Signifiers

Do it Yourself, Make it Ridiculous — Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall, MI

"Twenty years of not giving a shit would suck," says Brian Wiggs, director of brewery operations at Dark Horse Brewing Company. 

It's apparent on my first visit to Dark Horse’s compound in Marshall, MI, that more than a few of the folks who’ve contributed to the brewery during its first couple decades gave several shits. I pull up on a cold, gray December Saturday around 11:30am. The taproom is already full tilt and humming with conversation, packed to the gills with people on a brewery crawl. 

Next door, a cafe and bakery they call Dark Horse Commons is dishing out house-made pastries and pouring fresh, steaming hot coffee roasted on site to a steady stream of patrons. Across the parking lot, the glow of a neon sign lights up the windows of a general store and, next to it, there’s a motorcycle repair shop. Dark Horse is more than a brewery. It’s an entire community devoted to serving the city of Marshall.

It started in 1997 with director of marketing Kristine Morse’s husband, Dark Horse co-owner, Aaron Morse. He’d been homebrewing in the dorms at the University of Northern Michigan, and the two of them had become smitten with craft beer in the Upper Peninsula, buying bombers of Bell’s and seeking out whatever new and interesting beer they could find. Back in Marshall, Aaron’s parents had mentioned opening a bar. He asked his parents if they would be interested in having beer made on site and they jumped on the idea. 

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Aaron and Kristine weren’t involved in the planning of the brewpub and, with time, realized it was getting away from their vision. Eventually, the size of and breadth of the place was too big to manage and the focus on Aaron and Kristine’s original intention of making beer had been diluted, leading to the closing of the brewpub on New Year’s 1999 with a big Y2K party.  

“It was a brewpub with a huge restaurant that was introduced along with it, so it wasn't all about the beer,” Kristine says. “We had liquor, we had wine and guest taps. Aaron was thinking, let's concentrate on what the passion is, what we initially wanted to do, which was beer. That's how Dark Horse was born.” 

With a clean slate, but little-to-no money, Aaron and Kristine started going to auctions to find materials just to piece together a tiny taproom in late September of 2000.

“It was pretty much a hallway—50 feet long, 10 feet wide,” Kristine remembers. “We put a seven-barrel system in that tiny little spot. We decided to do pizzas, so we bought a couple pizza ovens. Aaron would brew during the day, open the taproom at 3pm, and he'd be making pizzas the rest of the night.”

It was around this time that Bell’s Brewery had only begun thinking about expanding from its downtown Kalamazoo brewpub to a state-of-the-art Comstock facility that opened three years later. In Grand Rapids, Founders Brewing Co. was still finding its footing and yet to even release Kentucky Breakfast Stout. All of which is to say: it was a different Michigan, and with heavy hitters gaining prominence in nearby cities, it was important for Dark Horse to become relevant within this quickly growing market.

The hallway that had previously served as the taproom was now merely a transition between the current taproom and the production facility that contained stainless steel racks of raw ingredients and storage. During my December visit, Wiggs offers me a pint as another Dark Horse employee approaches him with a cup of coffee. The pair discusses the roast and Wiggs nods approval. It’s a small glimpse into the interconnected nature of Dark Horse’s many facets.

“The coffee roaster brings me the coffee,” Wiggs explains. “It’s right out of the barrel of beer that I aged, so I understand that profile. Then I’ll use the coffee in the beer that I brew. I get to dabble in all of those things.”

We’re not going to set these markets on fire. What we’re trying to do is be relevant in every market and be able to present a great product. Great product is going to be relevant in whatever market.
— Brian Wiggs

"All of those things" includes a staggering list of goods and services that the Dark Horse family has brought to the city of Marshall. Cheese making is a new endeavor they’re working on. They’ve got a mushroom farm. They produce maple syrup and honey. An off-premise Dark Horse farm is in the works as well, one that will have fresh produce for a farmers market, pumpkins, and a hop farm. There's eventual plans for a winery, a meadery, a distillery. Their community focus eventually led to a Dark Horse-sponsored fundraiser with a custom built skate park set up in their parking lot. After the fundraiser, the city put the outfit on trucks and moved it to the local park and installed it for public use.

"I think it comes down to our passion for artisan and craft,” Kristine says. “Do it yourself and make it special. That's how Aaron has always treated beer.” 

And then there’s The Department of Ridiculous. It’s a massive building that contains their custom woodworking shop, metal working shop, packaging and storage for the motorcycle shop, the barrel-aging program, and shipping and receiving. Nearby, there's a homebrew store, tattoo parlor, and even a skate shop.

“If there’s any artistic, creative, efficient input from any employee, Dark Horse will listen to it, think about it, and deal it out,” Wiggs says. “That’s why we try to be very particular about who we pick to bring in. Once they’re here, it’s neat to see everyone cut lose.”

The diverse nature of business at Dark Horse is not lost on Wiggs. "Aaron talks about it as a theme park mentality sometimes, which cracks me up, because you know that's not serious,” he says. “But just walking around today, you get that vibe. It's an everybody place. It's for families, it's for individuals. If you need something, hopefully Dark Horse—in one way, shape, or form—is able to supply it. It's about community, community, community."

In the summer of 2008, after Aaron had rounded up his brewers, including Wiggs, everything changed again. The latter recalls Aaron saying, "There's absolutely no reason the three of us can't make the best beer on planet Earth and start getting it out there." 

From there, Dark Horse made the push to go from a small brewery making a little bit of beer to a small brewery making an insane amount of beer.

“Aaron had mentioned someone told him he couldn't brew 5,000 barrels on our seven barrel system,” Kristine remembers, and it was true in a way. “He brewed 7,000 barrels." 

The goal wasn't to target specific markets or to flood the local market with Dark Horse beer, though. 

"It was more just testing ourselves,” Wiggs says. “How much can we do? How do we get creative in that regard? It was all because of creative scheduling. I think the plan was about comfort zones. The comfort zone in brewing like 8,000 barrels, 30,000 barrels, 100,000 barrels."

By 2009, Dark Horse had its beer in Michigan, Chicago, and Wisconsin. Pushing up against production limits, a stroke of luck brought about a new phase of growth for the brewery—the building right next to the taproom went up for auction. And that was followed by a stroke of clever. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Dark Horse, so, in order to ensure they could snag the place, they stationed a handful of employees out front on the day of the auction. When people prospective bidders arrived, those employees welcomed them to Dark Horse Brewing Company. The confused would-be bidders left, assuming the place had already been purchased.

New space secured, production continued on the 7-BBL system while they built out a 20-BBL system in their new production facility. It was time to think beyond the Midwest. These days, Dark Horse distributes to much of the upper Northeast, as far South as South Carolina and as far West as the Dakotas. But recently, they’ve been looking into several other markets that span the country. Thanks to a newly acquired centrifuge that increases total yield as well as the shelf life of their beer, a unique relationship with a company called Tavour that distributes to out-of-market locations developed. This allows Dark Horse to send a limited number of pallets to the West Coast.

If there’s any artistic, creative, efficient input from any employee, Dark Horse will listen to it, think about it and deal it out. That’s why we try to be very particular about who we pick to bring in. Once they’re here, it’s neat to see everyone cut lose.
— Brian Wiggs

"We're not going to set these markets on fire,” Wiggs says. “What we're trying to do is be relevant in every market and be able to present a great product. Great product is going to be relevant in whatever market. We're not going out there to have 130 beer world-record tap takeovers like we do in Detroit, but we're going to go out there, and Crooked Tree is going to stand up next to any IPA out there. Raspberry Ale is going to be one of the best fruit beers you can buy on a shelf."

With several businesses under one umbrella, it's easy to become immune to the greater craft beer marketplace due to the guaranteed revenue at home. With just two beers that survived the original brewpub, Crooked Tree IPA and Black Beer, there's been a push to evolve along with the changes they've seen in their 20 years in brewing.

"What's next?” Wiggs asks. “We see these juicy IPAs coming out from the Northeast. Cool, we'll release three pilot batches called the Hipster Whisperer Series.”

Beers of old paved the way for everything at Dark Horse and the beers of new will likely drive the future, but the dedication to giving back and being part of the community is part of what made the brewery the number one reason tourists visit the small town of 7,000 people. 

"The Marshall Chamber of commerce said we're the reason people come here,” Wiggs says. “For 100 years, everybody checked [a restaurant called] Schuler's. Then, about four years ago, everybody started checking the box that said 'I'm in Marshall because of Dark Horse.’”

Those tourists are experiencing a much more diverse portfolio these days. From a Slayer-inspired Pale Ale with blood orange (Rain in Blood), to Scary Jesus Rock Star, an apricot chamomile Pale Ale made in collaboration with Chicago Chef Cleetus Friedman, there's a beer for everyone. And that happens to be the way Dark Horse likes to describe itself beyond the brewery. 

Aaron had mentioned someone told him he couldn’t brew 5,000 barrels on our seven barrel system. But he did. He brewed 7,000 barrels.
— Kristine Morse

"Dark Horse has always been a place that everyone, no matter who you are or what your background is—we want you to feel like you belong,” Kristine says. “We want people to feel like, 'I'm a part of this. I helped make this happen.' We treat everyone like family."

Words and Photos
by Stephanie Byce