Minnesota’s biggest annual beer release prompts some absurd behavior.
Every year, when Surly drops the latest edition of their Russian imperial stout, Darkness, people pitch tents on their street in Brooklyn Center and camp out for the first bottles off the line. Once Darkness hits shelves, drinkers buy as many as liquor stores will allow. Before long, they're popping up for trade on bottle share networks, with packages bringing the boozy stout to far-flung fanatics outside Surly’s distribution zone.
All this is on par with American craft beer madness. But by far the strangest, most illogical thing that these consumers do is take their hard-won Darknesses and stick them in their basement to fester. For years.
Recently, Surly invited local media pundits to their Brooklyn Center facility to taste a vertical of Darkness dating back to the beer’s second appearance. Brewers poured samples of Darkness from 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017 for comparison.
It drank like an evolution chart, with each slouchingly decarbonated fossil making the same argument: Drink your Darkness fresh, you fools.
I understand the instinct to cellar beers -- bottle-aging can bring out certain flavors, and imperial stouts are among the best-suited beers for aging. Beyond that, sticking a beer in a dank corner and waiting for the right moment to serve it to special company can make the beer feel more unique and special than when you first bought it.
But does the cellaring actually improve the beer?
That point’s been argued back and forth across the aisles for decades. Some subscribe to the belief that beer, like wine, gains complexity and subtlety with some well-maintained idling. Other (smarter) people claim that the brewer has already aged the beer as long as it needs, so you should drink it when you buy it.
The 2014 Darkness is the only one in the main line that was barrel aged, and it stood out from others in the vertical because of the brewer-mandated casking. Did it gain anything from sitting around oxidizing slowly for three years? Absolutely not. The days stashed away only dulled the woody aroma and made the body more gelatinous. Extrapolate that process over nine years, and you have 2008 Darkness -- a barely drinkable syrup that smelled like Korean barbecue and tasted like raisin soy sauce.
Meanwhile, 2017 Darkness was intoxicating. The toffee aroma was fresh. Coffee was alive in the nose, with dark fruit notes of plum and cherry undiminished by time. You could taste these qualities leaving the brew in 2016, even, but poured close to the brew date, there was a bounty of flavors that carried through to the swallow. Then, there were the hops. Darkness is opulently hopped with warrior, amarillo, and simcoe, and the fresh, dry tingle of the trio is the first casualty when you commit a bottle to your cellar.
After sipping through the vertical, I began to wonder: What do the brewers think of this meticulous beauty of a beer being left to languish by its buyers?
“99.9 percent of beers will be best enjoyed the day they’re packaged,” says Surly co-head brewer Ben Smith. “Darkness is an example of a beer that can age well, [but] every beer will age a little bit differently. Some will continue to develop and drink well for years; others will taste horrible after a few months. My advice is to drink fresh.”
Not exactly a condemnation, but a definite prescription. Jerrod Johnson, Surly’s other co-head brewer and heir to the Darkness recipe, is similarly cautious.
“When you age beer, you can also get off flavors like wet paper or cardboard and meaty/brothy flavors,” says Johnson. “If you do decide to cellar beers like Darkness, make a plan to drink the beer. Unfortunately, beer cellars are where many beers go to die. Without a plan, the beer may sit there for 10 or more years collecting dust.”
Ultimately, what you do with the beer you purchase is your choice and yours alone. Should you choose to stash away your frothy prize, no one -- not bespectacled alt weekly hipsters nor even the beer’s very creators -- can tell you not to.
But for the love of Darkness, listen to reason.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Surly's location as Brooklyn Park instead of Brooklyn Center. Guess we had one too many imperial stouts.