Fort Collins, Colorado / Minnetonka, Minnesota
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Products: Square barrels
The upstart company that's rethinking the barrel aims to disrupt craft brewing and distilling.
The Celts invented the traditional rounded barrel 2,000 years ago. They didn't have the materials for ceramics like the Romans, but they had wood and steel.
From then on, barrels were the Celts' catch-all container for everything from nails to fish, so the standard procedure was to cleanse them with flame in between uses. The charred interior serendipitously led to the first whiskeys in Ireland and Scotland in the 15th century. Through the ensuing 500-plus years of distilling, barrels have remained pretty much the same.
Squarrel takes a new approach with a square barrel that uses less wood, requires less space, and accelerates the aging process. "You really don't think about things you use every day," says David Monahan, the company's director of operations.
Monahan previously founded Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, where Russ Karasch was his primary barrel supplier. In the early 2010s, the industry hit a wall: American white oak was in short supply. Since an acre of forest only produces enough wood for one barrel a year, the bottleneck lasted several years. "There was a shortage of oak," says Monahan, who left Feisty to pursue Squarrel full-time in 2016. Karasch "got tired of telling people, 'We can't make barrels.'"
Using scraps of American white oak that were too small for traditional barrels, Karasch developed a different kind of barrel that turned two millennia of tradition on its head. "It looked like a porcupine back then," says Monahan. The staves that entered the prototype at odd angles were "the size cooperages would throw away."
Monahan helped Karasch streamline his design into a square barrel, the Squarrel, with removable staves in a stainless steel frame. The company started selling its 10-gallon Squarrel in spring 2018, and is set to launch the 30- and 60-gallon versions in September.
The shape and design offer several advantages. "This is three times more space-efficient," says Monahan. "It's stackable so you don't need racking." It also uses a third of the wood, and a simple port allows easy access to the liquid.
But there are innovations on the inside as well. "Nobody thinks about the technology in a barrel," says Monahan. "It's like a chemical plant."
The wood is toasted and charred, and it's also cross-cut with a series of grooves with a CNC machine. "It's exposing the veins in the wood," says Monahan. "The liquid penetrates it eight to 15 times faster."
That helps solve a big challenge for startup distillers. "For a whiskey distillery, the biggest investment is your barrel room," says Monahan. "There's no cash flow."
The Squarrel solves the problem by allowing for whiskeys to be bottled not after years in the barrel, but weeks or months. Monahan poured a bourbon-inspired whiskey that was aged for a mere 12 days at the 2018 ADI Conference & Vendor Expo in Portland, Oregon. "It was really good," he says.
With traditional barrels, the wood is too inconsistent. "They're putting a flame in the barrel -- you can't control that," says Monahan.
But the Squarrel staves are methodically toasted and charred to four levels of intensity, and every one sports the patented cross-cut pattern. They're also good for several uses, easy to sanitize (you can bake them in an oven), and can be made from a wide variety of woods, not just traditional oak. "We're finding a lot of woods we can use," says Monahan. "We're looking at woods like mesquite, pecan, hickory, maple, and chestnut."
He adds, "For a distillery, you can create the barrel that enhances your product best."
A single Squarrel has six to 40 staves and sells for $670 to $1,290, staves included. The catalog also includes patented honeycomb wood inserts, valves, and adaptors.
Squarrel has about 150 customers; a little more than half are breweries and distilleries make up about a third of the accounts. Colorado-based customers include Renegade Brewing, Intrepid Sojourner, Wynkoop Brewing, and Oskar Blues. Other users include Dogfish Head, Amigoni Urban Winery, and Weyermann.
Squarrel a far-flung operation. A manufacturing partner makes the staves in Missouri, the frames are made in China, Karasch works in Minnesota, and Monahan runs the R&D lab in Fort Collins.
Fort Collins is a great spot for R&D: Squarrel is collaborating with locals like Peter Bouckaert of Purpose Brewing, the mastermind behind New Belgium's Lips of Faith barrel-aging program and co-author of Wood & Beer.
"He's a really great partner for us," says Alex Mackewich, Squarrel's director of sales and marketing.
Brewers are using the Squarrel as a tool for experimentation. "For me, the biggest benefit of the Squarrel is we don't have to commit three, four, six, 12 kegs to experiment," says Jack Meyer, head brewer at Renegade. He uses a 10-gallon Squarrel to age beer with everything from tequila to fried chicken. The hits can become part of the regular rotation; the misses can go down the drain.
After one beer that aged two weeks in a Squarrel "was way too much," Meyer typically gives a beer three to six days before putting it on tap to avoid overpowering wood flavors. "I want it to add to the beer and not be the beer," he says.
Challenges: "All of this comes back to education," says Mackewich. "The Squarrel is a barrel, but it's more than a barrel.
Adds Monahan: "This is such new technology, the challenge is getting people to understand it."
The prevailing paradigm that brown spirits require years to age is based largely on an old Scottish belief that four-year whiskey was less likely to cause drunkenness.
Opportunities: Beyond spirits and beer, manufacturers are using Squarrels to age wine, coffee, chocolate, and other foods. Nuance Chocolate in Fort Collins ages nibs with a bourbon infusion that are ground into a slurry and made into bars.
The cross-cut grooves in the staves allow for innovation: Squarrel is working with White Labs on a system where yeast is embedded in the wood.
A serial entrepreneur and engineer who's also worked in technology, construction, and toy manufacturing, Monahan has also developed a patent-pending pump-through system that incorporates principles of barrel aging into the manufacturing process. Merely pumping beer through a Squarrel "actually flavors the beer," he says.
Needs: "Customers and money," says Monahan. "We're in the midst of looking for outside financing."