Michigan Beer Guide — Jan-Feb 2012 MBG
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Dark Horse Brewing Co.
Rex Halfpenny

In this edition’s story of expansion we review the history of Dark Horse Brewing Company from brewpub to regional microbrewer.It is also a story about one family’s commitment to their hometown community.

The Morse family business began when dad, Bill Morse, bought a gas station in Marshall. It was sold but bought back when he retired from his job at Frito Lay. The gas station was turned into a convenience store, and the convenience store business grew into three locations plus a restaurant. The C-stores were called Wacky Willies, as evidenced by the sign still outside Dark Horse Brewing Company.The restaurant was Kelly’s.

Aaron Morse was in college in Marquette studying graphic arts in between his home brewing efforts when he got a call from home asking if he had any input for a redesign of the restaurant. Aaron suggested a brewpub. With that idea the family went to the bank.Unfortunately, the bank did not like the Kelly’s location. If they wanted the loan they would have to find a more visible property.That was how the Morse family ended up with the brewpub located at 826 West Michigan Avenue. Matt Allyn helped Aaron set up the 7-barrel JVNW system planted right at the entrance of the restaurant, which opened in1997. Their first beer was Reserve Special Black Ale, a staple in the portfolio to this day.

It should have been a dream come true, but it became more of a nightmare. Aaron commented, “It was doomed from the get go.” A number of reasons were rattled off, 1) the place swallowed money, 2) there were too many chiefs, 3) Marshall was not ready for it, and 4) Marshall was not ready for craft beer.

Aaron did not like the restaurant business.So he made a decision to do the exact opposite of what other struggling breweries were doing in the face of the late 90s shake out, turn his brewpub license into a microbrewery license. While places like Big Buck Brewery (to name one) went from microbrewery to brewpub so they could offer a full bar and mass-market beer, Aaron went from a full bar to Dark Horse only beer. History has shown this bold move to be a wise decision.

The brewing system was moved from the brewpub location to behind the original Wacky Willies. They opened “dirt cheap,” said Aaron, “At a cost of only $40 thousand thanks to family and friends on the beer-for-help policy.” That was September of 2000; one month after Aaron married his girlfriend Kristy. The first beer made in the new location was a special wedding ale, which Kristy added, “Has never been made again.” There was little room in what can accurately be described as a 10 foot by 50-foot hall, and over the next decade, the brewery consumed every bit of Wacky Willy space and real estate. While many 15 barrel systems throughout Michigan run once or twice a week, with the addition of brewer Brian Wiggs the little seven barrel system was turning three or four times a day five days a week, a total of 735 batches of beer were brewed last year.

Dark Horse produced 6,179 tax paid barrels of beer in 2010, and that again was off the seven-barrel system. With nowhere else to grow, they acquired the property and building next door and ordered a new 20-barrel JVNW system out of which they squeeze 25-barrels a batch. The new system was installed and commissioned in March 2011. The new system currently feeds three 30-barrels, a 60-barrel, three 80-barrels, and a hundred-barrel fermenters.Another 80 and a 100 are on order. There are a 30, 60 and a 100-barrel bright tanks with another 80 and 100 on order. A canning line is probable at some point in the future.

The transition from the old facility to the new was smooth and quick with very little down time. Aaron believes in weekends, “Everybody needs time off.” But it took about two weeks to dial in the new system and they did run it 7 days a week for two months to catch back up from the 9-day transition.

The original system is still running, in large part to feed the tavern’s 50 barrel per week consumption. The tavern remains the same and most of the regulars would not have it any other way. The décor is a creative mix of stuff (“Anything we can hang on the wall.”) with no theme other than the amazing collection of Ryan Dalman’s (RAD) hand thrown

Pottery mugs (this edition’s cover). The Dark Horse Mug club has to be the largest in Michigan and one of the largest in the country.As of our visit they had 3,200 members and every one of those mugs is unique and hanging on the ceiling and walls. Another 150 were about to go on sale. Membership is $46.00 for life. Nothing is publicized, the only way you find out about enrollment opportunities are by visiting. Same for their annual Customer Appreciation Night, which coincidently was the day we visited. Free pizzas and cheap beer all day and the only way anyone finds out about it is a small poster on the door. It’s for the regulars.

The big winter event for Dark Horse is their annual December 4-Elf party. Set up like a Christmas party that in addition to beer features what was described as “crazy food,” including rattlesnake, balls, and a whole smoked deer—stuffed with whole chickens and wrapped in bacon. An unexpected turn of events has customers referencing the occasion as the Bourbon Barrel Plead party.It is a long and interesting story, but the bottom line is beer geek demand for Bourbon Barrel Plead has pushed it into legendary status, with 288 cases of the elixir offered this year selling out at $130.00 a case.Someone photographed it at the brewery that night and immediately placed it on E-bay. Other high demand brews included Bourbon Barrel Perkulator (coffee dopplebock) and King of the Forest, a sour maple porter brewed with maple syrup made on premise and aged in a bourbon barrel. Of course the 4-Elf was available, in 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages.

Another area to be expanded is the kitchen, where all food is made fresh from scratch. The menu will remain largely the same, focusing on pizzas and subs.

Also on the “compound” are the Dark Horse General Store, a tattoo parlor and a skate shop. Under construction is a motorcycle shop. To be constructed are Wacky’s Distillery (“I’ll never do wine here,” added Aaron.), plus a creamery, bakery, and an old fashioned candy shop. Aaron’s idea is to create a destination for the family that specializes in local, old world craft and tradition. “Bring the whole family and spend the day here.”

What’s the ultimate goal for Dark Horse?Aaron does not have an answer for this. He said, “Once upon a time I thought 8,000 barrels was where I wanted to be.” They will probably exceed 9,000 barrels in 2011. In what has to be the best personal goal I have ever heard, Aaron said, “I want to retire when I am 45 years old.” That’s in 8-years and Wiggs added that he is doing everything he can to make that a reality. Aaron wants to be able to spend time with his family and travel whenever he feels like it. Part of this includes a desire to open a small satellite brewery in Marquette where he sells only his beer and local ingredient pasties. And when he is not traveling, he’ll still work, but because he wants too, not because he has too.