Sauvignon blanc has a crisp, dry mouthfeel and a grassy nose that typically gives way to hints of lemon drop, grapefruit, guava and peach. Because of that, this lighter white wine pairs particularly well with sea bass, goat cheese and even sushi.
Skyler Weekes also thought the wine, or at least the oak barrel in which it was fermented, would pair well with the funky rye saison that Brandon Jones was planning to make for Nashville's Yazoo Brewing last year. "I asked him if he wanted to focus on the dryness of the rye or if he wanted to complement it with something salty or sweet or tropical," Weekes recalls. "I said he could try chardonnay, which is buttery and caramel-y. But after I described the sauv blanc, he said, 'That sounds awesome.' So then I told him that I could find some fifteen-year-old casks that are soaked with the flavor of the wine, or that we could look at something only two to three years old that still had a little smoky oak."
Choices, choices. To make those choices, craft breweries around the country have been relying more and more on the expertise of Weekes, a rock-climbing whiz turned sommelier turned beer-barrel salesman, who started Rocky Mountain Barrel Company in 2010.
Barrel-aging was once solely the domain of vinters and distillers, who use oak barrels to impart flavor to wines and spirits. But in recent years, craft brewers have been snatching those barrels once the vinters and distillers are done with them — especially barrels that had held bourbon, rye, rum, tequila, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or zinfandel — to age their products as well, creating a variety of complex flavors and aromas in just about every style of beer.
Weekes now has more than 400 brewery clients, including some of the most respected names in the craft-brewing industry: Avery Brewing, Lost Abbey, Prairie Artisan Ales, Lagunitas, Breckenridge Brewery, Goose Island and Crooked Stave. About 25 percent of his customers are in Colorado, and they include TRVE, Copper Kettle, Paradox, Epic, Odd 13, Denver Beer Co., Sanitas and Beryl's. These companies use the barrels to age everything from mouth-puckering sours that have been purposely infected with Lactobacillus to sweet English barley wines that drip with toffee and vanilla flavors to roasty Russian imperial stouts that pack a bourbon-like punch.
"When I started out, I was all about wine. That's what my education had been in," says the 29-year-old Weekes. "Now I know a lot more about beer. But since I can recognize what the nose of a forty-year-old French cognac smells like, or explain the difference between chardonnay and sauv blanc, I can recommend barrels and make beer-pairing suggestions about which ones these breweries might want to use."
It has made him a success, despite serious setbacks. Over the past six years, Weekes has suffered two devastating injuries — one related to his hobby and one to his business — and either one could have killed him. Neither did. In fact, Weekes bounced back from both with even more passion for what he does than before.
That's a spirit all his clients recognize, and this month Weekes will get lots of visits from those brewers, hundreds of whom are in town for the annual Great American Beer Festival, which takes place each fall. They'll check out the 8,000-square-foot building in Wheat Ridge where Weekes moved the company in September, quadrupling his space, and share the good news if they win a medal for a beer that was aged in one of his barrels.
Yazoo's Jones will be one of them. Although the brewery didn't make it to GABF last year, it will there in force this time around, pouring the rye saison, which was fermented with Brettanomyces yeast, for GABF attendees.
"They were incredible barrels and worth the money for sure," says Jones, who ended up selecting eighteen nine-year-old sauv blanc barrels. "I like how much the character of the barrels and the heavy toasting played with peppery characteristics of the saison yeast. I told him he better be able to get the same barrels for me next year."
Barrel-aged beers make up a tiny portion of the craft-brewing industry, but they have a high profile and a high price point due to the time and energy it takes to brew and age them. The Boulder-based Brewers Association, which represents the industry nationwide, doesn't keep specific numbers on barrel-aged beers, but the trade group has continued to add barrel-aged categories to the Great American Beer Festival.
"Both large breweries and small are dabbling in small-batch and barrel-aged beer," notes BA spokeswoman Julia Herz. "They are very time-intensive to produce and very low production, which makes them hard to find. But they are becoming more common because more breweries are devoting time and resources to them."
The catch, Herz says, is that "it takes extra training and know-how" to work with wooden barrels, which are "living, breathing vessels" that can be easily infected. "That can wreak havoc on the beer. You really have to know what you are doing."
This year, GABF judges will select beers from at least six categories (and several more sub-categories) that deal specifically with barrel-aged beers, including American-Style Sour Ale, American Brett Beer, Wood- And Barrel-Aged Beer and Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer. Several other categories also allow barrel-aged offerings.
Many of the barrel-aged beers are very high in alcohol, a tactic brewers use to counter the strong and complex flavors that barrels add to the beer. But many others, particularly sour and wild ales, are lower in alcohol because they already have such strong flavors.
Breweries use barrels for different reasons. The first is to impart to their beers new flavors that come from the wines or spirits the barrels once held. These beers are often already bold styles like stouts, barley wines and English-style old ales that are aged anywhere from six weeks to sixteen months. Examples include Avery Brewing's Rumpkin, aged in rum barrels; Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, aged in bourbon barrels; and Lost Abbey Angel's Share, aged in whiskey barrels.
Most bourbon distilleries in Bourbon County, Kentucky, only use their barrels once, says Adam Avery, who founded Avery Brewing in Boulder in 1994 and runs a large and sophisticated barrel-aging program for both sour and non-sour beer. "We've gotten pretty heavy into the bourbon-barrel stuff, and Skyler has been instrumental in that for us," he explains. "The first time we use one, the beer will be defined by the bourbon character that is coming out of the barrel. On the second use, you don't get as much bourbon, just vanilla and oak. By the third time, they have become fairly neutral, so we turn all of those into our sour program."
Avery has purchased hundreds of barrels from Rocky Mountain Barrel over the past two years — primarily bourbon and rum — and is now buying them by the truckload as it gets ready to open a $27 million brewing complex in 2015. The brewery also plans to ramp up production of barrel-aged beers from 4,650 gallons in 2013 — or just under 50,000 twelve-ounce bottles — to at least 45,000 gallons in 2014.
"We will end up buying thousands of barrels from him; 288 barrels is what you can stuff into a semi trailer," Avery adds. "The logistics of it is something we can't handle ourselves. I wish we could, but we can't. A lot of these bourbon companies are huge. They don't want to deal with us buying 288 barrels. That's nothing to them."
Other breweries, like Fort Collins-based Odell, use new oak barrels simply to add an oakiness to certain creations, like its ongoing Woodcut series, which has included everything from a golden ale and a Russian imperial stout to pale ale and barley wine.
Another major category of barrel-aged beers is wild and sour ales made with special yeasts and bacteria. They need barrels so that they have more oxygen to breathe; fermenting these beers in stainless steel doesn't work as well. Well-known examples include Russian River's Consecration, a dark sour ale aged in cabernet barrels; The Bruery's Oude Tart, a Flemish-style red aged in red-wine barrels; and Crooked Stave Origins, aged in whiskey barrels.
"It's been shown that the yeast and microbes will be a little more expressive with a small amount of oxygen intake," says Nick Nunns, who has been slowly developing a wild- and sour-ale program at Denver's TRVE Brewing. "If you get too much oxygen, you are talking about...some really terrible flavors. But if you treat the barrels well and handle the beer well, they promote the flavor characteristics that you want to see."
Nunns, who founded TRVE in 2012, has purchased about thirty whiskey, white-wine and red-wine barrels from Rocky Mountain Barrel. But he's planning to double that number later this year or early next year when he opens a second facility, nicknamed the Acid Temple, that will focus entirely on barrel-aging wild and sour beers.
"We tell him what we want, and he can usually track it down," Nunns says. "Without Skyler, I feel like I'd be kind of lost. I don't know where I'd really go."
Last month Rocky Mountain Barrel Company moved to a brand-new space in Wheat Ridge, where Weekes runs the beer portion of the business, along with a custom barrel-furniture shop and an engraving operation. He also plans to open a small winery in the facility sometime next year. He now has seven employees there who handle all aspects of importing, inspection, construction and shipping.
But the facility accounts for less than half of Rocky Mountain Barrel's total business; the rest is handled by phone or over the Internet as Weekes arranges for hundreds of barrels per week to be shipped in bulk to and from South America, Asia, the Caribbean or other destinations, like Scotland, where distilleries rebuild and reuse old barrels. "We shipped 4,000 barrels last year. About half of those went to Scotland, where they use them again for Scotch," Weekes explains. "This year, we've already shipped 80,000 barrels. Beer is a huge part of that. It's what keeps us going." In an average week, Weekes ships 600 to 800 barrels, half of which he never sees.
To do that, Weekes has become an expert in negotiating freight charges, shipping paperwork and customs procedures in numerous countries.
It can be a risky business because shipments are often delayed, which can spell trouble for the barrels. "Barrels have a shelf life: two weeks max. So you can't stockpile them," Weekes says. "They can dry out, get infected. In the last year, I've lost three loads, rum and tequila, because of mold and infection. Each was a $28,000 hit."
This is not what Weekes saw himself doing ten years ago. But then, nothing he has done over the past decade has gone quite according to plan.
Weekes moved to Boulder from his hometown of Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2003 to attend the University of Colorado. But he spent most of his time bumming around Estes Park, following his passion: a dangerous form of rock climbing, known as Dynoing, in which climbers swing, leap or jump from one rock or wall face to another without ropes or harnesses. Weekes's height — he is six feet five inches tall — and large hands made him particularly adept at Dyno moves.
After a year at CU, Weekes followed another passion by switching to culinary-management school at the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver. He continued to Dyno, though, and on June 4, 2005, he suffered the worst day of his life: While warming up for the finals of the Teva Mountain Games Freestyle Dyno competition in Vail, Weekes fell headfirst to the ground, breaking his back and crushing his left eye socket. He underwent seven surgeries as well as facial bone reconstruction and spent the next six months in a full body brace; doctors told him he might not walk again.
But just two years later, Weekes was back on the boulders, where he set the first of his five world records in the sport. The most recent, in 2011, was for a nine-foot-six-inch move during the Cliffhanger Games in Sheffield, England.
By then, Weekes had graduated culinary school, begun taking classes with the International Wine Guild, and gotten a job as a sommelier for Little Raven Vineyards, learning the ins and out of the wine business. Although he lived in Denver, Weekes spent a lot of time on the Western Slope. "I wanted to be part of the wine culture and to hang out with winemakers," he says.
At one point, he bought a used wine barrel, which he brought back to his Denver apartment and later sold on Craigslist to someone who used it to make furniture. Weekes bought a few more after that, and rented a U-Haul storage locker for them. By 2010, his interest in barrels had grown so big that he incorporated Rocky Mountain Barrel Company and rented a warehouse east of Denver, where he stored the barrels and made furniture himself.
The next year, he got a call from an aspiring Colorado brewer named Chad Yakobson, who was looking for wine barrels he could use to age sour and wild ales. Yakobson, who owns Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (which started in Fort Collins before moving to Denver), had been scouting California wineries for the barrels when someone recommended that he give Weekes a call.
"He introduced me to the beer scene," Weekes says of Yakobson. The result was a friendship and a business relationship that helped both fledgling companies get off the ground: Crooked Stave began buying red- and white-wine barrels from Rocky Mountain Barrel, while Weekes, who had since moved his operation to a business park in north Denver, helped Yakobson find space in the same facility.
But soon bad luck struck again. Weekes was building a rack for three forty-year-old cognac barrels purchased by Jeremy Tofte, the owner of Thai Me Up/Melvin Brewing in Jackson, Wyoming, when the chop saw he was operating hit a nail, jerking the machinery — and cutting off the index finger and half of the middle finger on his left hand.
"It was the Sunday morning of GABF that year, about 6 a.m.," remembers Weekes, who lost an enormous amount of blood before he could call 911. Doctors were able to stabilize him quickly, though, and reattach his fingers.
The accident could have put an end to Weekes's record-breaking Dyno career — or maybe not. He recently began climbing again, and says his fingers are strong enough to do it. "And I'd much rather chop these off one more time then break my back again," he says. "I'm not slowing down anytime soon — and neither is craft beer."
Thai Me Up's Tofte ended up naming the 13 percent ABV cognac-barrel-aged beer for Weekes: Blood, Sweat and Tears Stout.
On September 21, Avery Brewing released a brand-new bottled beer, PumKYn, a bourbon-barrel-aged stout named with a nod to Kentucky and spiked with pumpkin seasonings. The 17.2 percent ABV behemoth of a beer was aged in barrels supplied by Weekes.
One week later, the brewery released its fourth annual iteration of Rumpkin, a similarly potent pumpkin beer, this one aged in rum barrels. In mid-October, Avery plans to release another rum-barrel-aged brew, an imperial stout called Black Eye, which is a somewhat self-deprecating nod to Black Tot, a beer that Avery produced in 2009 and subsequently had to recall because some of the bottles had become infected. Rum barrels, which are difficult to procure, are also the variety that give Weekes the most trouble.
"We can't nail down what it is with them, but it's a petri dish down there in the tropics, with their climate, compared to Colorado or even Kentucky," Avery points out. "And rum producers use their barrels a lot, so they are at the end of their life cycle once they give them up.
"While there is no way I would stop using them, they are the trickiest to get quality beer out of. Almost everyone who has produced a barrel-aged beer has had a few vessels that were infected," Avery adds. "There is no way to sanitize them, really, and there's bugs in that wood. It's a learning experience."
Next year, Avery plans to buy 2,000 to 3,000 barrels from Weekes. Although most will be bourbon and rum barrels, there will also be barrels that stored wine and tequila.
And that's a good thing, according to Weekes. "I'd like to see craft brewers move away from bourbon. It used to be that's all there was, but now there is so much more out there," he says.
Profit margins are also lower with bourbon barrels. As demand has risen, the cost of buying them has increased significantly. "When I started four years ago, I was buying barrels for $30 or $40 a pop," Weekes recalls. "Now, they are at least $100 plus shipping. I can sell them for $139."
And bourbon barrels are some of the cheapest. Tequila barrels cost $169, while chardonnay barrels run about $195. Tawny port barrels, meanwhile, are $454, while cognac and other specialty barrels can cost upward of $450 each.
Earlier this year, Weekes and Yazoo's Jones decided to take six cognac barrels that had been used by high-end French producer Tesseron for what they believe is the first-ever collaboration between a barrel broker and a brewer. The beer is an English-style old ale that will be spiked with funky Brettanomyces yeast. "We built the recipe around the barrels," Jones says. "It was great. He came out here and took a look at some of the barrels he had sold us over the past two years, and pulled some nails. It was cool for him to see some of his barrels in action."
Yazoo is getting ready to build a new, 7,000-square-foot facility that will be dedicated solely to barrel-aged sour and wild beers. Which means this brewery, too, will be upping its orders from Rocky Mountain Barrel.
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"We use him for almost all of our stuff now, even though we are in another state and another time zone. He kind of knows the direction of what our brewery is going in and he gets our house character," Jones says. "There are a lot of barrel brokers out there, but where are you going to get twenty-year-old sherry barrels or thirty-year-old rum barrels from Jamaica? He's the guy."