By Brian Yaeger
I’ve never met Tom Griffin before, but I’m at a barbecue with him on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz. Because I don’t want his 21-year-old daughter and him to have to sleep on the floor of a former naval prison, I offer them a place to crash. That he’s hauling rare bottles from around the country is a bonus.
Better known in the craft beer industry as The Barrel Guy, Griffin lives in Madison, Wis. but spends more than half of the year on the road. When The Bruery near Anaheim, Calif. wants bourbon barrels from Kentucky, or Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Mich. is seeking white wine barrels from Napa, or his special client, Goose Island in Chicago—with the largest barrel program of them all—just wants about a thousand of his finest barrels, please, the Barrel Guy takes their requests and hits the road.
What started as a favor—procuring spent spirit barrels from distilleries and delivering them to small-scale brewers to refill with beer for aging and flavoring—has evolved into a non-stop, 50,000-miles-a-year job.
Griffin, 53, was born on Cape Canaveral, Fla. Like most military brats, he was no stranger to up and moving: He found himself in 49 states by the time he was 12. Eventually, his dad settled in with a job at the Environmental Protection Agency, which partially explains why all seven of Griffin’s trucks run on biodiesel.
He started out as a homebrewer and, as part of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, Griffin brewed a total of six batches of beer. But he stumbled upon a new passion, and an innovative way to contribute to the brewing community.
In 1999 at a beer festival in Milwaukee, Griffin couldn’t pry himself away from the Chicagoland brewery Flossmoor Station’s table, where then-brewer Todd Ashman was pouring his whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout. Enchanted by the brew and the barrel-aging concept, Griffin heard the Kentucky Bourbon Trail calling. He regaled more than a dozen Midwestern brewers and insisted that if he delivered the barrels, they should use them to brew. Griffin put the pedal to the metal, and though he arrived in Kentucky empty-handed, he returned with 4,000 pounds of second-hand bourbon barrels, nevermind that his truck’s capacity was only 1,500. Between Bardstown, Ky. and Madison, 30 brewers bought barrels.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE 23 YEARS MAKES
About one-third of America’s 1,500 breweries have barrel-aging programs, or at least tinker with the process. Wood is an exciting and sometimes expensive “ingredient” in brew. Sure, technically barrel-aging is a technique, but equally important, the wood—either new, toasted, charred, and/or soaked with spirits—adds remarkable flavors: oak, vanilla, toffee, even straight-up bourbon.
Brewers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the trend: Distillers used to view spent barrels as waste, mulching them as usual or selling them for $25 at best; today they see almost as much return on used barrels as they spend on new ones. While the bulk of barrels are sold and shipped to Scotland, where distillers are permitted to use whiskey barrels repeatedly for Scotch (here, federal law mandates they can only be filled once), on this side of the pond, wood’s being snatched up by brewers and distillers alike, and prices are reaching new highs. Gone are the days when you could find a $25 whiskey barrel. Now, of course, the more high-end product a barrel held, the more in-demand the vessel: Scotch distillers have shelled out as much as $2,000 for spent Madera sherry barrels. Griffin’s priciest find is empty Pappy Van Winkle barrels, which housed bourbon for 23 years. Though not a huge price by comparison, they command around $125 per barrel.
One of Griffin’s best clients is the man who piqued his interest in the first place, Todd Ashman. He’s no longer rolling around Jack Daniels barrels at Flossmoor Station; instead, you can find him in the flatlands near Lake Tahoe, brewing up batches at Fifty/Fifty Brewing in Truckee, Calif. There, he uses Evan Williams Single Barrel, 4 Roses, Heaven Hill Rye and brandy barrels for his 2010 Eclipse Stout.
“If you want any aged character from your barrel it’s imperative that you get them from Tom,” Ashman insists.
Filling Ashman’s boots at Flossmoor Station, Matt Van Wyk kept the brewpub’s wood program on its feet. He brewed Wooden Hell bourbon-barrel-aged barleywine in January 2009, and it’s still one of the holy grails among beer geeks. But in March of that same year, Van Wyk was also westward bound, and he now brews at Oakshire Brewing in Portland, Ore. Of course, he still gets his barrels from Griffin.
With more than 300 clients, Griffin wears the Interstates thin to connect the beermakers with his finds to make magic.
“It’s hard not to become friends with him,” says Alan Sprints, founder of Oregon’s Hair of the Dog Brewing, who procures bourbon barrels exclusively from Griffin for what is one of the most adventurous wood programs in the country. In April 2009, after being invited to a family dinner at Sprints’ home, Griffin suffered a heart attack.
“He’s burning the candle at both ends and in the middle,” says Ashman, who is among the many who believe Griffin’s rigorous lifestyle may come at a price.
BARRELLING DOWN THE HIGHWAY
Nitroglycerin pills in tow, Griffin delivers nearly 10,000 barrels to breweries large and small around the country. He drops off 20 percent of them along the road from Lost Abbey in San Diego County up to Phillips in British Columbia; the Pacific coastline is like a second home.
Because I’m a huge fan of the beers Griffin is partially responsible for and because I live in San Francisco, I invite him to stay with me while his work finds him in the Bay Area. His daughter gets the pullout in the guestroom; Griffin takes the couch. In her two weeks on the road with her father, I’m not sure if she’s slept in any homes. To that end, I’m not sure if she’s had any home-cooked meals, unless foil-wrapped quesadillas cooked on the engine block of her dad’s biodiesel-fueled pick-up count.
Griffin is lousy at bookkeeping. (Alec Mull, the director of operations at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Mich. says, “The only thing we could ask Tom to improve is his scheduling skills and timeliness;” but since Griffin delivers 700 barrels each year for the likes of Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Mull understands scheduling predicaments are bound to happen.) Spreadsheets mean nothing to him. So hiring the youngest of his two daughters as a bookkeeper is a way to give her a summer job while showing her the country and teaching her to play guitar. He’s now heard her play “Over the Rainbow” a thousand times. “I’m ready for a new song. But I love hearing her sing it.”
The next day, he loses his traveling companion, putting her on a train home because he will be making many stops along the way back. He enjoys the road, even if it means sleeping on grain bags in brewery warehouses on occasion. When he’s driving, he says, his body is distracted and his brain can be creative.
“Tom’s great for the industry,” says Greg Hall, Goose Island’s brewmaster. Because of him, gone are the days of making Bourbon County Stout in six relatively young Jim Beam barrels. Goose Island’s warehouse will soon reach its capacity with about 1,200 bourbon barrels, including a soon-to-be-released version aged in the pricey 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels. Hall equates Griffin’s value to brewers who barrel-age to all brewers who rely on hop brokers.
Griffin doesn’t get rich doing it, nor does he think only brewing companies with big budgets should get high-end product. Whether a large brewery orders 100 barrels or a small outfit can use just one, he delivers to both off his horse trailer and each buyer ponies up the same price. It’s all for the beer, so barleywines can be baptized by bourbon and stouts can go from ale to art. While the Founders and the Bruerys of the scene are regarded as the da Vincis and Botticellis, Griffin is all too happy being the guy selling them paint brushes. •