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Double the days, camping, 60+ guest breweries: Darkness Day 2018 could be Surly's best yet

The darkest day of the year is almost here.

The darkest day of the year is almost here. Surly Brewing

A lot has changed since 2006, when Surly brewed Darkness for the first time. The Destination Brewery was nothing more than a twinkle in a pint of Bender. The highest office a reality TV star could hope for was governor. And Darkness wouldn’t even be bottled for another year.

Back then, no one had an inkling that this Russian imperial stout would inspire people to stand for hours in the snow just to get their hands on it.

Now, that beer has spawned even longer lines, concerts, loads of creepy art, and a cult following that’s unique in Minnesota. Darkness Day—the metal festival centered around its annual release—has outgrown Surly’s Brooklyn Center business park.

So Darkness Day is moving across the Wisconsin border to the Somerset Amphitheater. Instead of overnight lines and a single day of music, the event will span a weekend (September 28 and 29), with performances from bands like Sick of It All, Murder City Devils, Carcass, and God Came From Space, which has played at every single Darkness Day to date. “It’s exciting to put it in a place we’ll all feel a lot more comfortable this year,” says Ben Smith, Surly’s head brewer.

The whole thing will be augmented by a bushel of beer–and that, naturally, includes Darkness. But for the first time, it’s going to involve non-Surly swill as well. More than 60 guest breweries are coming from across the country bearing special casks and brews you simply can’t find at a liquor store in Minnesota. That includes Denver’s TRVE Brewing, which not only has a ton of metal-themed beers—Stout O))) is a favorite—but head brewer Zach Coleman is the drummer of Khemmis who will perform at Darkness Day on Saturday.

Still, the royalty of the promenade will be the actual beer. It’s the first shot fans have to grab Darkness 2018, wrapped in a minotaur created by Minneapolis-based artist Michael Iver Jacobsen. In fact, it’s their only shot until bottles are released around Halloween.

Bourbon Barrel Aged Cherry Vanilla, one of three Darkness Day variants bottled this year

Bourbon Barrel Aged Cherry Vanilla, one of three Darkness Day variants bottled this year Surly Brewing

Like the rest of the festival, the beer is expanding its mark on the weekend. For the first time, Darkness variants are being bottled: Three variations of the sweet, rich stout are going to be available exclusively at Darkness Day.

“They’re very different beers,” Smith says. “We wanted them to be different, but not overwhelming. It’s like you’d use seasoning in cooking.”

Those variants include a Rum Barrel-Aged Coconut Darkness with a very mellow coconut flavor. There’s also a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Darkness with cherry and vanilla bean that sounds fruitier than it is, with a pleasant cherry aroma and smooth vanilla aftertaste before the bourbon hits the back of your throat. And then there’s the favorite, at least for Smith, and I’m inclined to agree: Darkness aged in Tattersall Fernet barrels. It’s herbal and complex, with bits of mint and stone fruit rounding out its profile.

“The plan is to keep doing different variants of Darkness every year,” Smith says, though he’s leaving open the possibility of popular stouts returning from time to time.

If you manage to get your hands on Fernet Darkness and fall in love, Smith tells City Pages that the collaboration between Surly and Tattersall isn’t over. The Minneapolis-based distillery will be making beer schnapps from Darkness that will hopefully be timed with the spring release of Barrel-Aged Darkness bottles.

To get that fernet, you’ll need to be there on Darkness Day(s). You can get tickets for camping and music for as little as $35, but getting your hands on the variant bottles is considerably more expensive: That ticket costs $200 and includes concert admission, camping, three bottles of Darkness, one bottle each of the three Darkness variants, and four beer tokens to try out the offerings from other brewers around the festival grounds.

With that much beer—not to mention the 12% ABV Darkness carries—it’s fortunate you’ll be able to camp this year. Sleeping in the dirt freak you out? There are shuttles running between Minneapolis and Somerset.