Hopefully you've already seen chapters one and two of Grit & Grain. But now you're about to see how far we were willing to go to tell the story of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout. Chapter three takes us all the way to the Ozarks, those bountiful white oak forests of Missouri where an amazing number of staves and barrels come from that supply bourbon, whiskey, and wine makers all over the world.
More than any other chapter of the Grit & Grain series, logging for white oak in the Ozarks took us into unfamiliar territory. It's as far away from the genesis of a barrel-aged beer as you can get. Even the timeline, 100 years of growth for a worthwhile oak tree, defies understanding for people more accustom to producing a beer in a matter of weeks or months. But that's what we set out to do - not only to tell the part of the Bourbon County story we already knew, but to discover the parts of the story that were beyond even our own experience.
When we turned off the road onto dirt, it felt like we were hundreds of miles from the nearest town — that's the affect that the density of the Ozarks have on the space around you, creating a sense of complete and continuous isolation. But just a quarter mile in, and the forest opened up on the worksite where a logging team had begun thinning the property, taking the largest trees for lumbering, and leaving behind the smaller trees for continued growth. That's how they help maintain a healthy forest out here, pruning an entire forest the way you might prune a bush in your backyard.
Logging is a generational business in Missouri. If your father and grandfather did it, chances are you do to. But these days, there's even a decent living in it. The crew we worked with partners with land-owners for a share of the ultimate lumber value. They mark the trees they're going to take (sometimes in collaboration with conservationists) and then work to thin the forested property. They work gig to gig, and there's a seasonality to it, enabling the hard work of one season to provide some hard-earned downtime months later. And for this crew, all the lumber is destined first for McGinnis Wood Products, coopers to wine makers and bourbon makers like Heaven Hill (coming up in Chapter four).
I'm used to photographing breweries of all shapes and sizes — from a few barrels in a garage, to small manufacturers, to factory-sized operations all around the world. So shooting loggers while they take down a few oak trees was not only a pleasant break from the stainless steal and concrete of beer, but it was also a completely different pace. They'd take down a tree, zip off a few gnarly branches, and drag it away. They they'd toss the chainsaw into the truck bed and fire up a smoke. A few minutes of banter, and they'd go for a short walk, looking for the next — measuring, marking, and ripping the chainsaw back in to action. All the various parts of the operation worked on their own timelines, but perfectly in such with only a few head nods here and there, and a dog running behind the truck.
From seed to lumber is a 100 years. From lumber to stave is a few years more. It can be another quarter century soaked in bourbon in a quiet rick house somewhere in Kentucky before it gets emptied and readied for beer. But even if I can't wrap my head around a timeline like that — I'll always have the sounds and smells of the forest to remind me where it all started. This might be chapter three, but it's the beginning of everything — before Greg Hall ever had the idea to put a beer in bourbon, there was a barrel being formed in the ground in Missouri.
Plus Ken got to use the drone.