A sustainable pint: Dark Horse Brewery adds energy efficiencies

Behind the funky trappings of the Dark Horse Brewery tap room, the cadre of bearded brewers and cellar men, and some of the best-tasting beers in mid-Michigan, a highly energy-efficient brewing process is in the making.
Amongst a colorful palette of amber ales, copper IPAs, and deep brown stouts, Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall is on a mission to green up its operations.
 
Because brewing beer is so energy intensive – using a boatload of refrigeration, compressed air, light and water – it makes sense that a progressive Michigan microbrewery such has Dark Horse would be interested in making more great beer with less energy.
 
Dark Horse has already fitted 140 Michigan-assembled solar photovoltaic panels in the form of two “farms” on its production facility located next to the taproom. The panels capture energy that is then used to power brewery operations. Beer aficionados, who savor Dark Horse’s exceptional bevs, can rest assured they’re drinking beer made mindfully through renewable energy.
 
In the rare event that more energy is harvested than needed to power Dark Horse’s home grid, excess power would go into the city grid for redistribution.
 
Also underway at Dark Horse is the installation of a new dual compressor chiller, which circulates glycol, a food grade antifreeze, throughout the brewery in pipes to keep beer cool and temperatures stable.
 
According to Pat Craddock, chief financial officer, the projects were triggered by a need to upgrade the old chiller, which was at capacity. Since the brewery needed to invest anyway, it opted for an energy efficient upgrade. Dark Horse applied for financing through Michigan Saves, a nonprofit that make energy improvements quick and affordable through fast financing. Through the program, the brewery obtained a five-year loan with Ascentium Capital.
 
Dark Horse’s interest in finding more sustainable and efficient ways to brew has been in the works for a while.  Last year, Dark Horse engaged the Green Brewery Project to check out its facilities. The Green Brewery Project is a nonprofit consulting firm that performs energy and water audits for existing breweries and makes recommendations for startups around sustainability and renewable energy. Green Brewery examined the Dark Horse compound, recommending the new chiller system and the solar panels.
 
The solar panels are already doing well by Dark Horse; the first energy bill received since the installation of the panels was complete (they were installed between June and the end of August) showed cost savings compared to the previous year.
 
Craddock expects even more significant results from the chiller. “From a business perspective, the chiller is going to pay dividends as soon as the switch is turned on, so we are eagerly anticipating that day,” says Craddock.
 
Dark Horse has always tried to implement green initiatives when they are cost effective; three years ago, it installed three small solar panels on the existing taproom, using the harnessed energy to pre-heat water for the hot water heater. And it does not stand alone in its quest to do well for the environment and for the bottom line.
 
“The brewing industry as a whole is cognizant of the raw material and energy that is required to produce such a wonderful product, so I’d like to say that we collectively look for ways to be energy-efficient,” says Craddock.
 
Each year, U.S. breweries spend over $200 million on energy, typically accounting for three to eight percent of the production costs. Hot water, cooling systems and refrigeration, pumps, compressors and motors, and general HVAC for facilities account for much of the energy usage.
 
The Brewers Association reports that 70 percent of U.S. breweries’ electricity use is consumed by refrigeration, packing and compressed air; the brewhouse accounts for the highest natural gas and coal use at 45 percent. So Dark Horse’s decision to upgrade its chiller is right on the mark.
 
Nevertheless, the quest for efficiency isn’t over until the last pint is downed. Dark Horse is planning a new production facility with the intension to implement more green initiatives, such as automated vents on the cooler that will open when the outdoor temperature drops below freezing.
 
Because many a beer geek is also a science geek, curious patrons will soon be able to view Dark Horse Brewery’s solar panel monitoring system from its website and in the taproom. “At any given point,” says Craddock, “one will be able to see how much energy our solar farm is harnessing, which is pretty awesome I think.”
 
For beer lovers indifferent to the science, but with scrutinizing taste, they can rest easy knowing that behind every amazing Dark Horse beer is a consciousness for using energy saving practices. Cheers to that. 


This story originally appeared in Second Wave's sister publication Capital Gains.

It was supported in part through a partnership with Michigan Saves and Public Sector Consultants.
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