12 January 2023 / Vera Szűcs-Balás Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

Portrait of a barrel maker

"Our passion is barrel making" says master cooper Gábor Kalina, who works with his team in a workshop in Mád, and behind the scenes is also doing his part to ensure the success of wines from the Tokaj Wine Region. As Hungary is one of the leading international players in the world of barrel making, we chose to interview a Hungarian craftsman to give a brief insight into the beautiful but challenging world of cooperage.

Since it seems to be a dying craft, the first question that naturally arises: is barrel making a legacy in your family?

It is indeed a dying craft, there is no longer any vocational training or qualification for the craft of cooperage, but the production of quality oak barrels is much needed. I inherited the knowledge from my father and grandfather, both of whom were barrel makers. I have many memories of my father showing me around the workshop: I immediately took a liking to craft, I was given tasks that were not demanding for a child, as young as 5-6 years old, and he always paid me gratefully for my help, so I spent the money first on ice cream, later on tools. I feel lucky as I found my true calling. If I may say so, I have a greater love and passion for barrel making than the person I inherited it from.

How many people work in the workshop and how are the tasks distributed?

This varies due to fluctuation. The lack of vocational education means that we have to train our own workforce and this isn’t for everyone. Some people find it too physically demanding, some find it boring and some find it unfulfilling, so they simply move on. Fortunately we have a strong core team of 8 people. After a few years in the cooperage, everyone should know all the work processes. Of course, there are always preferred phases of work, but if a colleague has the ability, I let him do it, enjoy it, flourish.

What makes Hungarian cask special and why is it sought after worldwide?

Hungarian barrel has already proven its worth. It adds unique aromas and flavour complexes to the wine that will simply amaze the consumer. However, given our history and limited resources, we have never had the marketing structure to make it world famous. We are, though, doing our best to find customers who make decisions based on reason, as in terms of value for money, I believe our products are unbeatable.

How do you see the future of the sector and how can young people be attracted to the profession?

This branch will survive, because you simply can't get around the extremely high quality of these products. Even if there is no vocational training, there will always be people who are interested and want to learn. The way I see it, young people are driven by need, and if they like it they stay, if they don’t, they leave and become waiters or factory workers abroad. In the barrel making process, the closeness of wood and nature gives a sense of life that is irreplaceable. It is a living material. Creation is the word that best describes our work. At the end of the day, we're not pushing a pile of paper around after hours of staring at a monitor. Here you have a tangible end product and when you look at it, you simply feel uplifted and say: yes, today I have done something useful for humanity.

In the case of barrel making, how necessary is it to modernise, to adapt to new trends and how important is it to stick to the roots?

There are things that used to be important, but no one cares about anymore. Modernisation is inevitable, and wherever you look, you see how machines have helped. Mechanisation saves time and energy, it gives efficiency, productivity, health. We have a colleague who has been with us since the beginning, and he said if we still had to work the same way we did 22 years ago, he wouldn't be here. This physical work takes a toll on the body, so we do what we can to lighten it, whatever it takes. Of course, there are production phases that we don't change because we are convinced that our ancestors did it this way for a reason. They had the time to figure it out. For example, the way we toast the barrel, or the way we avoid using chemicals in the process - it's important to be environmentally conscious and to preserve human health. Keeping up with new trends is essential, it's necessary for survival. Nature renews itself every year, and so must the trades, but a young tree, lush and green, is often linked by its roots to an old tree.

When you drink a barrel-aged wine, do you talk about the maturation, how it affected the taste?

With wine, you can usually tell whether the batch has been in cask or not. We like to analyse it to see how well it suits the wine and what more could have been done with it. However, we know how much work, care and energy goes into a glass, so we always focus on the value and beauty of the wine and highlight that. Wine is a living substance that is constantly changing. Everyone can find the one they like, whether it was in a barrel or not.

What are the best moments in your work, when you feel you have chosen an exceptionally rewarding profession?

When we taste uniques wines from outstanding winemakers, almost icons, that are unavailable to the public. In principle, only wines that deserve ageing - premium category wines - are put into oak barrels. During such visits we get to taste the top of the top, meaning that we can be there when the great wines are born. These winemakers boast incredible knowledge, experience, creativity, faith. It is always an exciting and uplifting experience to talk to them, as we get to see a whole other side of their world. Knowing that we can help each other to mutual success, is also a source of joy. Not only recognition and awards move us forward, but also those moments when winemakers highlight the use of our barrels when presenting their wines. That always means pure, unconditional happiness, and a feeling of gratitude.

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