Levon Bisharyan from Oshakan is a master craftsman in an art that few ply in Armenia today.
The 56 year-old makes oak barrels in which to age cognac, a beverage that has gained Armenia a special prominence far and wide.
As I approach Master Levon’s workshop, the calculated clanging of his hammer drowns out his voice. He stops, lights a cigarette and stresses that his work actually entails making little houses for the distilled cognac.
Levon explains that each barrel produced is a home for the beverage. It’s a marriage between barrel and cognac, he says, adding that every union needs a strong home in which to flourish.
Mr. Bisharyan says he never wanted to become a barrel maker; it just happened. He once dreamt of becoming a doctor since he hails from a family of physicians.
I all started in 1997, when he got a job at Yerevan’s famed Ararat Cognac Factory. Its French owners taught seven employees the art of barrel making utilizing the new technologies; the secret of how to bend the wood ribs by heating them.
Levon laughs when he recounts that the French at the time described barrel making n Armenia as stuck in the dinosaur age. He says that the skills learnt from the French were a life changer.
The newly acquired craft also proved to a life saver when Levon was laid off at the factory in a series of job cuts in 2004. He and a friend teamed up and began repairing barrels and then starting producing new ones.
To launch the business, Levon sold off his vintage car collection. With the money, he purchased a set of tools. Other implements he designed himself. Levon also purchased a house in Oshakan, where he’s now making barrels full time.
Mr. Bisharyan figures that he and his coworkers made around 2,000 barrels when employed at the cognac factory and more than 1,000 on his own.
He tells me that when it comes to barrel making, the most important skill is to be able to ‘read’ the wood.
“Look at the wood on this table. It’s all wrong,” Levon says, adding that he feels sorry for furniture makers forced to work with inferior quality wood. “Those poor craftsmen have to go and rip the beams out of old homes to make furniture,” he says, stressing that there is no room for mistake in the barrel making trade. “The strength of a factory rests upon the quality of its barrels. Inferior barrels can bankrupt a company,” says Levon.
Only oak is used to make barrels destined to hold cognac. The raw material is obtained from factories. One cubic meter of oak ranges in price from $1,200 to $1,300. It takes 7 cubic meters of wood to get just one cubic meter suitable for barrel making. This one cubic meter can produce 5-6 barrels.
“The wood comes from 80-100 year old trees. The diameter of the trunk must be from 60 centimeters to one meter. This marks it as a mature male tree that can be married to the distilled spirit,” Levon explains as he sips a sweet cup of coffee.
He then heads down to the workshop to begin the ‘toasting’ process on a completed barrel. The level of toasting imparts a unique favor to the liquid that will be stored in it. Here too oak is burnt.
The entire process from cutting down a suitable tree to finished barrel ready for aging wine or brandy is long and complex. For starters, the wood staves must be seasoned outdoors for two or three years before being carefully shaped.
“You have to draw the bitterness out of the oak,” says Levon. “The wood is wetted and let to dry in the sun. It’s a vital cleansing process. Otherwise the bitterness remains and reacts with the spirits.”
Not only must the wood be selected from the right tree and seasoned properly, but the master barrel maker or cooper, must be in the right frame of mind according to Levon.
“If the craftsman is irritated or in a bad temper, then he can infect the barrel being born,” says Levon, who sometimes talks about a barrel as if was a person.
For example, Levon notes that a barrel can get sick, just like a child. “The barrel will tell you if it’s sick. It will start to ooze. There are seasons when you have to pay special attention, just like a child,” he says.
Barrels can also suffer heart attacks. “Just like a person can get a heart attack, so can a barrel. The wood splits. It doesn’t hold. Sometimes we get it wrong. You think the wood will hold, but…” Levon quickly changes the subject of conversation.
Another important component in barrel making is the metal circular hoops that hold the staves in place. Levon doesn’t like the ones now being made because they bend too easily. He prefers the “Bolshevik” hoops.
“If a barrel holds up to 250-350 liters, we can get away with using six hoops. It takes eight hoops to hold a barrel containing 450-800 liters. The top hoop is like the father and the next hoop down is the eldest son. Then comes the daughter hoop. The one on the very bottom is the mother,” Levon says while he caresses the barrel and is seemingly lost in thought.
I ask Levon if he sees similarities between a barrel and Armenians.
“You know that ever since the reign of Tigran the Great, Armenians have never taken land, we’ve always given. These barrels are takers. Every year they take three percent of the spirits inside. It’s the portion for the saints,” he says before the din of the clanging of hammers drowns out his voice.
Indeed, the workshop is a veritable domain where the cacophony of hammers reigns. Levon figures that it takes 2,000 blows of a hammer weighing three kilos to produce one barrel.
When I ask Levon what he thinks about the current state of the country he smiles.
“I work in order not to think too much about that. No one is left; no craftsmen. The refugee gene is imbedded in us Armenians. But I don’t want Armenians to leave.”
He argues that human standards have changed and that people are respected for the cars they drive and their property.
But he sounds a positive note as well. “There’s a great young generation out there. I see how they struggle and it makes me feel good.”
As for his own personal future, Levon says that when the time comes he’ll hand over the business to his son, a wine maker. But he won’t pass down the secrets of barrel making. Levon believes each craftsman must discover those on his own.
Levon then reminisces about the man who taught him the craft.
“My teacher was Ousta (master) Valod. When he drank cognac, he would say I’m not drinking the beverage but kissing it.”