“The Barrel Broker”: A Green-Based Wisconsin Company

DSC00385Two years ago I met a new business owner in the Milwaukee area, John Gill, who sells a product that many home winemakers will undoubtedly find interesting: used oak wine and spirit barrels. His company, The Barrel Broker, is advertised as a “green” business. For those not familiar with this term, a green company acts in a way that minimizes damage to the environment.

As the scientific reality of global warming sinks in, an ever-growing number of companies are doing their part to become environmentally more responsible or “green.” Being green is the driving philosophy behind John Gill’s four-year-old business venture of buying previously used oak wine and “spirit” barrels and reselling them for continued use in activities as varied as gardening, decorating, furniture making, brewing, and winemaking. So let’s learn a bit more about the man behind The Barrel Broker and what he can offer home winemakers so that their winemaking efforts are more “fruitful.”

The Birth of “The Barrel Broker”

John’s desire to create businesses with small environmental footprints goes back further than his current used-barrel business. Born and raised in Northern California, John was immersed in an area of the country that was at the forefront of the green movement. In 2001, inspired by already-existing green businesses in the San Francisco Bay area, John started a small private tour business, “Escape San Francisco Tours,” which offered active vacations in the Sonoma area of Northern California. Then, in March 2009, based on his conversations with many winemakers and cellar masters, John bought some used barrels from Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley and soon sold them as garden planters. Within a few months, as small wineries began contacting John requesting barrel racks and good-quality used barrels for winemaking, his new business, The Barrel Broker, was born. The used barrels he now sells come from coopers throughout the world, including Seguin Moreau, Francois Feres, Demptos, Boutes, Taransaud, and World Cooperage.

Right from the start, John’s barrel business was a committed green recycling company, working to reuse oak barrels, barrel racks, silicon/wood bungs and other used wine barrel accessories to help ensure the future sustainability of oak forests. Most quality used barrels have a good wine making/aging life of about 8-9 years. The Barrel Broker also began selling barrel staves, barrel heads, wine-soaked oak for grilling/smoking, and even the metal bands of the barrel; when not used whole, every single part of the barrel was recycled and reused in some fashion.

At first, John sold barrels mostly to wineries and breweries, but he then realized that whiskey and bourbon makers were also seeking to oak their liquor, and that is when he began buying and trading for used whiskey or “spirit” barrels. Many of these spirit barrels were 59 gallons, but there were also plenty of 5-gallon, 15-gallon, and 30-gallon barrels that had previously held, gin, whiskey, or bourbon.

Wine barrels and spirit barrels are often made from the same types of oak and with the same barrel design; where they may differ is in whether their insides are either slowly toasted or more quickly charred. The insides of oak wine barrels are typically slowly fire heated to various light, medium, or heavy toast levels, infusing the wine that is later aged within it with such aromas and flavors as vanilla, coffee, and roasted nut. In contrast, the insides of oak spirit barrels are generally more quickly and intensely fire heated so that the wood is actually charred to one of four or five levels of intensity, imparting the liquor inside with such tastes and aromas as burnt toast, vanilla, and caramel, as well as tinting it with different shades of brown coloring.

BarrelBroker_logo_s“The Barrel Broker” Relocates to Milwaukee

In June of 2012, John and his wife Kathleen decided to move to the Milwaukee area where Kathleen’s family is located. They made the move with 230 barrels and many wine racks. Today, The Barrel Broker is housed in a 5,000 square foot facility in Mequon, a suburb of Milwaukee. The Barrel Broker’s Milwaukee-area sales account for about 20 percent of its business, with the remaining 80 percent being largely Internet-based sales to wineries, breweries, and distilleries throughout the country.

Purchasing Barrels From The Barrel Broker

The Barrel Broker’s business location is in Mequon at 10520 Baehr Road, Suites I & J (phone:  262-236-9189), and the business website address is http://www.barrelbroker.com/

John sells American, French, and Hungarian oak winebarrels that previously held either red or white wines. Typically, these barrels have been used for wine aging between three to six times over a five to seven year period. Because these barrels come from wineries, they are almost always in the 59-gallon or 60-gallon sizes, but some are 70 gallons. The most common barrel size is the Bordeaux style holding 225 litres (59 gallons), with the Burgundy style barrel holding 228 litres (60 gallons) being next. All of John’s used oak barrels that are five gallons in size have previously held bourbon, gin, or whiskey; he also has a smaller supply of 15-gallon and 30-gallon spirit barrels. I myself age some of my home brewed beer in one of these 5-gallon gin barrels.

Although a 59-gallon or a 60-gallon oak barrel is generally considered the ideal size for wine aging, many amateur home wine makers do not have enough wine to fill such a large vessel. What about 15-gallon, 20-gallon, or 30-gallon used oak wine barrels? When I asked John whether he had in stock any of those sized barrels, he shook his head and replied, “Very seldom does anyone offer to sell me 15-gallon or 30-gallon wine barrels. Wineries don’t typically use such small-sized barrels and when amateur winemakers purchase new small oak barrels for $250 – $500 they don’t ever sell them.”

As I slowly digested John’s disappointing answer regarding the availability of smallish used wine barrels, my thoughts drifted back to his ample stock of 5-gallon oak “spirit” barrels and his smaller stock of 15-gallon and 30-gallon oak “spirit” barrels. When John had earlier knocked loose the wooden bung on one of his 5-gallon bourbon barrels that had been emptied of its liquor just 6 weeks ago, the now-exposed bunghole exuded a heavy bourbon aroma. “Hmmmm….” I now wondered. “Could these smallish bourbon barrels be rinsed with water, vigorously shaken, drained, and then refilled with wine for aging? Would the resulting wine emerge months later smelling and tasting wonderful? Or would the wine taste too much like bourbon to be enjoyable? Hmmmm…”

After doing some Internet searching, I discovered that this wedding of used spirit barrels with newly fermented wine is not without precedent. About ten years ago, a group of Australian winemakers decided to try aging some of their most promising Shiraz wine in oak barrels that had previously held Kentucky whiskey, eventually resulting in 1,500 cases of “Southern Belle Shiraz” that sold for $25 a bottle. So it appears that aging young wine in used spirit barrels can yield good results wine-wise.

DSC01731In a future posting I will report the results of a winemaking experiment I conducted last year in which I aged red wine for 300 days in a 15-gallon used bourbon barrel (see photo at right) purchased from The Barrel Broker. I also aged some of the same wine in a large glass carboy for comparison purposes. Which wine would be judged the better tasting of the two? The wine judges were members of the Wisconsin Vintners Association. Stay tuned.

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