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Save the Planet (Duh)

Updated: Mar 27

The Stream of Conscience Podcast welcomes Jess Loseke, co-founder and CEO of Midwest Barrel Company! Midwest Barrel Company is a Lincoln-based e-commerce company who aims to benefit their people, planet, and beverages by producing “damn good barrels.”

One of the ways they achieve this mission is through a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation. As a result, Midwest Barrel Company is the nation’s leading broker of premium used bourbon and wine barrels. Under Jess’s leadership, Midwest Barrel Company has grown from storage unit side hustle to international business revolutionizing the barrel industry.

For more information, visit Midwest Barrel Company’s website.

Listen to this episode here!



[Kyle] Hey there, it's your co-host, Kyle Cartwright, and I am back again with another episode of The Stream of Conscience Podcast. Today we are visiting with Midwest Barrel Company, a Lincoln based eCommerce company whose mission is, and I quote, "To be a catalyst in creating memorable experiences that are better for our people, planet and beverages by providing one thing: damn good barrels."

[Graham] One of the ways they achieved this mission is through partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, so we're excited to hear more about that. Here to share the organization's story is Jess Loseke. Jess is the co-owner and president of Midwest Barrel Company, the nation's leading broker for premium used bourbon and wine barrels.

Under Jess's leadership, Midwest Barrel Company has grown from storage unit side hustle to the international business revolutionizing the barrel industry, so welcome.

[Jess] Hey guys, it's great to be here today.

[Graham] So, Jess, first question for you do you wanna start off by giving our listeners a little bit of context?

Tell us about you, the history of your company and, and Midwest Barrel's values as a business?

[Jess] Yeah, absolutely. So we're based out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and we were founded in 2015 by actually my husband, who is my business partner still today. So he, while he was in grad school, he started going to auctions in estate sales and really found that he had a knack for buying and selling, used... I call it junk, he would call it things like antiques. Anything that he thought had value.

And so he started doing that for a couple of years. And well, he actually started that in 2013 and by 2015 we had our first kid and I just was like, "Hey, that hobby, that fun hobby that you have, how about we don't do that every weekend?"

And so he started looking just for one item that he could bring in and resell and landed on wine barrels. His PhD is in viticulture, which is actually the study of grapes. So it's like a sub-specialty of horticulture. And so he bought these wine barrels and quickly found out that breweries were using wine barrels to age their beer and put a barrel in the back of his pickup truck.

Started driving around Lincoln asking local brewers to come out and smell the barrel in the back of his truck, and that really is how Midwest Barrel started. I joined the company in 2017. So I had been behind the scenes helping out with a lot of the business side. So my background is in business.

I have my MBA and really found that if I left it up to him, just this little hobby of his was going to stay pretty small because he also worked full-time at the university. And so I joined up with him and really, we've taken the business from a hobby into a brand. And one of the things that we've really been passionate about is trying to leave the world a better place than what we found it.

And I know that sounds kind of cheesy and a little bit aspirational, which I think that it is. But really, we buy and sell a used product and we really believe that that is a huge gift where we're able to take something that without somebody that acting as that middle person would. Oftentimes just be discarded, and it's made from a finite resource of American white oak trees, which there are a very limited supply of.

And so we really find it to be our purpose to connect the next buyer to the barrel. And so our best partnerships are actually ones where we can sell barrels to breweries, and when they're finished aging beer, we can buy those barrels back again, resell them again to their next spot, and just continue the cycle.

And we replant trees as we sell barrels, and that's kind of probably what got us connected today is, is our is our plan to do that.

[Kyle] I love it. I think, you know, like you said, the, the ambitious mission and kind of purpose of your business to make the world a better place, in a sense all businesses feel a sort of, a sense of purpose in that space, and I think it's, it's okay.

Right? We have to kind of cultivate that and speak to it. And you are, you're finding an innovative and powerful way to upcycle or kind of however you wanna frame it, to bring those kind of materials to life again. Right. And so I wonder as you've started to frame your value proposition as a business in that, in that lane rightfully so, how has that impacted your business to take that lens of really being a steward of the planet, a steward of this, this limited resource.

[Jess] So I think that this is one of those things that I, I would love if, if you guys have a secret way to solve, to put metrics behind it. Because I think that that's always something that as a business we're trying to understand, do the things that we do have real true value in the world or are we doing them just because?

And I wish I could give you some transformational metric that we've been able to identify. But the reality is that Part of being a good human is being a steward with the resources that you're given. And so even though there hasn't been these like astronomical metrics that we're able to say, Oh, our revenue has grown by X percent because we replant trees... how I would wanna answer that is just that we're creating something that other people feel like they wanna be a part of, and that they know that there is, is good that we're doing and that our intention is good and that we're not just trying to, of course, being in business, your role is like you have, you have to make a profit in order to be in.

But you can you can do that while also doing good for the planet. And I think we've been able to attract a team that really gets on board with that mission and our customers really feel connected with it. And that's something that I'm really proud of.

[Graham] Yeah. You know, I think it's really unique and one of the things that we, we hear a lot, especially through organizations we talk to that are part of 1% For the Planet and these different other frameworks out there, is that, you know, there there's this sort of, this recognition of the sense that, that we as individuals and it's as businesses, we have a duty to, to essentially pay rent to the earth that we all inhabit and be stewards of the environment.

And so, you know, again, as you're thinking about those, you know, the cycles of all of this, I remember Jess in one of the conversations we had, I mean, do you have off the top of your head how long it takes for one of those was it a white oak tree to, to grow?

[Jess] That most barrels are made from some type of white oak. And it's usually over a hundred years. And so when you think about the things that we're doing today, I'm not gonna live to see the fruition of the trees that we're planting. But honestly, the, and you know, I would love to, to hope that a hundred years from now, Midwest Barrel companies still exists.

But whether it does or it doesn't, the reality is that. This isn't about a legacy for me that I'm trying to build. This is about a legacy for my kids and my kids as kids. And it, it's not related to the business, but I don't want our legacy to be associated with anything other than really intentionally trying to do good.

It doesn't mean that we're always gonna hit the mark every single time, but as a leader, if if I lead in such a way that my intention is to do good. More times than not, you're going to end up hitting that mark. And I'd rather air on the side of leaving the planet in a better place than what we found it.

And I'm really glad that there are companies out there that, large companies that are modeling. 1% For the Planet or coming up with these programs because they're the ones that have the the resources to do ample research on how to build these programs. And then leaders like me get to take that framework and we get to apply it to our business and we get to work towards those aspirations.

And I don't have to do dilute tons of resources into figuring that out. I've got companies out there that are modeling it, and not only are they modeling it in a way that works for them, they're trying to share it in a way that other companies can replicate it. And I really hope even by doing something like this podcast, that if there's anybody out there trying to figure out, well, how do we start?

You know, doing better for the planet, for our business that you, you just take one step forward at a time and we're on our, on a journey and we're definitely not perfect, but I hope every day that we're doing better than the day before.

[Graham] Yeah. You know, we absolutely, we again talked about like, you know, the rising tide truly does lift all ships and the way that we can be supportive and inclusive and sort of open source, the good work that we're doing as a whole to try to find ways to help elevate that narrative as a whole. And, you know, I think especially for Midwest Barrel as you're talking your primary resource that takes over a hundred years to grow. I mean, to be thoughtful about that life cycle, to be having a deeper understanding of that, I think is really powerful and critical.

And there's, you know, I'm sure there's a number of, of industries that could be taking that type of a lesson to heart. But, you know, as you're thinking about extending that longevity, could you talk us through a little bit around how it is that you are extending the life of the wood and the materials that you're using with these barrels?

[Jess] Yeah, so just to give you a little bit, a bit of background so the primary barrels that we sell are actually bourbon barrels. So my apologies if you already know this information, but just for clarity, most of bourbon comes out of Kentucky. So bourbon has some very specific laws that it has to meet.

The typical guidelines are going to be that the whiskey has to be aged in a brand new American Oak Barrel, and it's typically a four year aging process. And most of it is done in Kentucky. There's some other things that go along with the mash bill and some of the percentages of the ingredients that go into it.

But for our purposes, let's just focus on the barrel. So in order to be called bourbon, they have to use. A hundred percent brand new barrel, so it can never be used before. So when that barrel sits in the warehouse for four plus years, and then they empty it, that they can't reuse it to make what is known as bourbon again.

So you can use that barrel to make whiskey or you can make other spirits but you can make a bourbon. And so the bourbon industry is booming right now. So I think in 2020 there were approximately 2 million new barrels of bourbon that were filled in Kentucky alone. And so if you think four years from now, those barrels are all going to be, not all of them, but many of them are going to be emptied.

So what happens to the barrels afterwards? And that's really where we come in. So, When we started our business, we started it again. I told you the story about how it, there wasn't even the intention to get into the craft beer scene, but that's what's happened and we've created really great partnerships in the craft beer industry that we're really proud of.

And we love the industry. It's collaborative. It's everything that you could want to be a part of in terms of people that promote one another and, you know, lift each other up. That's what the craft beer scene really emulates. But once you put a beer into that empty bourbon barrel and it ages that beer, as soon as that's emptied, you can't put another beer in it.

It's not that you can't, but you really wouldn't want to, again, for a variety of reasons. So what happens next? That's where you know, in a perfect relationship, we like to buy those barrels back again as often as we can, and then we can often resell those barrels for furniture. So let's say you wanted, A decor barrel to sit outside in your lawn or perhaps you want to make.

A cool decorative piece for your house, like a light fixture. You can use the rings of the barrels and you can create something like a light fixture, or you wanna create a wall that has the, the pieces of barrel are called staves. That's what the wood pieces are. So maybe you want a wood wall in your house, and so we can sell you the staves.

One step further that we've even gone is, we actually chip and chunk up the barrel and we'll sell that as barbecue smoking wood for people to use in their grilling and barbecuing. And so again, it's just, we don't wanna throw any, any part of the barrel away. So we want no scraps. We wanna be as close to zero waste as possible.

And that's really our goal. And so we've tried to think very holistically, not about how to keep the barrel in its original form, but what is that second life or third life or fourth life for the barrel.

[Kyle] That's really interesting. And, and speaking for myself, and I'm guessing there's a lot of others out there, you know, who like to grill on occasion.

Certainly like a barrel aged beer. So I, at every level of that life cycle, I think I've probably enjoyed a form of that white oak barrel product. So that's exciting to hear that's part of a mission, right? That's part of a mission to, to leverage and utilize that limited resource.

And I love that you have talked about, you know, and maybe, and maybe there's been kind of the market demand in the had been growing, but the ability to leverage it and create the community around it within the craft beer scene, I know that that is a huge, a huge trend right now and has been for the last several years.

So very cool to hear you tell that story. Speaking of staves that you have brought up there is a #SavetheStave campaign in a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation. I wonder if you'd share just a little bit of the details around that. What is, what's the outcome of that campaign?

How are you working with Arbor Day Foundation?

[Jess] Yeah, so we started working with Arbor Day a few years ago. Again, I have to give a lot of credit to my co-founder, Ben. And just his passion for trees specifically. So when we really thought about seeking out a partner. Trees just felt like a very natural connection because of the barrels obviously, but more importantly you know, he got into plants specifically because of trees and so that's just been really fun personally to see that.

Come full circle, the Arbor Day Foundation is actually based out of Lincoln, Nebraska. And so we knew that we wanted to partner with somebody local that was really important to us. And, and had they been global, I don't, or even national, I don't think that that would've been a barrier, but I think it's a lot.

It means a lot more to us that we can give back to an organization that's right here in our backyard. And so the first couple of years we just donated to their general reforestation fund. So they have several different fund like replanting funds that you can do and they allow you as a corporate partner to pick which, which one that you wanna be a part of.

So we just knew that we wanted to plant more trees and gave to us, you know, the general. And then two years ago we said, Okay, hey, we've been doing this for a couple of years. We'd like to actually get involved with a specific project. And so we let them know some of the areas that we were interested in and we specifically wanted to target oak trees.

For the reasons that we've talked about. And so we got lined up with the project that we're in right now and we're just about to wrap up helping replant 15,000 trees in that particular project. And so Save the Stave is a hashtag that we came up with that's just. Really geared towards, if you know what a stave is you probably know about barrels.

And so in order to keep having more barrels in our industry, we're going to need to replant the trees. And there are other distilleries out there Angels Envy is one that they also give to the Arbor Day Foundation. And so there are a lot of partners that. Are starting to or not partner. There are a lot of other companies that are really starting to recognize the importance of replanting and giving back.

The one thing that I also wanna point out specifically with trees, that means a lot to me is out of, so that trees are kind of at a micro level in a sense when you think about personal passion projects. But at a macro level, when you think about some of the problems that we're facing in the world, there are still people that live on planet Earth today that do not have access to clean water and do not have electricity.

And so in those areas, it's generally women that spend much of their time going out to access clean water on a daily basis instead of getting education. And clean water can only exist in places that have trees. And so for me, the tree thing, I really care about education and lifting women.

Specifically, and it just floors me that we can still live in a world where people don't have access to clean water. And we don't think about that on a daily basis, but it does exist. And so from a macro perspective, like to me, this mission is so much bigger than just making more barrels. It's the fact that thinking about the impact that it can have downstream to people that we don't even.

Really no exist because they live in very remote parts of the world still. And so I'm really proud to be a part of what the Arbor Day is doing. And they are really passionate about touching all different levels of this.

[Kyle] Yeah, absolutely. I love the extending your sphere of compassion regardless of you know, seeing it firsthand, right?

You acknowledge the challenge and, and find a way to, to play a role and use a very unique business decision and a unique business relationship to drive that forward. So we can appreciate that and I love the, the creativity behind that. One maybe bonus question that I might throw in that we can, we can.

If needed would be, I meant to ask this a little earlier, but is there any particular, like interesting or particularly weird uses of the stave that just have stuck with you over time?

[Jess] Oh I'm trying to think about what's appropriate to put on a podcast here.

[Kyle] Hey, well, go for it and we'll cut it if we have to.

[Jess] Oh gosh, yeah.

I mean, not just the staves barrels in general. People use some really weird things. Okay. So. Sure, sure. So when I think about very interesting and maybe unexpected uses for barrels, a couple of the ones that pop up. Taxidermy is a big one, so you wouldn't really think about about that, but a lot of people like to mount their wildlife on them, or even more specifically their pets. That has been a big thing.

We've even had people want to use barrels as urns, which has been very interesting. But yes, there have been some very, let me just say, creative uses of barrels that you would definitely not expect. On the smoking wood side, we have people or I guess this wouldn't be for smoking wood, but we have people aged like hot sauce in barrels and then we've sold hot sauce chunks before.

So that's just kind of what, like a, not super weird, but it's, you know, really interesting and then hadn't heard of that one before. Yeah, I mean, just people get very creative.

[Kyle] Yeah. Maybe yeah, some like social media campaign around that or something. That's super interesting.

[Graham] So, so Jess, as you're, thinking about you know, what's next for, for Midwest Barrel Company you know, how do you continue to be a leader in environmental stewardship?

Where is this journey taking you?

[Jess] So I think journey is the key that you used there. So again, I wanna reiterate that like we are, we're such a small player in this and I'm really proud of the contribution that we're making, but it is very aspirational. It's something that went that we have to still intentionally pause and really think about, oh, okay... what are we doing?

Because in the craziness of everyday, like we don't have anybody on our team that is our like nonprofit giving representative or any, I mean, it's still just, we're a small team, right? And so it takes a lot of intentionality and I wouldn't say that it's something that at this point on the giving side comes as naturally, but what has come really naturally and that I wanna continue to really lead is the not wasting of the barrels.

That is something that my team really does understand. And, and even in the rare occasion that we ever have had like some quote unquote scraps for maybe a project, we'll still even just post them on like a Facebook marketplace for free, for people to come pick up and just donate it because we don't, like you will never come see would in our, and I, I should never say never on a recorded platform, right? That something that is really important to us is that we are trying to get a zero weight as close to zero waste with the barrels as possible. We give in a lot of ways that you might not expect, where just partnering in at the community level is really important.

So we do a lot of donations and that's something that I wanna really continue supporting some of these causes that maybe don't have the same environmental impact, but they mean a lot. And so we do a lot of that. And then as they think about the future, I just wanna continue really thinking about how do we replant more and more oak trees.

So we're already starting to be in talks with Arbor Day about what our next project looks like. I'm excited to think about how we can increase our giving. I really hope to be in some of the areas that are specifically affected by the deforestation of American white oak trees.

And so that's something that I'm really passionate about. But to, to summarize, you know, to conclude your question, I guess I would say that as a small company, I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel here. And so I really am looking to these larger companies that are out there that have the experience, that have the data and the metrics that I'm talking about that I don't have, that we can see what are they doing, what's working really well, what do customers respond to, because I wanna do what's important to us, but we are a representative of our customers as well.

And so I wanna hear what's important to them. And so we've we've really tried to take feedback from them very seriously, and I wanna continue collecting that.

[Kyle] You know, I think you've highlighted a really key lesson for the audience here as well, in that, you know, that focus. Right. Not just kind of spreading our mission, our intention.

It's really utilizing and thinking deeply about the product, the service, the brand, and how does the business really play a role in affecting something that the business is, you know, whether or not it's benefiting from, or it's tangentially interacting with. I just think it's really.

It's really powerful that you've found a lane to be very focused and strategic in supporting and, and also finding, again, those downstream effects of things. And you mentioned about the motivation and the energy of the team you've been able to bring together. I have to believe that that is, very well tied to the focus and the strategy and the way that you're able to communicate that mission behind the business.

So, so well done from our side of just having kind of seen the sector of solutions, I think this is a really powerful one. So well done. I'm sure all the bourbon drinkers out there are interested to find out how they can make sure that their next glass is sustainable. So where can they find out more about the #SavetheStave, and just more about Midwest Barrel Company.

[Jess] Yeah, so we try to be all places on the internet. So even if you just Google Midwest Barrel Company hopefully, we'll come up there at the top. But if you go to our website, which is or to our sister site, or on Amazon any of those places you can find our products.

You can find information about our projects that we're working on with the Arbor Day at and we're just really excited to be out here telling our story and it's been an honor being able to do so, and I'm just really proud that there are companies out there sharing stories. Positive positive impacts that are being made because as I, as I hope that I've communicated, I just try to be a good steward of information and I'm still out here learning and trying to grow and get better and trying to lead people that are also passionate about doing that.

And so I'm, I'm a consumer of information as well and just really proud to be able to tell our, our story here today.

[Kyle] Yeah. Well, we really appreciate your time, Jess. Yeah, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.

[Jess] Yeah, thank you.


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