At Higbee's A & K Cooperage, a family tradition of wine barrel production

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 | 3:45 p.m. CDT

HIGBEE — With no experience, no guidelines and a premature idea, Dale Andrews teamed up with his son-in-law, Dale Kirby, to establish A & K Cooperage in 1972.

"You know the saying, 'Life is what happens when you plan something else?' Well, I went to school to be a teacher, but ended up working with my father-in-law," Kirby said.

The two made kegs for three years until they decided to attempt something more challenging — 30- to 60-gallon wine barrels.

"It wasn't really a big plan," Kirby said. "It just kinda kept evolving."

Continuing a tradition that took root forty years ago, A & K Cooperage now produces approximately 20 barrels per day, translating to about 5,000 barrels each year.

The family continues working to maintain the highest standards in barrel production, relying on their golden rule of "quality over quantity," which co-owner Matthew Kirby said starts in the wood.

The barrels are made from American White Oaks grown in Missouri forests. It's harvested "right here locally" Matthew Kirby claimed enthusiastically.

"Everybody's seeking out Missouri wood," Matthew Kirby said. "You see all of our competitors driving out here all the time; they're out getting wood."

The world's largest cooperage is located in Lebanon but Matthew Kirby doesn't know if he considers them competitors or just good friends. However, he does know Missouri is the perfect place to be for the finest wood.

"It really has something that does magic on that wine: it makes it taste good, flavors it right and just smoothes it out," he said.

Matthew Kirby has been involved in the family business for 29 years, since the age of 10. He intends to pass down what his father and grandfather taught him to the next Kirby generation. His sons are learning the barrel-making process, along with how to run the winery he started six years ago on the cooperage grounds.

“I have a son that’s working here, he’s 12, and he’s learning the business now,” he said. “I’ve got two other sons that I hope jump right in and we have a lot of generations working here at once.”

Although it’s a lot of work to make a good product, Matthew said, it’s also fun. He plans to stay with the business for the rest of his life — hoping the family tradition will continue.

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