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Behind the curtain: Analog craftsman amplifies wood-aging program

Fri, 07/27/2012 - 12:26pm

Bill Wehr is always a little uneasy until he gets a couple of steel supports around the huge wood tanks he builds. Until then, he has to put a lot of faith in friction, his mallet and a few temporary tie-downs.

"I'm always happy after we get one or two hoops on," Bill says, "because I know then that they can't fall."

wood1Bill Wehr has been building wood tanks for nearly 30 years.

Bill's job hasn't changed much in 30 years.

He was just a kid when he started working at his dad's tank-building company in Buffalo, N.Y. His first out-of-town job came on his 16th birthday, so his mom packed him two tins of chocolate-chip cookies.

Fast-forward three decades. Bill has taken over Arrow Tank – "My dad's up at the cottage, probably out on the boat" – but the rest of the business is frozen in time. Same tools, same techniques, same craftsmanship.

"Technology doesn't really help us much," Bill says. "A lot of the old machines are better than the new stuff you get these days."

Bill and his father built both of Dogfish Head's oak tanks and our one-of-a-kind palo santo tank. Now, Bill is back in Delaware to build a third 10,000-gallon oak tank for our new climate-controlled wood room.

Arrow's tanks are everywhere. They're dozens of stories above Manhattan catching rainwater, and they're 1,000 feet underground feeding salt mines. They're at vineyards and distilleries, oil refineries and pigment plants.

But whatever the job, the work is pretty much the same. At Arrow's Buffalo plant, Bill sorts, cuts and bevels dozens of wood staves. He also bends the steel hoops that will hold the staves in place.

wood2Steel hoops hold the tank's wood staves in place.

On the job site, Bill fixes the base to the floor and hangs the head hung from the ceiling. Bracing is built inside and scaffolding goes up on the outside.

"There's a lot of prep work," Bill says. "But once you actually get to doing it, the staves will go on pretty quick, the hoops will go on pretty quick."

After the build, the wood must be swelled with water before it's ready for beer.

"Wood has a really central role in our brewery," says Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione. "We use it as an ingredient, as something to magnify the complexity of our beers."

In short order, the new 9x22-foot oak tank will begin working its subtle magic on Burton Baton, Immort Ale, Red & White and Olde School. And Bill will get to head back to Buffalo to be with his family.

"I don't really like the out-of-town work because I miss my kids' stuff," he says. "I like being at home and doing the work in the shop."

Luckily, Bill was able to have a taste of home on this trip. He turned 45 while he was here, so his mom sent along two tins of chocolate-chip cookies.

Happy birthday, Bill, and thanks for the tanks!