As craft beer was already experiencing a boom on the West Coast, Eric Marshall opened a production brewery in Tulsa, Okla. Considering the laws governing alcohol in the state, it was a potentially risky proposition given that distribution regulations heavily favored the major beer producers. However, Marshall Brewing Company found a niche of loyal drinkers and has grown since starting production in 2008.
When Oklahoma began to modernize its alcohol laws, taprooms became more popular with customers because breweries could serve beer stronger than 3.2 alcohol-by-weight. I visited Marshall Brewing because the company took advantage of the new beer laws and had its inaugural “Dark Side of the Taproom” event to coincide with the winter solstice.
The “Dark Side of the Taproom” event featured ten of the brewery’s darker beers with options to choose individual beers or pre-organized flights. We’ll get to the beer in a moment because that’s not the first thing visitors see when walking into the taproom.
Actually before visitors see the seating, you see a bevy of merchandise for sale.
Once visitors move past the shuffleboard table, you get a better overview of the seating in the taproom. There are a handful of couches and a wooden table with benches.
The production area of the brewery is usually blocked off from guests, but because of the enormity of the event guests were able to sit at tables around the brewing equipment.
My wife Katie and I debated what flights to get because the brewery offered multiple vintages of El Cucuy and Black Dolphin in addition to a selection of stouts. We decided to focus on El Cucuy and Black Dolphin because they are two of Marshall Brewing’s best beers. We decided to split the flights, so I ordered the Black Dolphin flight and Katie ordered the El Cucuy flight.
We ended up staying longer than initially planned, so we ordered the stout flight as well.
Between Katie and I we shared nine beers. The Black Dolphin flight consisted of 2015 Black Dolphin, Black Dolphin with chocolate and cherry, and Black Dolphin with vanilla. Per my conversation with brewery founder and brewmaster Eric Marshall (more on that later), Black Dolphin was inspired and initially released to celebrate Black Friday, the gigantic sale day after Thanksgiving. It is a Russian imperial stout that is aged in whiskey barrels. It is an outstanding beer, and it was great having the ability to compare the 2015 vintage to other variants. The chocolate and cherry version tasted a lot like a chocolate-covered cherry while the vanilla version was very mild. Among the three, I liked the 2015 vintage the best because it was a big beer, but not overly boozy.
The El Cucuy flight consisted of bourbon barrel-aged El Cucuy, red-wine barrel-aged El Cucuy, and rum barrel-aged El Cucuy. According to the brewmaster himself, El Cucuy was developed for distribution in time with Halloween. It is an India-style black ale, so it checks-in at 8.6% ABV with 80 IBUs. It is one of Katie’s favorite beers, which is why she opted for that flight. Before my visit, I had never had any variants of the beer. In hindsight, I cannot say that I liked one of the three beers more than the others although they all taste dramatically different. The bourbon barrel version has distinct bourbon aroma, but it did not taste particularly boozy. The red-wine version had very subtle win notes and cut down on the hoppiness of the beer. The rum version was the booziest of the trio and was a bit sweet.
The stout flight consisted of Belgian Stout, Belgian Stout with cacao nibs, and 2017 Black Dynamite (a blend of Black Dolphin and Big Jamoke Porter). The Belgian Stout was a solid beer, but I preferred the version with cacao nibs. The chocolaty notes made the stout more enjoyable to me. For me, the 2017 version of Black Dynamite was overly boozy, which covered up all the other flavors.
THE STORY BEHIND THE BEER
While finishing our flights, I saw founder and brewmaster Eric Marshall pouring beers. I asked if he had some time to discuss the history of the brewery and the event. As Katie and I finished our flights, he stopped by our table and I got to talk to him about how he got into brewing beer and some upcoming changes to the brewery.
Eric grew up in town and attended the University of Tulsa where he majored in international business and German. As he was finishing his formal education, he participated in a study abroad program in Germany. It was in Germany that he realized it was possible to drink “good, fresh, local beer.” When he looked at the beer scene in Tulsa, he saw a need and opportunity and spent a year apprenticing in Germany before working at Victory Brewing in Downington, Pa.
After the brewery started production in 2008, Marshall partnered with another native Tulsan to brew a beer just for that establishment. “It is a tip of the hat,” said Marshall, when describing the production of McNellie’s Pub Ale. For Marshall it is his way of acknowledging the importance of McNellie’s Pub to the revitalization of downtown Tulsa. It also spawned another partnership, as Marshall Brewing oversees the brewing process at Elgin Park, which is the McNellie’s Group’s brewpub.
The partnership between Marshall Brewing and McNellie’s Pub also inspired a unique poster hanging above a doorway in the production side of the brewery.
As the beer business continues to grow in Oklahoma, Marshall expressed interest growing, but maintaining the company’s identity as a small, regional brewery. The biggest thing on tap is the construction of a purpose-built taproom in the brewery’s existing space. The goal is to open the new space in the summer of 2018.
Marshall gives credit for events like “The Dark Side of the Taproom” was the idea of taproom manager Kyle Johnson, who stored a variety of kegs with the intent of offering them together at some undetermined point. Marshall relayed the problem of himself and other staff members wanting to put certain kegs on tap, but Johnson having to hide them in the back of cold storage so they would not get drank. Similar events will be announced throughout the year.
With a tradition of German brewing and innovative American recipes, Marshall Brewing has brought unique craft beer to Tulsa for over a decade. The beer reflects the Tulsa spirit and the artistry involved in producing quality beer. “The Dark Side of the Taproom” was a special opportunity for me to try some beers that are not usually on tap at the same time, which for out-of-town visitors is a great way to sample more difficult to find brews. For locals, the taproom offers a particularly intimate setting with a variety of mismatched seats, a shuffleboard table, and a bevy of board games to enjoy while sipping some of the city’s best beer.