The Barrel Brokers: How one couple found themselves at the center of Minnesota’s barrel trade

Erin and Jon Otis of Duluth Barrel Works // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Duluth Barrel Works owners Jon and Erin Otis never envisioned becoming “barrel brokers.” Yet today, they does just that for nearly every brewery in the Twin Ports area, including Bent Paddle and Thirsty Pagan, as well as Dangerous Man in Minneapolis.

When Jon and his wife Erin purchased their first oak barrels eight years ago, they had no intentions of starting a new business—they simply wanted to age honey for their Lake Superior Honey Company.

But the 59-gallon barrels he had access to were a lot bigger than Jon was anticipating—too large to risk the amount of honey that would be needed to fill them.

Determined not to waste them, Jon fashioned one of the unusable barrels into a rain barrel, and broke the other down to see how it was made, eventually fashioning a table, an Adirondack chair prototype, and a “time-out stool” for their daughter. After drawing interest for these creations, Duluth Barrel Works was born.

Jon and Erin are “barrel brokers” for many breweries, including Bent Paddle, Thirsty Pagan, and Dangerous Man // Photo by JaneCane Photography

“We just kind of fell into it,” Jon recalls. Duluth Barrel Works is currently located in the detached garage behind the Otises’ home in Duluth, where Jon makes all of the furniture. Their barrel inventory also occupies several storage facilities in the area.

To maintain the furniture and custom order side of the business, Jon utilizes every last part of the barrels. He doesn’t even waste the scraps of the barrel wood, selling wine-infused oak wood chunks for grilling. It’s this ingenuity and resourcefulness that’s behind Duluth Barrel Works’ success—and it’s not just the creative side of the business that requires dexterity.

In order to find and buy barrels, Jon needs to stoke strong relationships with distilleries, wineries, and fellow brokers. (Erin has stepped back from day-to-day operations to avoid a conflict of interest since becoming Vikre Distillery’s production manager.) These connections are made from cold calling and in some cases face-to-face meetings.

The barrels come directly from small vineyards around the nation // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Why all of this effort? Because these barrels are far more than just wood.

For example, to age their aquavit, Vikre Distillery uses cognac barrels acquired from Jon (Thirsty Pagan later used these same barrels for their Spiced Belgian Dark Strong). Cognac barrels are almost exclusively made from a special type of oak tree only grown in the Limousin forests in south central France. The trees typically aren’t harvested until they reach at least 80 years old.

To drive down the shipping costs, which make up a sizeable portion of the total cost no matter where the barrels come from, Jon partners with other firms and brokers when ordering overseas. All barrels are made from quality oak, but some are rarer and more expensive than others, depending on the type of oak and what was previously aged in it.

With a zero-waste policy, even tap handles are made from the solid oak barrels // Photo by JaneCane Photography

The bulk of the barrels Jon gets are from wineries in California and bourbon distilleries in Kentucky.

Despite the growing demand, the used barrel business is a civil industry, comparable to the craft brewing industry: there are large corporations that trade internationally, and there are individual buyers like Jon, who buy for a particular region.

“When I talk to other brokers, I think we’re pretty open with each other,” he says. “We are all competing on some level, but I think we’re all friendly.” While Jon is the sole distributor of his kind in the area, his clients use his barrels quite differently.

Duluth Barrel Works does it all: barrels for brewing, distilling, gourmet food production, custom furniture, and gift items // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Allyson Rolph, the head brewer at Thirsty Pagan, uses most of the barrels the brewery buys to create an impressive array of sour beers, which they have become known for. After fermenting upstairs, the beer ages in a basement room in mostly wine and bourbon barrels, with no timetable beyond waiting until it has the right taste. What’s more, the barrels have a personal connection: to keep track of the barrels, which each produce a unique flavor, almost every one is named after a different dog owned by Thirsty Pagan employees. This eases the confusion when up to four different barrels go into making a single batch of beer.

“That’s how we make certain beers: it’s knowing which barrels go into making it,” Rolph says.

Vikre Distillery on the other hand ages their whiskey and aquavit in barrels for at least a year, stacking them four-barrels high on a shelving system built by Joel Vikre and his father. In true Duluthian fashion, Trampled by Turtles is played loudly every night through a large amplifier set up inside the barrel room. The vibrations from this “sonic aging” help the micro-oxygenation and flavor extraction process going on inside the barrels. The distillery also uses Jon’s repurposed barrels for their tap handles, among other furniture.

Jon and Erin have to prioritize their lives: both have full-time jobs and two young daughters outside of their barrel business // Photo by JaneCane Photography

The largest of the barrel-aging operations in Duluth, Bent Paddle has 74 bourbon barrels and 40 white port barrels in a warehouse two miles from their brewery, where they age beer from eight to 12 months on average to produce to Double Shot Double Black Ale, a seasonal specialty.

“We’ll use the [barrels] two times, then on the second run we’ll infuse cold press coffee and Madagascar vanilla beans to make our Double Shot Double Black Ale,” says Bent Paddle Co-Founder Colin Mullen. “Then [Jon] also buys them back after use, so it’s a nice closed-loop cycle.”

One of the main similarities between Duluth Barrel Works’ client breweries and other breweries across the nation who barrel-age their beer is that they all want more of them.

“It doesn’t seem to be slowing down. More and more breweries want to do some sort of aged product,” Jon says. “Now the hard part is keeping up with them.”

One of the custom creations by Jon // Photo by JaneCane Photography

This is no easy task when both Erin and Jon have full-time jobs outside of barrels, and two young daughters to take care of. On top of all that, Jon attends graduate school. “It’s a lot of scheduling, of keeping a master calendar,” Erin says, of balancing family, jobs and additional businesses. “Then it’s prioritizing, and obviously our family comes first.”

Eventually, they hope to grow large enough to hire employees and move their business to a single location.

It’s an admirable goal for a business they never knew they would have.

While they may have stumbled upon the business opportunity, the Otises still run Duluth Barrel Works according to their own principles—most notably having a zero-waste business that’s also beneficial to the community. This is partly why Jon buys the barrels no longer suitable for aging: to repurpose them into something usable, like furniture.

“We had it as part of our concept for the business,” Erin says of the zero-waste policy. “But the materials and the products we were making just lent themselves to that, it really makes you feel good.”

Beyond not wasting a scrap of the spent barrels, Duluth Barrel Works has succeeded in establishing a level of collaboration in the community where businesses work together to make better products and stronger profit-margins—all the while maintaining friendships.

“We feel really lucky to be part of it,” Emily Vikre says of the collaboration. “There’s a certain level of intentionality with what we wanted, but I think it all just jives together. There was also just a lot of timing and working in a similar space. I think it’s really cool and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

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