Dark Horse Brewery (Marshall, MI)

Upon first glance, this place is not much at all!  It looks like an extension of the Wacky Willy’s, which is, perhaps, a beer distributor, and when we walked in the door we were greeted only by a cloud of cigarette smoke.  The tables and chairs are mismatched, from my distant perspective, the bar appeared to be home constructed, the ventilation system was exposed, 923 mug-club mugs hang from the walls and ceiling…I was definitely overdressed!

Unlike last night where we were toured around the place, the locals just gave us less than a glance and we made our way to a vacant table.  We were promptly acknowledged by a very patient wait person who really knew about the beers.  (As it turned out, Michelle is the Taproom Manager, and was basically running the place!)

We ordered out first pints (mine was a half – which they don’t have on the menu, but she seemed fine with filling a glass half-way!), and started to look at the food menu.  We were told they had some pizzas…they have 14 pizzas, plus two “make your own” options, a variety of subs (most that mirror the pizzas), some salads, calzones and a bunch of appetizers.  We decided to split a pizza and a sub – the Oil in the Sun Pie was a 9″ garlic herb olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic; the Avocado Turkey Sub was a nice blend of turkey, red onion, spinach, mozzarella cheese and avocado spread on a toasted bun.

This place is no-frills!  The pizza was served on a cardboard circle which I am sure they cut out themselves, and I was shocked that it our tiny paper plates had stainless steel (not plastic) forks with them!  This is not a complaint – just an observation that things here are extremely casual.  (At one point I thought the ladies room didn’t have a door, but I was wrong!)

The beers completely met my expectations.  I started with a half of the Crooked Tree IPA (5.8% ABV) which is an excellent everyday IPA – nothing so bold as to ruin my palate, and extremely pleasant in the floral aroma.  I followed that up with a half of the Raspberry Ale, which is a wheat beer made with 100% real raspberries (frozen.)  As described, it was not overly sweet, and the beer was balanced when served cold, but the warmer it got, medicinal qualities were emerging (I’m glad I only had half a pint!)  I finished with the Frog Island Spruce Ale (10.5% ABV) which was served in an 8 oz snifter.  At pouring temperature, this beer was too cold to be appreciated, but after a little warming, the essence of spruce created an astringency that finished the beer in a pleasantly dry way.  It seems they make this beer for another location, so it isn’t found on the menu.

D had a couple of pints, too.  He started with the Reserve Special Black Bier (7.5% ABV) which they don’t attribute to any particular style.  I didn’t get much on the aroma, but the roastiness made me exclaim “WOW” when I tasted it.  Dark chocolate and coffee were certainly present in this pint.

Sapient Trip Ale (9% ABV) was his other pint.  This was a terrific summer beer – a Belgian-style Tripel with beautiful hints of banana and clove.  I’m not a big fan of tripels, but this one was worth the taste!  It was a light and refreshing way to end a summer evening.

But that wasn’t the end!

As it turned out, one question posed to Michelle became a long conversation!  She has been with Dark Horse for over 6 years, and gave us a tour of the brewing facility.  She told us that two of the three brewers were trained by “Matt” – someone we know from Pennsylvania as the former brewer of Four Suns (Titusville, PA) and soon to be opening the Voodoo Brewing in Meadville, PA.  And she really knew a lot about the operations at Dark Horse.

The brewing operations continue to expand around Willy’s, and like the bar, much of this area appears to be home-built.  A loft area was built with hand-hewn logs for the railings.  The brew kettle system is a seven barrel (although they can squeeze up to 10 out of it), and by creating triple batches, they can almost fill the 40-barrel fermenter.  With three brewers, they can constantly move things through, accommodating for their pub, contract brewing and bottling operations.  The bottling set-up fills four at a time and automates the labeling process; a long stretch from when they had to hand-bottle and label!

After our tour, we ended up sharing a Boffo Brown (6% ABV) before heading back to our Bed & Breakfast.  This medium-bodied ale was pleasant to drink – nothing overly powerful or exciting, but certainly held up to the style.

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