This weekend, the New York Times published an interesting article titled, “Packing Technology Into The Timeless Barrel.” Naturally, for those who know me, it peaked my curiosity. The article highlights Independent Stave, the world’s largest barrel manufacturer. This company was able to meet and respond to a significant increase in demand for barrels that are used to age wine, whiskey, and beer. It is no secret that “there’s a craft boom everywhere.” Along with this increased demand is a backlog of wineries, distilleries, and breweries all waiting in line for their next shipment of American oak barrels.
Once upon a time, United States based wineries placed orders for French oak barrels believing that American oak barrels were inferior and if we are telling the truth, they were. Part of the problem was the quality of wood used to make the barrels which contained “imperfections because of frequent forest fires and arboreal diseases.” Many of the American cooperages were low tech and produced poor quality barrels. However, the sudden “bourbon boom of the last decade” brought a “technological revolution to American barrel-making.” American cooperages focused on using technology to increase the quality of the barrels they produced in order to take advantage of the growing demand.
Cooperages leveraged technology to reinvigorate the craftsmanship of barrel-making. Through the advancement in technology, custom barrels can be created that are designed to deliver specific flavors desired by the craft market. Back in the day, “merchants would burn their barrels’ insides to sterilize the surface and remove errant smells or flavors. Somewhere along the way, customers noticed that wines and spirits that spend a few months in a barrel lost some of their edge and took on a pleasant color and flavor. Barrel aging was born.”
The story of Independent Stave is unique. Initially, they focused on making the staves that were then used to make barrels, but did not make the barrels themselves. Then in 1935, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act was passed which required all American whiskey to be aged in new barrels. A new consumer market appeared and Independent Stave stepped up to meet the need.
Following Prohibition, consumption increased and so did the wineries and craft brewing industries. Even though demand was on the rise for barrels, French oak barrels were still preferred. This resulted in the need to investigate why American oak barrels were unable to meet the need. John Boswell, the grandson of Independent Stave’s founder and also an engineer decided to seek a solution. “He put quality-control systems in place, from random sampling to laser measures, to weed out low-quality logs. He started drying his logs longer” similar to how the French produced their barrels. The company slowly started reviewing its internal policies and procedures to find ways to make the process more efficient while producing high-quality barrels using American oak.
Independent Stave worked with forestry experts to develop “more sustainable harvesting practices, which also made the business more efficient and brought in higher-quality logs.” They also decided to use science to their advantage which started with a “series of organic-chemistry symposiums” to seek feedback from industry professionals and academic researchers and partnered with universities who had strong wine and spirit making programs. The data collected allowed Independent Stave to integrate sensors that analyzed the wood for density and moisture content. “Instead of guessing how much to toast a barrel, operators use lasers and infrared cameras to monitor the temperature of the wood and the precise chemical signature that the heat coaxes to the surface—all subject to the customer’s desired flavor profile. Independent Stave was able to refine their processes, seize an opportunity to meet the needs of a rapidly growing industry, and put craftsmanship back into barrel making.
Higher education is facing a similar shift in the student population, but this shift is also offering institutions a chance to maximize their opportunities. Much like Independent Stave, institutions must rely on their strategic planning efforts and monitor these efforts, but most importantly focus on their outcomes assessment to assure they continue to serve students well. With today’s technological advances, institutions can collect more data than ever that provides background on individual student’s potential success rate based on a variety of external factors. The question remains, are we listening?
Independent Stave took three big steps that allowed them to reinvigorate their product and meet the needs of a rapidly growing industry. Higher education can apply these same three steps to determine how well they too are meeting the needs of a changing student population.
- Step One – Research the Competition: Independent Stave started to see an increase in demand for barrels that accompanied the growth of wineries and other craft distilleries and breweries. The problem was that consumers were seeking barrels from France at a significantly higher cost, approximately $700 a barrel because they were better quality. Independent Stave knew they could provide the same quality barrel and at a less expensive price. So they took the initiative to research why everyone preferred French oak barrels. They discovered that French coopers “dried their wood for up to three years, while Americans tended to stop at a year.” They also “applied small flames to the inside of their barrels to lightly toast them, turbocharging certain flavors.” Meanwhile, American coopers would burn their barrels to such a degree that any liquid aged inside took on a “charred, intensely vanilla flavor.”
For institutions, researching the competition is equally important to determine what others are doing well or, conversely, what they do less well that maybe could be improved on. So often institutions tend to follow commonly accepted patterns that may yield positive results, but are minimally meeting students’ needs. Meaningful improvement requires taking a step back and evaluating “the way we’ve always done it.”
- Step Two – Scratching the Back of Others: In addition to researching its competition, Independent Stave knew that it needed a great deal of feedback and data. Instead of investing excess capital in building proprietary data analytic tools, they went the “old-fashioned” route. They sought out conferences, trade shows, and universities to absorb the knowledge these professionals and academic researchers could provide on the subject. They built relationships and, in time, these groups began providing valuable data that Independent Stave used to invest in computers, lasers, and sensors to enhance the quality of their barrels and improve the efficiency of the production process.
Higher education institutions tend to act as singular communities that are completely self-sufficient. The problem with this approach is that they miss out on the wealth of knowledge available from seeking external advice and perspective. The smartest people are those who understand that learning never stops. Institutions should seek feedback from internal and external stakeholders in an effort to improve their programs and services.
- Step Three – Giants in the Market: Independent Stave did not experience success overnight nor have they stopped following the processes that have resulted in improving their barrels. They used their research and data to implement significant operational improvements. They understood the importance of sustainably harvesting quality logs used for their barrels. They invested in technology, not just for technology’s sake, but to better understand the industry and the consumers who would use their barrels. Ultimately, they took all of this information and applied it to enhancing the art of barrel making. They set the stage for cooperages nationwide to step up their game in order to also compete within the industry. They embraced the idea that “iron sharpens iron.” As a result of their hard work, American oak barrels are now also used in Australia and Spain.
Higher education institutions share common goals and often share student populations. The quality of the programs offered is what sets each institution apart and separates the good players from the bad ones. Regardless of the differences, institutions are a part of the same community. Higher education has been the focus of regulatory challenges and negative attention, but collectively, we can work together to elevate each other. Many higher education institutions are seeking innovative ways to serve students and meet their needs. We should look to these institutions to see what works and how these efficiencies can better serve all students. To do this requires consistent internal reflection and evaluation.
There are approximately only fifteen cooperages in the United States compared to the thousands of higher education institutions, but the principles of sustainability apply regardless of the industry. Those organizations and institutions that pass the test of time are also those who dig deep and always seek ways to improve their operating efficiencies and products they deliver. Independent Stave learned a real lesson early on, and that was a focus on its mission which resulted in consistent improvement. They were not seeking to be average, but to offer a product of superior quality that met the needs of their consumers. The same should be true for higher education. Quality improvement should not be a result of accreditation or regulatory requirements. It should be important to every institution for the very basic fact that we want to deliver quality programs that meets the needs of students In order to accomplish this, we need to know who else is doing it right, who else is collecting relevant data we use, and how we can apply it to ourselves. Because in the end, every student is different and deserves educational options that will meet their academic and personal goals.
“You can’t just computerize it. You can use some automation,
but in the end, every barrel is going to be a little different.”
~ John Boswell, Independent Stave
We encourage you to click the link and read the original New York Times article for further inspiration.