In early spring, as Tim Thomssen readied Boiler Brewing Co. for its grand opening in the Grand Manse, he was also thinking a bit ahead, to the company’s first anniversary. It’d be great, the brewmaster reasoned, to have something special to tap for that celebration. The longtime brewer’s thoughts turned to a barrel-aged Russian imperial stout that the Modern Monks guys released five or six years back.
“It was probably my favorite beer I’ve had on Earth,” Thomssen said.
He wanted to take a crack at such a stout. He just needed some whiskey barrels.
As the craft brewery industry took off, so too did the barrel-aging craze. A whiskey distiller can get one use out of a 53-gallon barrel, most often made from staves of American white oaks, before the wood’s flavor fades, Thomssen said. A brewer, then, can get a few uses out of that same barrel, allowing a beer over an extended period of time to draw in the remaining flavors from the oak, along with the vanilla notes from the whiskey that previously matured in it. Because a distiller only gets one use out of a barrel, the secondary market offers more of them than does a Donkey Kong level.
“The catch is, the shipping kills,” Thomssen said.
So Thomssen called Marcus Powers over at Zipline Brewing Co. to see if he knew anyone around Lincoln selling them. Turns out there was a guy.
By the time Thomssen talked to Ben Loseke, the owner of Midwest Barrel Co. had a better grip on the barrel business than when he started out nearly a year ago. Thomssen recalled him rattling off the names of six or seven whiskey and bourbon companies that had used the barrels he’d recently acquired. He had plenty of freshly dumped ones for sale, which makes all the difference between a barrel being brewer-friendly or furniture.
Thomssen bought eight that had held Iowa-based Templeton Rye. The four stacked behind the Boiler Brewing bar now house the Russian imperial stout, and an English barleywine is aging in the other four in the back.
The sale with Thomssen was a much more straightforward transaction than Loseke’s first few attempts to entice local brewers with his whiskey and wine barrels, he said.
A few weeks ago, Loseke moved about a hundred barrels into a warehouse just south of Blue Blood Brewing Co.’s brewery, at 3255 S. 10th St. He’s leasing the space for his business from the brewery. But he recalled cold calls to Blue Blood, Zipline and others during which he showed up with a single wine barrel in the back of his Chevy pickup and tried to convince them to go outside and smell the chardonnay notes.
“I think they thought I was a little bit nuts,” Loseke said.
Loseke, a viticulturist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, started his first side business three years ago on a boring Saturday afternoon. He went to an estate sale and a power washer caught his eye. It set him back $20, and he discovered later at home that the motor was busted. He fixed it, realized he didn't need it and put it on Craigslist, flipping it for $150.
"A light bulb kind of went off in my head," he said.
He's been turning that $130 profit over ever since. Loseke incorporated about two years ago after selling enough items on the side. He's bought and resold tractors, boats, furniture -- anything his wife, Jess, would let him try.
"The way I convinced my wife of it was to pay for my son's day care," Loseke said. "And still that's what I tell her today, it's money we can use for his day care."
The grape expert eventually grew interested in used wine barrels, ordering a shipment of 40 chardonnay barrels from a Napa Valley vineyard last September. A standard 225-liter (59-gallon) wine barrel stands about 3 feet high, 27 inches around the middle and weighs about 120 pounds empty.
Big and heavy, they don’t get around easy, Loseke said. Paying for a few to get shipped can nearly double the price of each barrel, Loseke said. So he made a bulk order and cleared space in his storage unit.
Loseke started selling them last year on Craigslist and Facebook for $250 apiece or less depending on how many people wanted and whether they could still be used for winemaking or brewing. Most were sold as decorative items.
As he’s ordered bigger batches of barrels, he’s marveled at the uses people find for them. A Lincoln couple used one as the actual guest book -- “Please sign the barrel” -- at their wedding this summer. Rain barrels are common secondary uses. He has photos on Midwest Barrel Company’s Facebook page of a whiskey barrel that one customer stained and complemented with a glass table top. One guy came into the warehouse in search of a 30-gallon barrel to use as a gas tank for his rat rod. Joe Burke, who works at A Can Recycling Center in the same warehouse space, said the craziest thing he could envision is converting one into a stand-up bass guitar.
“I don’t think people actually knew they were looking for them until they saw them,” he said.
And as he spoke to more and more brewers early on, Loseke said they told him the kinds of barrels that would interest them. He’s made larger, diverse orders of barrels, getting ones that held red wines, white wines, tequila, bourbon and whiskey. He’s learned way more about Brettanomyces -- a yeast that’s an enemy to most beers but revered by wild beer brewers -- than he ever imagined he would.
Midwest Barrel's current inventory runs from $200 for brewing-quality barrels to $110 for decorative ones. Thomssen said he’d likely invest in more if he had room for them. He said he's satisfied with his first purchase from Loseke, especially since it came with a little bonus for the staff. When the Boiler Brewing crew popped open the Templeton Rye barrel bungs, they discovered enough whiskey remaining inside them to fill seven or eight of the 32-ounce aluminum growlers that the brewery offers.
"We did the math on that," he said.
"A little icing on the cake for them," said Loseke.
As for the beer, Thomssen dipped a turkey baster in the barrel recently to see how the stout was aging.
“The whiskey was screaming, but the oak and vanilla was kind of behind the curve, so we’re gonna keep going,” he said.
As will Loseke. He's intrigued by the prospect of importing barrels to Lincoln from Scotland that once held scotch and from Caribbean rum distillers.
Loseke’s vision for a barrel of his own, other than selling it, would be one in his basement, filled with wine fermented from grapes he had picked. He said he and another UNL staffer talked about trying it this year, but the barrel business kept him too busy this season.