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Skyler Weekes, Founder and Owner, Rocky Mountain Barrel Co.

Last Call by | Nov 2012 | Issue #70

Sky Weekes was a wine geek with a culinary degree when he decided to launch his barrel-broker business out of a U-Haul garage three years ago, hawking barrels to wine enthusiasts who “just wanted a barrel for their backyard or their wine cellar,” he says. Then Chad Yakobson, owner/brewer at Denver’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, came knocking, asking for help procuring some barrels. “When I actually did it, it was more or less kind of a joke,” Weekes laughs. “I didn’t know something like this actually existed.” Weekes has since moved out of the garage—he’s actually sharing a building with Crooked Stave. In the past three years, his client base has shifted to the “vast majority” being craft brewers. He’s worked with nearly every brewery in Colorado. And these days, the certified executive sommelier has been known to enjoy a barrel-aged beer or two himself.

What was your life like before barrels?
I worked in many restaurants and as a wine shop manager at Little Raven Vineyards. Over the past six years, I have also done quite a bit of climbing around the world. I have actually broken the Guinness Book of World Records for rock climbing dynoing—jumping without ropes—five times.

What’s different about selling to brewers as opposed to vintners?
When you find the wine barrels for winemakers, they look for all different off-flavors. When you’re selling to breweries, a lot of brewers want the least amount of flavoring in a barrel. They want the most neutral wood vessel they can inoculate with Brettanomyces, inoculate with fresh fruit, inoculate with all different things, so they can actually use it almost like a stainless-steel fermentor.

You mentioned barrels have a 14-day lifespan in your warehouse because Denver’s climate will dry them out quickly.
If you get your barrel, you put beer in it, it leaks beer out, you get your money back. … On the 15th day, if I haven’t sold it, I put it in a different pile in my warehouse and then we break it apart for furniture use, [as part of the business is furniture retail]. … And then probably about 50 percent of the business, maybe a little bit more, is just pure direction, so I never even see the barrels.

What are the toughest kinds of barrels to track down?
For the longest time, it was rum barrels. That’s really what I’ve put a lot of time and energy towards in the last two years, is finding a steady stream of rum barrels. You can always find American rum manufacturers who have 10 or 20 barrels, but it doesn’t really make sense for me to buy anything unless it’s in the hundreds. … So finally, after two years of searching and dozens and dozens of calls, I found a rum manufacturer in the Caribbean who does 20- to 30-year-old barrel-aged rums, multiple hundreds of dollars per bottle, who was emptying a couple hundred barrels. The hardest part of that was figuring out all the Customs. The barrels coming in are actually HAZMAT barrels because technically they’re explosive, because they have a high proof of alcohol inside. …

Anyone can find a wine or bourbon barrel in America, it’s easy. It’s trying to find a 20,000-liter cognac cask out of France—that’s what gets me going in the morning.

Where do you think the barrel-aged beer trend is going?
I think for sure the rum barrel industry is going to be getting bigger, with rum barrel-aged beers. I think bourbon barrels have kind of reached their peak a little bit. … I think the wine barrel-aged beers, you can do almost anything with them. … It’s really up to the younger generation … who you just keep on hearing about doing these crazy things … that’s where the industry is going to be going.