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The behind-the-scenes world of barrel brokers

When a brewer wants to age an imperial stout in Laphroaig scotch barrels or let an American wild ale mellow in sherry casks, he calls his barrel broker. These middlemen are the mostly invisible but completely vital hands behind some of the world’s favorite and most flavorful beers.
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Barrels at Listermann/Triple Digit Brewing Co.

Barrels at Listermann/Triple Digit Brewing Co.

In the rear warehouse at Rocky Mountain Barrel Company in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, barrels representing all shades of the wooden rainbow stack from floor to ceiling. Hoops both shiny and rusted bind staves of deep chestnut, umber, sand, chocolate and russet brown wood to form imposing towers of barrels charred with the stamps of their origin distilleries or wineries. In one corner, huge blond-wood foeders loom over smaller, delicious-smelling casks of tropical origin.

Pass through the door to the front office, though, and the scenery changes: Beige desks and fi le cabinets line one wall; dry-erase boards are scribbled with notes to restock office supplies; the carpet is standard, durable gray; and phones chirp their varied songs. In an industrial complex off I-70, Rocky Mountain Barrel Co. sits unremarkably next to a mining consulting outfit and a real estate title company. Not exactly sexy digs, but barrel brokers like Rocky Mountain play a crucial, behind-the-scenes role in some of the most prized, delicious and difficult-to-make beers in the world.

The two halves of Rocky Mountain’s physical space represent the dual sides of the barrel broker profession: art and business. Barrel brokers are middlemen, scooping up used, empty barrels from distilleries and wineries, then selling them to breweries who use them to age beer. As brewers demand ever more interesting barrels, from French cognac to Dominican rum to Portuguese Madeira wine, brokers have an increasingly important hand in supplying these coveted vessels. Their job blends logistics, expertise, attention to detail and a good dose of intuition.

Barrels at Adroit Theory Brewing | Photo by David Meaux

Barrels at Adroit Theory Brewing | Photo by David Meaux

As with most brokers—ticket, stock, yacht, anyone who acts as a go-between— relationships are paramount. Breweries pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a single barrel, so they need to trust its provenance. And brokers, too, must cultivate a rapport with the distilleries and wineries they regularly want barrels from. It pays to know a guy.

Noah Steingraeber, sales manager for Rocky Mountain, estimates that his team travels to visit distilleries 10 to 20 times per year. He’s fl own to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to meet with a distillery’s director of operations and master distiller, and recently visited a rum distillery in Colombia.

“We just lay out in black and white what our expectations are in order for us to buy their barrels,” Steingraeber says. “I say, ‘Here are the issues we have. Here are the clients’ expectations. I understand these barrels are your trash, but if you can execute along these points, we shouldn’t have any issues.’”

Issues include barrel dryness, leaks and cracks and infection with bacteria or other undesirable organisms that can leach into beer and spoil it. Those risks increase the longer the barrel sits empty, dries in the hot sun, or travels hundreds of bumpy miles by ship or rail or truck. All of that makes fi nding usable tropical spirit barrels like tequila or rum especially challenging.

“We’re selling a lot of tequila and rum [barrels] because we promise that we inspect them well,” says Matt Albrecht, owner of Buxton, Maine-based brokerage River Drive Cooper & Millwork.

River Drive guarantees its barrels’ quality; not all brokers do, though many have backup plans for inferior barrels such as turning them into furniture, light fi xtures or wood flooring. So why, if you’re a brewery, would you not buy directly from a winemaker or distillery? Why trust the middleman?

Often, smaller breweries have no choice, especially when it comes to getting barrels from abroad or in small quantities.

“Some brokers can get stuff from overseas. Right now we have some Spanish brandy barrels, or one time we got French Armagnac and there’s no scenario where we could get that quality without a broker,” says Mark Osborne, owner of Purcellville, Virginiabased Adroit Theory Brewing Co., which also purchases barrels directly from local wine and spirits makers. “There’s no way we could get something other than local bourbon, local wine, maybe local brandy on our own.”

It’s a service that requires a knack not only for relationships but also for logistics. There’s a reason that many distilleries choose to sell all their barrels to one or two brokers rather than individual breweries: It’s a hassle.

“The biggest challenge is coordinating the empty dates of the barrels with the breweries’ fill dates,” says Albrecht. “A distillery isn’t going to empty a barrel until it’s ready, until the master distiller tastes it and says it can be emptied. They’re not rushing or delaying their dates, but breweries have schedules, too. When the beer is ready, the beer is ready. Breweries are running full blast; they can’t have a beer sitting in their tank just waiting.”

John Gill, founder of The Barrel Broker in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, agrees. “Someone will say, ‘I need 50 or 100 cognac or oloroso or sherry barrels and we need them in two weeks.’ [We] try to build an inventory with as much diversity as possible; the challenge is to buy just the right amount that you can sell in a time period when the barrel is fresh, tight and clean.”

Unfortunately for both parties in this scenario, buying barrels is not like hailing an Uber. tweet

“Some brewers have this Amazon mindset that ‘Oh, I’ll just call this barrel broker and get this barrel and this barrel and this barrel.’ And they need it tomorrow,” says Rocky Mountain’s Steingraeber. To temper expectations and help brewers schedule their beers in advance, he and other brokers make available lists of barrels and when they might come in: “Next load, spring 2017” or “32 available in December” or “80 available now.”

Brokers are not only scouting for the barrels breweries are demanding now, but which crazy wooden vessels brewers might ask for next: barrels that once held vanilla, maple syrup, Sauternes wine, apple brandy, tobacco, hot sauce, even the oil for vape pens. Finding those rarities is part detective work, part luck. Steingraeber says a chocolatier contacted RMBC asking for specific barrels in which to age his chocolate; “I said ‘Yeah, we can get you that barrel, and we definitely want to buy it back when you’re done.’” And traditional oak isn’t the only wood in play either; some brewers are giddy over the possibility of aging in acacia, red oak or Brazilian oak barrels. As brewers try out barrel-aged sours, kölsches, even pilsners, the spectrum of barrels in play continues to expand.

So despite the science, the careful eye and the quality control brokers pour into their processes, much of barrel aging remains a bit of a gamble.

“Brewers know there is always risk, that not every barrel cooperates with every beer that goes in that barrel,” Gill says. “That experimentation is going to be there for a while because everyone’s trying new barrels, or new beers in new barrels trying to find the beer their customers will flip for.”

 

Author
Kate Bernot is DRAFT’s beer editor. Reach her at kate.bernot[at]draftmag.com.

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