Tom “The Barrel Guy” Griffin, R.I.P.

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.

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