Tuesday morning in Küssnacht am Rigi. The sun is shining and so you can see the cloud of dust particularly well, which is gradually spreading throughout the workshop from the loud band saw. Here at the foot of the Queen of the Mountains stands the Küferei Suppiger, one of the last barrel manufacturers in Switzerland.
Roland Suppiger, a fourth-generation cooper, turns off his saw and greets it with a handshake, as you would expect from someone who started working with wood on a daily basis at the age of 15. In addition to the owner and managing director, there are normally two employees and one apprentice working in the business, as well as his wife Carmen Suppiger, who takes care of administrative matters. This makes the cooperage the largest in the country.
"In France, some companies make in a day what we can build here in a year," says the 58-year-old, whose son Marco has just completed his apprenticeship in the cooperage.
Apart from Suppiger, the only Swiss company that train future coopers, only Stefan Sobota in Seewen (Canton Schwyz) and Martin Thurnheer in the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen manufacture wooden barrels for storing liquid specialties.
This is in stark contrast to the past, when wineries, breweries and distilleries had their own cooperage. The Fassbind distillery in Oberarth, for example, produced the containers in which fruits were mashed and fermented or spirits were stored and transported until 1971.
While the cooperages have disappeared in many places, today the surnames of their descendants indicate the historical craft: Küfer, Fassbind(er), Böttcher.
For thousands of years, the usability of the barrel was in no way inferior to other containers. To illustrate this, Roland Suppiger takes a used barrique from the barrel store and tips it from the bottom edge over the belly to the top edge. In no time, he has covered several meters without effort.
Slightly bent, he now rolls it back to its original place on the edge. He doesn't exactly handle the barrel carefully, but the round shape absorbs the energy perfectly.
In the last 200 years, the barrel has lost its influence. Fermentation barrels made of blue or white plastic have replaced those made of wood, beer is now served from chrome steel kegs, and goods are transported in ISO-standardized containers or on stackable Euro pallets.
Today, wooden barrels and vats still serve two primary purposes. Whether fermented beverages such as wine, beer or must, or distilled spirits made from grapes, grain, molasses or fruit - if the liquid in question spends a few months or several years to decades in the barrel, it is expected to have a better and more complex taste and aroma. In the case of whiskey, one speaks of 60 percent of the flavour that the distillate receives from the barrel alone.
Aesthetics is the second purpose that a wooden container fulfills. At the customer's request, Suppiger even enlists a wood carver to decorate the barrel lids with filigree carvings.
From tree to barrel
The standard barrels of the cooperage have a volume of 20 to 600 liters. The oak comes mainly from the Jura and the canton of Schaffhausen and is delivered cut. However, before it can be processed, the young wood must be stored for one year per centimeter of thickness.
Accordingly, 36 months are sufficient for barriques; for larger barrels, this can take as long as six to seven years.
After this drying phase, the wood is cut to the desired length and then joined. For the barrel can be assembled, the angle of the staves must be correct.
Later, the barrel is held together only by the metal hoops, only the bottoms are connected by wooden dowels.
First, the upper part of the barrel is assembled; for the lower part, the joints must first be bent. To do this, the coopers start a fire in the middle of the standing barrel, while simultaneously wetting the outside of the wood.
Gradually, the coopers tighten the belt until the lower tires can be mounted. Depending on the barrels are then either toasted or charred.
Roland Suppiger pulls out his cell phone. "Unfortunately, nothing spectacular is happening here today," he says almost apologetically before playing the video. It shows how one employee lights the inside of the barrel while another continuously turns the barrel with the help of a strap. After twelve to eighteen seconds, the blazing barrel is extinguished. "Now it has a layer of coal five to six millimeters thick," Suppiger says.
A groove must first be milled out so that the bottoms can one day be used. The floors will be sealed with a type of reed, more precisely with broad-leaved cattail.
The large barrels, which hold up to 20,000 liters, are particularly impressive. Only a few years ago, the cooperage could make eight new such giants for the cidermaker Möhl. Suppiger pulls his cell phone out of his pocket again and shows photos of how they were loaded onto the truck back then.
"Transportation is rarely the problem," says the master cooper. More often we are confronted with the situation, that the doors of the wine cellars are too small. In these cases, the barrel is first built in the cooperage, then taken apart again and subsequently reassembled at the customer's directly in the wine cellar.
How does Swiss wood taste?
Did Swiss distillers bang down the cooperage doors when grain distilling became legal in 1999? "No," says Suppiger, because in the first few years, most producers would have mainly followed the Scottish style, where virgin oak is not used.
Today, the situation is different. "In recent years, the interest of distilleries in Swiss wood has increased extremely," says the cooper, whose main sales, however, still come from the wine industry. The local oak is much harder, compared to the very soft Limousin oak of France. As a result, it takes longer for aromas to be released from the wood into the distillate.
However, the cooperage also processes other types of wood, such as chestnut, robinia (also known as false acacia) or cherry wood. They have also worked with wood from apricot or plum trees, "although in certain cases the woods are not bendable and therefore vats are made from them".
Pleasure and wellness
Outside next to the wood stockage, Walter Amrhyn stands over a wooden stave of an ancient wine barrel and removes the layer of cream of tartar, which is several centimeters high, with targeted blows. Later, the trained carpenter will straighten the staves in his own workshop and use them to make tables, chairs, or chests of drawers.
In addition to barrels – which are indirectly intended for human consumption – the cooperage itself also produces objects for human well-being, this in the form of saunas or hot pots all made of Swiss wood.