The Cooperage of Prince Edward County
by Jo Anne Mathew
Photo by Steven Elphick
What do you get when you cross Canadian white oak, iron hoops and a wood-chip fire reaching temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius? The result is a handcrafted, watertight, old-fashioned, iron-bound, fire-seasoned, solid oak barrel, custom-made with passion and care.
The Carriage House Cooperage, located in Bloomfield, a rural Ontario village surrounded by the natural beauty of Prince Edward County, is the only commercial barrel maker in Canada. Owners Pete and Marla Bradford, one of only a few coopering couples in the world, know their profession and their wood. They are a warm, passionate and gregarious teamwho have been crafting and rolling out quality barrels for the last seven years with tremendous care and attention to detail. Pete and Marla established their cooperage in 2007. Originally part of the Grist Mill Studios in Wellington, it is a picturesque, 80-acre farm, with chickens, roosters… and Macey, their five-year-old Bernese Mountain dog, who welcomes all visitors.
Their cooperage is comprised of a beautifully restored, 19th-century barn that houses the barrel vinegar shop and another rustic barn, accommodating the barrel shop. Their barrels are sought by the local wine makers of Prince Edward County; breweries and distilleries are also pursuing them for their innovative “alternate” wood barrels to age beer, cider, spirits and vinegar. These alternate wood barrels, crafted from cherry, hickory, oak and ash woods, are gaining international attention.
After considerable research—and training from a kind Missourian who shared trade secrets—Pete and Marla left their professions in the automotive and pharmaceutical industries respectively, to establish The Carriage House Cooperage. They were drawn to Prince Edward County by the growing and vibrant wine trade. “We listen and learn from our customers so that we can provide the best product possible,” says Pete. “Our motto is, ‘It’s all about the barrel.’ This encompasses each stage of production from selecting the locally harvested oak, weathering the wood, creating the wooden staves that form the circular barrel, toasting and charring the barrel, to the finished product. Each barrel has its own, distinctive flavour, which is represented in the contents of the finished product.
“One of our greatest investments, of course, is the wood,” explains Pete. “The wood we purchase today will be used three years from now. We have to season the cut planks for a minimum of three years and rotate the wood so that it gets an even amount of sun, rain, snow and ice—the wood must be exposed to all of Mother Nature’s elements.”
While they respect and maintain centuries-old practices, this skilled couple also craft one-of-a-kind items from old barrels. Their Barrel Furniture Collection is a hand-crafted, limited series of cozy oak furniture and accessories. They have also created a line of gourmet vinegar, taking unwanted wine from local vintners to create outstanding, red wine vinegar, aged in their COACH barrels. COACH refers to Canadian oak, ash, cherry and hickory woods used in their barrel making. Using a blend of different woods within the same barrel has produced some of the most flavourful and innovative aging vessels for a range of products including their new line of wine vinegars.
“All I ever heard was how different the woods are and so I decided to discover for myself their differences. I made six barrels: two out of French oak from Allier, France; two American barrels from Missouri and two Canadian barrels from Prince Edward County,” explains Pete. “I then acquired over-oxidized wine from a local winery that I used for my trial. I wasn’t out to create vinegar, it was the different flavour profiles that the various barrels were going to create that I was most interested in. After some time, Marla and I discovered that there was, in fact, a difference in taste, with different vinegars developing their own distinctive taste and flavours—each barrel having an impact on the contents.”
Pete describes that just as he was about to throw out his trial products, he and Marla gave them another taste and realized the contents were worth keeping. In fact, the contents tasted great! “That day set us in a new direction. We went from six barrels to 50 of red wine vinegar, naturally flavoured with choice ingredients and aged in our custom-blended oak and alternative wood barrels.”
Their unique vinegar has become very popular among local, Ontario chefs as well as the Niagara Culinary Institute. In 2012, Pete and Marla were bestowed the Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for creating a viable food product. And, they have recently been recognized by the American Distillers’ Association for their Canadian oak, ash and hickory barrels. When asked how their cooperage was received when they set up shop within the community, Pete says: “The people of Bloomfield have been fantastic; they are so supportive of what we are doing here. Many individuals from the local Rotary of Wellington have come by to offer their encouragement and support.”
Their vinegar, Cooper’s Choice, is a blend of Gamay and Marachel Foch wines and Cooper’s Select is a vinegar made from Rosehall Run’s wine in the Cooper’s very first barrel. Their Prince Edward County Elite Pinot Noir Red Wine Vinegar is created using only local products and ingredients. Other vinegars include a malt beer one, and coming soon: champagne. The vinegars are aged to perfection with imported “mother” (living enzymes that help create vinegar) from the renowned Modena region of Italy. The series is available in two variations: the unique, spiced vinegar that is aged in the Cooper’s alternative wood barrels made from cherry, ash and hickory and the other aged in white oak. All are exceptional.
“We are working very hard to create a Canadian tradition by adding our own flare into the business,” says Marla. “It’s been quite successful. Our name and reputation are getting out there and we’re very proud of what we have done and what we continue to do. The vinegars and barrels are expanding nationally and, over time, internationally.”
Pete and Marla will continue to roll out the barrels, gourmet vinegars and other products for years to come. Plan a visit to The Carriage House Cooperage for a unique and enjoyable experience and visit them on-line at www.thecarriagehousecooperage.com.