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Heidi Karasch adds the signature black swan to a completed barrel. The company ships the barrels to artisan whiskey distilleries across the U.S. Their customer base now is expanding with their HONEY COMB® barrel alternative, which is used for flavoring and aging wine and beer, as well as spirits. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Cooperage opens in Park Rapids

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A time-honored craft has emerged on Park Rapids' Commerce Avenue.

Black Swan Cooperage engages wood, fire and steel to create barrels on site. Toasting the barrel created from American white oak is the cooperage's trademark, a vanilla scent emerging from the oak.

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Craft distilleries - comparable to microbreweries - are the company's primary market.

The cooperage is a family business; Heidi Karasch, 24, is the owner. Dad Russ serves as master cooper, bringing 20 years' experience to the craft. Mom Mary Ann manages the office and brother Jacob serves as foreman.

Whiskey, a tail wagging German shepherd, greets visitors.

Black Swan Cooperage originally opened in Osage; the need for more space drove the decision to relocate, Heidi said.

The company employs 11 on a full-time basis, one part-time.

Heidi began working for her dad at 13, doing janitorial work. "I worked my way up."

She headed off to college to pursue a degree in marketing and sales. "I enjoy that aspect," she said of heading to shows with Russ.

Russ Karasch began making parts for a barrel company in 1992, going on to become a barrel craftsman. In the 1800s, there were 150 cooperages in the Twin Cities alone. Black Swan Cooperage is now one of two in the state.

Heidi brings a keen understanding of every aspect of the process that begins with a rough sawn stave to shaping the water-bent barrels to toasting and charring the interior wood.

The focus is on the barrels' interior.

Barrels are "toasted" in steel cressets to caramelize the wood sugars, making the sugar more easily extractable for the alcohol.

Charring - adding compressed air in a flash firing of wood shavings directly to the barrel, raises the temperature to 1,800 degrees in less than a minute.

"It's a labor intensive process," Heidi said.

Black Swan Cooperage makes an average of 20 barrels a day, "30 on a good day."

The barrels are customized to meet individual client's preferences.

Cooperage workers formerly went through a seven-year apprenticeship. Training now takes about two years, she said.

The cooperage specializes in smaller barrels, the seven sizes ranging from five to 53 gallons.

They head to distilleries from New York to California and points in between.

The cooperage is now in the process of expanding its audience to wineries and microbreweries, Russ having developed a patent-pending HONEY COMB® barrel alternative, applicable to beer, wine and spirits.

The process, Heidi explained, allows more cubic volume of wood to be penetrated.

Whiskey in a traditional barrel, for example, spends two to four years distilling. The alternative method requires just 60 days to a year, she explained of the higher wood to alcohol ratio, prompting faster maturation.

The HONEY COMB® alternative can be added to any barrel size.

The 10,000 square-foot facility is paradoxically home to equipment ranging from early 20th century to a computer driven router, to create the HONEY COMB® alternative from eight wood types.

Tours are available by appointment, with a grand opening planned this spring.

Black Swan Cooperage is located at 1605 Commerce Ave. So., Park Rapids.

The cooperage may be reached at 237-2020.

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