California that went out of business, and we bought the equipment, geared up to go whole-hearted, saw an opportunity to increase production and we did it.”

His current annual production levels leave room for a 20 percent increase in capacity, he said, “but we don’t want to go more than 6,000 (barrels)—it has to be quality over quantity.”