Of all the trips I’ve taken or will take in my self-appointed role as a doughnut ethnographer, Detroit may not be the most touristy destination or have the most exotic-sounding treats, but I’d say visiting Hamtramck to explore the larger-than-life world of Polish pączki (“poonch-key”) had me drooling the most. For one, I love jelly doughnuts. For two, pączki are unlike typical jelly doughnuts and they can even be enjoyed spiked with a shot on what others call Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras but in the Upper Midwest everyone knows it as Pączki Day, which I got to write about for TheTakeout. Take that, other immigrant doughnut styles.
New breweries usually means new IPA factories. Which, TBH, is part of the story of Bend’s Van Henion Brewing, the first new brewery in town since way back in 2019. But the real driver behind the new brewery (which is housed in an old brewery and founded by its old brewers) is that they’re focusing on German lagers like Munich-style Helles. What’s German for huzzah?
The concept of “Dry January” took off a decade ago and finally landed on my radar a few years ago, but as a beer writer, what use have I of non=alcoholic beverages to write about? It turns out, when these soft drinks are hopped, I’ve got at least two occasions to cover ’em. The first was in Drynuary 2020 and then again Drynuary 2022 with a local (to Bend) twist. Here are some great hoppy N/A beverages for a thirsty nation via The Takeout and here’s some available to Central Oregonians via Bend Source Weekly.
It seems every month offers something new I’m completely pumped about getting to experience for the “first” time as a full-time Bend resident. Certainly, even in Portland, Bend breweries are well represented so it’s not like these are all new to me, but whereas Portland winters are usually dreary, Bend winter is cheery. There were snowmen on every block until the snow turned back to rain these last couple of days. But I won’t let that rain on my parade. Or my batch of favorite “winter warmers.” I tried to limit this round-up to just five, but I sorta snuck in a pair from five different local breweries. Sue me.
Beer in Good Spirits
The following is a re-publication of my first story for DRAFT Magazine (vol. 5.4, July, 2010), which no longer appears online since DRAFT is long-defunct. This is in memory of Tom, who I first met on the 4th of July in 2009. We saw each other over the years when his barrel-lugging-work brought him to San Francisco, later Portland, always sleeping on our couch. I’d lost touch with him for a few years but managed to reconnect earlier this year, including as recently as 3 weeks ago. He just passed away (after years of health issues, many wrought by his arduous lifestyle celebrated, as it were, in this story that even addressed a heart attack he had while on the road.)
The Johnny Appleseed of barrel-aged beers keeps on rollin’
By Brian Yaeger
I’ve never met Tom Griffin before but I am at a barbeque 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, Wisc. but spends over half the year on the road. That’s because breweries such as The Bruery near Anaheim want bourbon barrels from Kentucky, Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Mich. wants a couple white wine barrels from Napa, Calif., Captain Lawrence in Pleasantville, N.Y. wants brandy barrels from wherever he can obtain some. And then there’s Goose Island in Chicago with the largest barrel program of them all, and they’ll take about a thousand of his finest barrels, please.
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 turned into a unique, non-stop, 50,000-miles-a-year job.
Fans of American craft beer the world over owe him a barrel of gratitude.
Winter of ‘99
Griffin, 53, was born on Cape Canaveral, Fla. Like many military brats, he moved around a lot. He found himself in 49 states by the time he was 12 before his dad went to work for the EPA. This partially explains why all seven of his trucks run on biodiesel.
His interest in beer began with attempts to homebrew. As part of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, Griffin brewed a total of six batches of beer. Then he devised a way to contribute to the brewing community in another way.
In 1999, at a beer festival in Milwaukee, Griffin happily flitted from table to table sampling beers when he couldn’t pry himself away from the Chicagoland brewery Flossmoor Station where brewer Todd Ashman poured his whiskey barrel aged imperial stout.
There was no going back. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail beckoned.
The homebrew club sponsors the Great Taste of the Midwest, now in its twenty-fourth year. Griffin regaled over a dozen of the Midwestern brewers who poured their wares at this beer festival and suggested that if he delivered the barrels, they should brew it.
Jack Daniels barrels that typically age whiskey for three years were—and for the most part still are—available on the cheap. The longer whiskey sits on oak, the deeper its character. And several bourbon whiskeys spend well over a decade mellowing on charred oak. Griffin drove to Kentucky empty-handed and returned with 4,000 pounds of second-hand bourbon barrels, no mind that his truck’s capacity was only 1,500 pounds.
Between Bardstown, Kent. and Madison, 30 brewers bought barrels.
What a difference 23 years makes
Nowadays, perhaps one-third of America’s 1,500 breweries have barrel-aging programs or at least experiment. Beyond barley, hops, yeast and water, wood can be viewed as an exciting and expensive fifth ingredient. Sure, barrel-aging is a technique, but equally important, the wood—either new, toasted, charred, and/or soaked with spirit—adds remarkable flavors: oak, vanilla, toffee, and naturally bourbon, which bourbon barrels impart.
Whereas 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.
“Yellow spirits,” says Griffin, referring to whiskey, rum, and tequila, “are big. The whole world is dependent on American spirits.” The bulk of such barrels are sold and shipped to Scotland, where distillers use Scotch barrels repeatedly instead of here in the US where federal law mandates they can only be filled once.
As such, wood is going “nuts” on price. No longer can brewers find $25 whiskey barrels. And the more high-end product a barrel held, the more in demand the vessel. Reports of Scotch poured into $2,000 spent Madera sherry barrels are not unheard of. Though Griffin’s priciest find might be empty Pappy Van Winkle barrels that, after the bourbon has matured for 23 years, commands $125 per barrel.
One such recipient of Griffin’s best products is still Ashman. His first barrel-aged attempts were inspired by Samuel Adams Triple Bock, the first modern, American, barrel-aged beer (that has since morphed into the biannual Utopias) and the beer that followed in its footsteps, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. But he is no longer at Flossmoor Station using JD barrels. He has left the flatlands for the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe to brew at Fifty/Fifty Brewing in Truckee, Calif. And he uses Elijah Craig 18-year-old barrels from Heaven Hill Distilleries for Eclipse Stout, which has always been bourbon-aged and this year marks its first bottling.
“If you want any aged character from your barrel it’s imperative that you get them from Tom,” says Ashman who has established a rapport with the man he calls the Johnny Appleseed of the barrel business.
Many such brewers are in the same boat. Filling Ashman’s boots at Flossmoor Station, Matt Van Wyk kept the brewpub’s wood program active and interesting. His Wooden Hell bourbon-barrel-aged barleywine is among the most cherished and sought after bottles in the beer geek community. Another way Van Wyk is following in Ashman’s bootsteps is that he relocated to the West Coast, where he now brews at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Ore., and still gets his barrels from Griffin.
Though Griffin services at least 300 customers around the country, his home turf remains at the forefront of the segment and even boasts the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers each November in Chicago.
“The fact that he’d drive around the Midwest and sell a couple barrels to the small guys was a huge impact,” says Van Wyk. “Other breweries never would’ve bought barrels without him.”
The brewers remain the men and women behind the curtain, but Griffin wears the Interstates thin to allow them to work their magic.
“He’s burning the candle at both ends and in the middle,” says Ashman, who is among the many who believe Griffin’s efforts may come at a price. In April, 2009, after being invited to a family dinner at the home of Hair of the Dog Brewing Company’s founder Alan Sprints, Griffin suffered a heart attack.
“Not everyone comes to my house for dinner,” says Sprints, whose brewery boasts one of the most adventurous wood programs and procures bourbon barrels exclusively from Griffin. “It’s hard not to become friends with him.”
Barreling down the highway
Nitroglycerin pills in tow, Griffin continues delivering nearly 10,000 barrels to breweries large and small. He drops off 20 percent along the road from Lost Abbey in San Diego County up to Phillips in British Columbia, so the Pacific coastline is like a second home.
Because I am 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 counts.
Griffin is lousy at bookkeeping. (Alec Mull, the director of operations at Founder’s in Grand Rapids, Mich. says, “The only thing we could ask Tom to improve is his scheduling skills and timeliness,” but since they fill 700 barrels a year for the likes of Kentucky Breakfast Stout, he understands scheduling predicaments are bound to happen.)
Spreadsheets mean nothing to him. So hiring his youngest of two daughters is a way to give her a summer job while showing her the country as well as teaching her how 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, though it means losing his traveling companion, he puts her on a train home because he will be making many stops along the way. He enjoys the road, even if it means sleeping on grain bags in brewery warehouses sometimes. 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. 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 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels from Griffin. “Tom takes pressure off our production team.” Hall equates Griffin’s value to brewers who barrel-age as 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 one can use just one, he delivers to both off his horse trailer and each buyer ponies up the same price.
“I want him to express himself,” Griffin says of practitioners of the brewing arts. “You’re not going to put Velveeta on top of filet mignon. You’re going to use Maytag Blue.”
The American craft brewing renaissance remains in full swing and while the Founder’s and the Bruerys of the scene may be the da Vincis and Michaelangelos, Griffin is all too happy being the guy selling them canvases.
For people who cut their teeth on the early styles of craft beer such as British bitters, can you believe that in late 2021 there are SIX such bitters–the trinity is ordinary, best, and extra special or ESB–on tap or even better, on cask, in Bend right now? Even if you’re an IPA lover, or especially if you’re an IPA drinker and want to taste the original bitter (that’s actually not all that bitter by comparison), order an imperial pint and you’ll see why I’m ESB-Til I Die. Click the link for my latest in Bend’s Source Weekly.
Almost from the first of dozens of mixed tapes I made for friends (and myself) back in the years when an adolescent me made mixed tapes, I’d kick them all off with a different Violent Femmes tune. That idea followed me to college where, during my years of broadcasting on our college radio station, every single show began in the same fashion. Somehow, I only saw them live a small handful of times unlike, say, Flogging Molly, who I’ve easily seen a dozen times beginning with the in-store they did at a punk rock record shop when their debut album came out.
So imagine my delight in having them both perform here in Bend on the same bill (along with another band I really dig, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes). So, despite the preponderance of my stories for Bend Source Weekly covering beer, and nearly all the rest rounding up doughnuts so I can continue to write off all my doughnuts, I pitched my editor on previewing the Femmes show. This story reads more like a love letter and by far the best part about it was having a stranger at the show recite my opening line, “If nothing else, the … Violent Femmes have ensured that (we’re all) able to count to 10.”
Those tasting room tap lists can be confusing or mysterious, as can the language and info printed on beer labels, but I’m here to help so that you clearly understand it from top to bottom.
Ever since the Coronavirus stopped the world from spinning, not only have most or all of your favorite beer bars been (temporarily) canceled, but so as The Beer Class at UC, Santa Barbara. But when one door closes, one window or browser opens. From intimate gatherings to larger groups of friends, coworkers, or extended family, both my beer and cider tastings are now virtually available by Zoom. I pick the best possible beverages and you pick them up at your local retailer. I’ve done this for folks from here the Valley to over in Virginia (not just alliteration). Together, we’ll come up with the right theme such as style, region, cheese or other food pairing, or just bottles or cans that scratch your fermented itch.
Please get in touch to begin your journey toward not-simplifying but easily-understanding what makes beer &/or cider so complex as well as so delicious.
This past April, Tom Jones—sorry…Sir Tom Jones (but I like to call him ToJo) who just turned 81—released yet another stunning album. Surrounded By Time is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Which you’d expect me to say since I’m the guy who ironically went to see him in concert in 1995 (tickets were $7.50), but has since seen him nearly a dozen more times unironically because that first show converted me into a TJ stan. The album he was supporting back then had the massive hit single “If I Only Knew,” or at least it was in Europe, which is why I heard it in heavy rotation in my dorm room during part of my junior year abroad.
He has released eight albums since then and with the exception of 2002’s Wyclef Jean-produced hip hop inflected album (no foolin’), Mr. Jones, each subsequent record surpasses its predecessor and likewise, each subsequent concert I proclaim the best one I’ve seen. (Well, his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2011 was my favorite set list.) OK, Surrounded By Time isn’t better, per se, than its trilogy of prior discs—Praise & Blame’s bluesygospel, Spirit in the Room’s bluesy folk, and Long Lost Suitcase’s blue-eyed blues—but these last four were produced by Ethan Johns who, it can be said, has done for ToJo what Rick Rubin did for Tom’s old friend Johnny Cash with their American series that saw the Man in Black covering the eclectic likes of Beck, Bono, Danzig, and Depeche.
“Singers are like actors,” said the Welsh Wonder recently. “You don’t have to write the script…in order to make it great or to give it your own interpretation.” This is why I struggle to call Tom’s songs covers. And almost every song he has ever recorded was written by someone else, from his early hit “What’s New Pussycat” by Burt Bacharach to his golden comeback, “Kiss.” Incidentally, June 7 wasn’t just Tom’s 81st birthday; it would’ve been Prince’s 61.
Treatments, reimaginations, recreations, interpretations, or, though it’s a dirty word, appropriations. And in many cases, augmentations. I have two concrete theories about “covers.” Firstly, it’s impossible to cover a Beatles song poorly because at their base they’re perfectly structured pop songs. And secondly, Jones can make even the worst song great; his reimaginations are habitually ameliorations. Take “The Reason” by Hoobastank, written by their then-28-year-old-singer. I hated that song largely because the kid had no life experience so I didn’t believe him. But when I heard Sir Tom sing it (the one and only time I saw him in Vegas, baby), the lyrics rang true. “I’m sorry that I hurt you/ It’s something I must live with everyday/ And all the pain I put you through/ I wish that I could take it all away/ And be the one who catches all your tears/ That’s why I need you to hear/ I’ve found a reason for me/ To change who I used to be.” It’s no secret that the man who’s had more knickers tossed at him than Victoria’s Secret has ever sold wasn’t faithful to his wife, Linda, who he married when the 16-year-olds had their first kid.
Decades later, when Linda was dying of lung cancer, Tom proclaimed he doubted he’d ever be able to perform or record again. According to his account, from her deathbed in 2016 she insisted he find the strength. The first track on his first album since then is “I Won’t Crumble With You if You Fall” by Bernice Johnson Reagon. While Reagon is a Civil Rights activist and was lead vocalist behind the a cappella folk group The Freedom Singers, the song becomes an homage to Tom’s now-late wife, almost as if it were a sequel to the uber-rare Jones-penned original, “The Road” from 2008’s 24 Hours.
The largest departure on this album is that in lieu of a big, tight, brassy band (like his co-headlined disc with Jools Holland), many of the tracks are sparse, avant garde, and atmospheric, yet still theatrical (“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Ol’ Mother Earth,” “Lazarus Man.”). Several cuts are trance-like electronica. In some ways, it harkens back to his collab with the Art of Noise, absent that bombasticness. And if I think back to the last time I saw him in 2019, he hinted at this with his performance of his compulsory chestnut, “What’s New Pussycat.” It basically it sounded like the organ music you hear on a merry-go-round. It was just such an oddball curveball (Thunderball) type of delivery. It was, like this entire album, transportive.
His best offerings are indeed the songs that seem autobiographical. A staple of his late-era live show has become Howlin’ Wolf’s “Two Hundred Pounds,” altered only slightly since, to hear Tom intone and baritone it, “See? Howlin’ Wolf wrote it as Three Hundred Pounds. Because he was 300 pounds. But I sing Two Hundred Pounds because I am 200 pounds.” And then he goes bass, “Of heavenly joy.” When he sings Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” I simply refuse to accept that Cohen didn’t pen it FOR Tom with lyrics like, “I was born like this/ I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice/ And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond/ They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song.”
On Surrounded, Tom takes mostly-unknown tracks by well-known artists as well as wholly-unknown tracks by little-known artists. I’d only caught wind of The Waterboys because I like a lot of the pan-UK-folk/rock bands that followed in their wake a la Flogging Molly. Their original, “This is the Sea,” is a fine, even rousing bar-room sing-a-long. In ToJo’s hands, it’s an organic, organ-fueled ballad with a one-man Gospel Tabernacle choir. Churchy!
Tom takes Cat Stevens’ 1970-song “Popstar” and makes it his 2021-own.
Same with Todd Snider’s “Talking Reality TV Blues” from 2019. Said Snider, “Snider says, “Tom Jones is as great as a singer as there has ever been,” adding, “I prefer his version of the song to my own.” Regardless of who’s singing, the lyrics are a think-piece set to a talking blues. It’s a parable, really. At first it warns of the early dangers of television and how video killed the radio star. Wait til you hear the part about the video star. But the gut-punch is the last verse. “Then a show called The Apprentice came on and pretty soon/ An old man with a comb-over came along and sold us the moon/ And we stayed tuned in now here we are/ Reality killed by a reality star.”
It’s the first time I can conjure up where Tom gets political. But then he does it a beat later, or five tracks later, with “Ol’ Mother Earth.” The song was originally written and recorded by a dude named Tony Joe White in 1973. “And now the ones that you have loved/ Are taking you for granted/ Here they’re so enchanted/ By the progress they can make/ They never stop to think/ Just how much that you can take.” It’s like if Greta Thunberg just wrote it.
He takes Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and does with it, well, much like he did with “What Good Am I?” in 2010 and “When the Deal Goes Down” in 2012 (making this his third Dylan cover over his last four albums). Dylan gave these songs a voice. Jones gives them vocals.
But the show-stopper is actually the disc’s penultimate track, a melancholic yet candid song called “I’m Growing Old” with only a pensive piano as accompaniment. A funny story I just heard is that its writer, Bobby Cole, tried to get the 26-year-old Jones to sing it the year he received a Grammy for Best New Artist! It’d have been like Hoobastank singing about learning the life lessons of a wizened showman. But today, 55 years later, Jones delivers the dark ballad’s lines as if he’s telling Linda to get ready for him. “I’m growing fonder of the fire/ I’m growing mindful of the cold/ I’m growing wise/ I’m growing, yes/ I’m growing old.”
Regardless of the music, his entire oeuvre has been a showcase for his deep, rich voice. The stuff of Mahogany and Corinthian leather. What Surrounded lacks in range it has a deluge of gravitas. With the added storytelling, it makes Surrounded damn near a concept album, The tracking or sequencing is amazing. It harkens back to his early days (his first #1 single, “It’s Not Unusual,” came out in 1964). It also transforms some older material and makes it sound new but also takes new material and gives it a Greenwich Village art house touch where I feel like I should snap to show my appreciation. Then it ends with a retro-futuristic song called “Lazarus Man” by the late soul/jazz musician Terry Callier that simultaneously places Jones in decades past, in biblical times, and in Max Headroom’s 20 minutes in the future.. It paints a portrait of an artist who’s at once past time, show time, surrounded by time, and external to it. On the very sad day of his eventual passing, when the media and most people will want to memorialize him by playing “She’s a Lady,” we ought to put on headphones and realize his music will never die because He’s a Lazarus Man.
Preface/Foreword: I have no idea when I wrote the following! It’s mid-June, 2021 and I just found a mini trove of unpublished blog posts in a newly-found Drafts folder. I don’t remember writing it but I DO know I’ve voiced my hatred for the word “nice” countless times. The post is woefully unfinished; woulda loved to know where I was going with it. But for posterity’s sake, I’m hitting the publish button now. Noice!!
Oh really, you like a nice hoppy IPA or a nice jammy Pinot, do ya? That street dog’s gotta nice snap? That Penang curry’s got some nice heat? Do you flipping hear yourself?? For one thing, when and why did the word “nice” become a substitute for very? (Which is very much one of the dumbest words one can utter and it’s no coincidence that Trumpy uses it… very much.) And more importantly, who Wouldn’t want whatever it is they’re enjoying to be nice? Who the hell would want a so-so beer or a meh wine? Perhaps you think it sounds more polished or hip than saying “good,” but if so, you’re damn wrong. It’s vapid. It’s meaningless. Nice is nasty
Hell, while watching a video about Chinese street food Jianbing by Eater, the eater used the following phrases: “a nice crunch, a nice texture, a nice variant.” He then said, “nice, bright purple cabbage…there’s a nice, sharp ginger flavor.”