Text and images excerpt from the catalog “Old crafts in Serbia”
Author: Ranko Barišić
MULBERRY WOOD FOR GRAPE BRANDY
“Ture bure gura
Bula Ture kara
Da bure ne valja
Jer se bure kalja.”
(Tongue twister in Serbian)
The makers of casks, barrels, kegs, vats, butts, etc. are craftsmen who use wood as their basic material. Today, cooperage is a unique name for such craftsmanship. The ancient Slavs were familiar with the production technique. In the beginning, these were receptacles of small sizes and flat walls. In time, wooden receptacles were made with rounded walls, which enabled production of cooperage of big sizes.
Knowledge and extensive experience are needed to make barrels, kegs and vats. Specific tools are also required and those were not owned by self-taught artisans, so that the cooperage became necessary. Many a craft, including cooperage, developed with the flourish of cities and commerce in the Middle Ages. After the liberation from the Turks, a large number of craftsmen came from the then Austria-Hungary with their own technology and tools, as well as terms of the trade that are in use even today.
To make a quality barrel, casks or vat, durable materials are required. Vojvodina, especially Srem, abounded in high-quality oak for the making of staves. Staves were made by specially trained craftsmen – stave-makers, originating from the region of Lika, which became very skillful in this field. Eventually, this trade was taken over by coopers.
Cooperage has survived in areas with the high quality woods and the demand for their products: barrels, tubs, vats, butts, etc. Cooperage is particularly interesting because it combines several different techniques of the wood processing: splitting, hewing, bending and stacking of staves, drilling and digging -when large-size barrels are made. There are two basic types of cooperage – items with flat sides and those with rounded ones. Various kinds of vats are mostly made by rural craftsmen. Kegs with rounded staves are made by master craftsmen because of the more complicated process. It was believed that one who knew how to make a keg or a barrel passed the examination for master cooper and would easily be able to make any other cooperage product.
To choose the appropriate type of wood that will be used for cooperage products, content to be stored in such container is essential. Thus, for example, the barrels in which wine is stored are mostly made of oak. It is best to use mulberry wood to store the brandy because it eventually gives the brandy a golden yellow color, and is sold better. Acacia and chestnut wood are also used for cooperage products, while the big vats are often made of ash, pine and spruce, in addition to oak. For the production of objects, wood needs to be hand split and well-dried. Wood is dried for two years before use. During this period, it must be well stacked, but no pressure should be applied on the sides. Hand split wood is exposed to the draft, usually in the attics with enough air to be well dried up.
Boards to be used for staves are first trimmed, i.e. cut according to previously determined patterns to be then stacked in square so that a craftsman can get a sufficient number of staves. It is necessary for staves to be of required height, length and radius for a barrel of specific dimensions. Staves are then hewed and formed with an adze and then with a plane. Staves are roughly grated at the same time, and then cut with a large hand-plane standing still, i.e. fixed on a counter.
The stave cutting is the most sensitive operating procedure in cooperage. It also defines the final shape of a cooperage product. Barrels, kegs and vats for common use are uniform in both shape and proportion. These standards, i.e. volume of receptacles, are tested by means of special, standardized measuring devices for staves. Those devices are different for containers of different volumes. Usually, cooper has up to 20 different measuring devices. They are used to measure the narrowing of staves towards their ends, check the internal transverse curvature of receptacles, and also measure the angle of sides of the staves. This is of great importance for the cooper because whether his product will be impermeable or not depends on this.
To assemble staves, a cooper must first make the bottom. He uses calipers to take measures for the bottom. In the past, the measure was determined with a rope and a nail. Today, it is done with calipers. The bottom is cut out of several boards held close together. Formed liked that, it is inserted in the slots of the staves, and then the mould hoops are taken off and replaced with permanent ones. In the past, hoops were made of hazel or ash branches bent in circle. The end branches were then intertwined to hold better. To make staves stick to one another, dried sedges would be inserted between them. Hoops are now made of iron and fastened by iron rivets to hold better. Larger barrels have more hoops. A perfectly healthy wood is now very difficult to find. If the wood has knots, a hole is made in that spot and filled by an oak wedge. Also, a master resorts to the paraffin-lining of a barrel – the barrel is filled with paraffin and then rolled until it evenly lines and fills the entire internal surface, while the rest of paraffin is poured out. If the wood has fewer knots, paraffin is put on the heated knife blade so that it trickles onto the knots. The old barrels are repaired in the same fashion, while rotten staves must be replaced.
Coopers make a number of products: brandy mash vats of large volume with a bottom slightly narrower than the opening; the meat vats to keep meat in marinade or brine (these vats have two opposite long handles for ease of carrying); the meat vats made with a wider opening than the bottom; the vats for cabbage are also made with an opening wider than the bottom, along with two side handles (the opening is topped with a board with a nut for a wooden bolt and a small handle for turning; the bolt allows the pressure on the board for sour cabbage in the vat); the so-called “luznica” was made to steam laundry (it had two handles that held a stick to carry it, four legs with an opening for release of dirty water; since the advent of a washing machine, the “luznica” is no longer manufactured). Coopers also made vats with a wider openings and handles to carry water, then well buckets with the bottom narrower than the opening to extract water from wells. An actual butt was manufactured with the bottom wider than the opening and with a lid. Such butt was used to pickle and preserve peppers. Coopers used to make “krble” or ashtrays. Ash was the raw material for soap, collected by apprentices and then carried to soap makers. “Krbla” is a wooden vessel up to a meter high, consisting of staves. It had one side flat and straps, and was carried on one’s back. “Fucija” or “vucija” is an elongated oval keg carried on one’s back or two of those were loaded on mules or horses. They were used to carry water from springs to villages.
Coopers also made wine barrels, whose dimensions were large, depending on customers’ desires. Wherever vineyards were planted, and where there was a need for the storage and processing of wine and brandy, large barrels were made with capacity of one thousand liters or even more.
Between the two World Wars, Serbia was one of the largest European exporters of wine, brandy, jams, marmalade and plum products. All these products were prepared and transported in large barrels that were made by coopers.
Unfortunately, the demand for cooperage is extremely low today because modern regulations on the preparation of food and drinks require different types of material for their storage, but it will still be best to keep wine in the specially prepared barrels, brandy will have a real flavor only when maturing in an oak barrel, and sauerkraut will still be occasionally pickled in huge vats.