PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - The ancient craft of barrel making is about to experience an evolution.
A master cooper in Park Rapids has engineered a reusable, customizable, square-shaped barrel for beer, wine and spirits.
Bringing nearly 30 years' experience to the artform, Russ Karasch is founder, CEO and creative mastermind of the Squarrel.
In 2009, he cofounded Black Swan Cooperage with daughter Heidi Korb. His latest venture - Squarrel Cooperage - uses one-third the wood of a traditional barrel and improves other key aspects of the vessel.
"I love fixing problems. That's been my life," Karasch said. "And so, that's all this is. What do they say? Necessity is the mother of all inventions. It's not that I'm a brilliant person; it's just I like to figure stuff out."
The patented Squarrel concept was designed during a "detrimental oak shortage that strained even the most established of cooperages," according to the company's website (www.squarrelbarrels.com).
"Three years ago, we were coming back from ADI, the American Distilling Institute show in Louisville, Kentucky, and we had orders coming out of ears and we couldn't fill them because we couldn't buy the wood," Karasch recalled.
Demand, coupled with a very visible waste of precious oak tree resources, spurred Karasch's vision for a better barrel.
"He had an epiphany," says Alex Mackewich, Squarrel's relationship manager. "Russ is very inventive. The concept really came to fruition with the oak shortage."
Karasch realized a cooperage could utilize strips of finest quality wood deemed "scrap" by stave mills.
"Staves" are the heart of the traditional barrel. Created from straight, knot-free oak, staves are shaped and fitted together in a precise pattern to construct a water-tight container.
"A majority of all barrels made are either a 200 liter, which is 53 gallons, or 250 liters, which is a wine barrel, 59 gallons. So the bulk of the staves, therefore, are cut for that length," Karasch explains.
In fact, Black Swan is only one of four cooperages in the U.S. that produces wooden barrels other than two sizes, Karasch points out. They craft barrels ranging from 5, 8,10, 15, 23, 30 and 53 gallons on Park Rapids' Commerce Avenue.
While making long staves, stave producers naturally end up with shorter pieces.
"They save everything down to 16 inches because when they're making the ends of the barrel, they can still make a head out of that length. Anything less than that, they literally throw in the chipper," said Karasch.
The staves in a Squarrel are 13 inches long "because we can buy all the 16-inch wood we want, ultimately utilizing a lot of the waste," Karasch said. "It's accused of being a 'green' vessel - earth-friendly, tree-friendly."
Squarrel Cooperage plans to offer 10-, 30- and 60-gallon barrels. Meanwhile, Karasch is putting finishing touches on the design before releasing the final product to the market.
A reusable, stainless steel frame provides structural support for a Squarrel barrel, using one-third the wood of a traditional barrel as a result.
It also allows 12 staves to be inserted separately. Each Squarrel can house a variety of different stave types, wood species, toast levels, char levels and flavors. It's highly customizable design allows for "nearly infinite flavor profiles."
"Now you can have American oak, French oak, Hungarian oak, Mongolian oak, toast levels one through four, and you've got 12 staves, so you can do 12 different flavors in your barrel, which nobody else can do," Karasch said.
Thus, the Squarrel lends itself to experimentation - an appealing feature to craft distillers, brewers and vintners seeking to create distinctive tastes.
Like Black Swan, Squarrel uses patented, cross-cut staves and end-grain exposure that can age alcohol 8 times faster than a traditional barrel.
Last year, Squarrel Cooperage introduced their concept at the annual ADI show. This year, they introduced product. They also shared it at a craft brewing show.
Interest in the barrels skyrocketed.
"The response has been overwhelming," Karasch said.
Pre-orders dramatically exceed what Squarrel Cooperage anticipated.
The cooperage is currently in the running for the MN Cup, the largest statewide startup competition in the country.
The MN Cup is a free, annual competition that seeks to support and accelerate the development of the best, breakthrough ideas from across Minnesota.
"MN Cup is dedicated to expanding the field of entrepreneurs in our state, and we're working to unleash the economic power of underrepresented groups while building a strong culture of innovation," says MN Cup Executive Director Melissa Kjolsing Lynch.
Entrants submit business ideas for consideration in one of eight divisions: energy/clean tech/water, food/agriculture/beverage, general, high tech, life science/health IT, impact ventures, student (for enrolled graduate school or undergraduate students, ages 19-30) and youth (age 18 and younger).
Last week, Squarrel Cooperage was listed as one of three finalists in the food/ag/beverage division.
The finalists, three from each of the eight MN Cup divisions, were pared down from an initial participation pool of 520 teams and roughly 1,300 participants.
Now in its thirteenth year, the MN Cup is giving away a record $450,000 in total prize money.
Each division runner-up will receive $5,000, while division winners receive $30,000 and a shot at the $50,000 grand prize and $20,000 second prize.
Competitors in every division are also eligible to win dedicated prizes, including from The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Carlson Family Foundation, MEDA, DEED, Securian Financial Group, Capella and AARP.
Just one will be chosen as 2017's best, breakthrough business idea. The final winner and recipients of special prizes will be announced at a live event on Oct. 9 at the Carlson School of Management.
Last spring, Squarrel was a runner-up in the 2017 IDEA Competition, northwest Minnesota's premier entrepreneur competition.
Now in its eighth year, IDEA assists the most promising local entrepreneurs in the commercialization of innovative products, processes and deliveries by connecting them to the best resources available, along with access to the capital it takes to launch a successful venture.
The science behind wooden barrel
"The barrel, like the wheel, is one of the outstanding basic inventions of mankind," wrote historian William B. Spraque in a 1938 essay.
Wooden-stave barrels first appeared two millennia ago.
"Why do we still use wooden barrels today? Modern science has been able replicate virtually everything a barrel does, except for one thing, and that's micro-oxygenation. That's the amount of air that passes through the wood into the spirit," Karasch explains.
Oak is remarkable in that it's both watertight and slightly porous.
Precious liquid won't leak from an oak barrel, but tiny amounts of oxygen can travel through it.
An important component in the cell walls of all wood cells is called lignins. Alcohol being a solvent, lignins in oak break down into flavorful molecules that are absorbed by the spirit inside the barrel.
When oxygen is present, more alcohol molecules bond with the oak's molecules and form more complex compounds.
"When it forms those long chains, the smoother the whiskey gets," he said. "If you've ever drunk green or young whiskey, it scratches all the way down. That's because of a lack of maturation. The longer the chains, the better the whiskey. You cannot get that without that micro-oxygenation."
White oak produces an abundance of tempting flavors, like toasty caramel, butterscotch, coconut and vanilla.
"There's definitely a science behind it," Karasch said. "I enjoy the daylights out of making barrels and making people's whiskey taste good. I love what I do. I make sawdust and I enjoy the heck out of that."