Meet the Coopers: Local entrepreneurs get into barrel-making business - Albuquerque Journal

Meet the Coopers: Local entrepreneurs get into barrel-making business

Mahad Ahmed says he’s happy he still has all his fingers — and though the remark comes with a little laughter, he’s not exactly joking.

Ahmed and business partner Eric Abeita have thrown themselves into the complex art of coopering, building wooden barrels they hope to sell to the area’s mounting number of wineries, craft distilleries and breweries. Their D.R. Cooperage and Grain formally launched in November, becoming what Ahmed says is the only cooperage in New Mexico.

They already landed their first customer, Albuquerque’s Boese Brothers Brewery, and have engineered a production process they hope will eventually yield 100 barrels a month.

Eric Abeita, left, and Mahad Ahmed, co-owners of D.R. Cooperage and Grain, make 27-gallon American white oak barrels. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
Eric Abeita, left, and Mahad Ahmed, co-owners of D.R. Cooperage and Grain, make 27-gallon American white oak barrels. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

But now that they have made it this far, they know why they’re the only business of the kind in the state.

“It’s ridiculously hard,” Ahmed says from inside a barn on Isleta Pueblo, where the duo have set up a barrel-making shop consisting almost entirely of custom tools.

“Just figuring out how to put the barrel together and then getting the wood supply too — it’s not so easy,” Abeita adds.

Ahmed, a University of New Mexico economics student, says the cooperage was born of an epiphany he had while working on an “exploratory committee” for a possible whiskey distillery. He learned barrels were in short supply nationwide, something he attributes to demand from both liquor industry heavyweights and the surge in craft bourbon and whiskey. He and Abeita, an attorney, saw an opportunity in the barrel-making business, though it took months of study, experimentation and collaboration to make it happen.

Eric Abeita, left, and Mahad Ahmed, co-owners of D.R. Cooperage and Grain, show how they work the barrel closing apparatus at their shop in Isleta Pueblo. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
Eric Abeita, left, and Mahad Ahmed, co-owners of D.R. Cooperage and Grain, show how they work the barrel closing apparatus at their shop in Isleta Pueblo. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The owners tapped the architecture and design experience of friend Xavier Nuño-Whelan to model the most-efficient product possible. At 27 gallons, their barrel is about half the size of the industry standard but has distinct benefits, Ahmed says, like a better surface area-to-volume ratio that helps speed the liquid’s maturation process. Perhaps more important, it wastes little of the precious base material, American white oak.

“We’re out of New Mexico — we’re not necessarily known for our lumber,” says Ahmed, who notes that they’ve worked through Jake Jacobson from Albuquerque’s World of Wood to maintain, and store, the necessary supply of oak.

Ahmed — who hadn’t worked in a wood shop since middle school — also took a Central New Mexico Community College furniture-making course for some experience and guidance from instructor Joseph Hirschfeld.

It took yet more assistance and ingenuity to fashion the tools needed to manufacture the barrels.

Each of D.R.’s barrels requires 33 perfectly shaped and angled wooden staves. Every piece has to be “on the button precise,” Ahmed says. The staves are ultimately squeezed together on a homemade “closing apparatus” built with chains and pulleys that generate the 5,000 pounds of pressure needed to tighten the arrangement and place the barrel’s rings.

“Not too many people could just set this up, like, in their garage,” Abeita says. “In the mechanized world (of large-scale cooperages), they have a lot of hydraulic machines that do this ‘zoop, zoop, zoop.’ We had to figure out another inexpensive way we could do it manually and quickly.”

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One of the production steps at D.R. Cooperage and Grain includes toasting and charring the interior of the barrels with slow burning pieces of American white oak. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The barrel’s roasting and charring comes next — the coopers turn the barrel around a small fire, an essential step in releasing the wood’s flavor. A custom roast could yield a hint of vanilla or even subtle coconut or citrus notes, they say.

Each barrel takes a total of 20 actual “work hours” but still takes at least a week overall to finish as the wood settles into shape. Not including their time, the duo has invested $22,700 in the project. The barrels retail for $380.

“Our market is really for the craft beverage maker and the small-batch folks that typically get turned away from the cooperages that exist now because there’s a shortage and don’t really have time to do single and 10-20 barrel orders,” Ahmed says.

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