For 15-ish years, Surly Brewing has churned out a limited edition beer that inspires a sort of madness in connoisseurs and the general public alike. Maybe you’ve heard of it? They call it Darkness.
Since its conception, this cult-favorite small-batch brew of Russian Imperial Stout has had a unique way of causing a stir, locally and in the larger brewing world. But 2018’s Darkness Day—that fateful morn when people finally get their hands on bottles of the stuff—marked a shift in Darkness in more ways than one. Multiple variants of the coveted brew were released. At the same time, Darkness Day was portaged from the brewery grounds to Somerset Amphitheater, while festivities were spread out across two days to better accommodate the ballooning spectacle.
As this gigantor version of Darkness Day is set to descend upon Someset and our gullets once again in a couple weeks, Surly treated City Pages to sample flights of this year’s Darkness and its variants at their Brooklyn Center headquarters… accompanied by food that paired deceptively well with such rowdy brews (bold cheeses, honeycomb, smoked fish, and roasted nuts).
Dear readers and drinkers, were there ever any doubt, we’re delighted to report that your future is looking dark—by which, of course, we mean very good. Of the four releases there truly is something for all the big-beer lovers in your life. See what we mean below.
This year’s hops kept the batch well-balanced and drinkable, rather than feeling overly boozy or too sweet, which in off years has made finishing Darkness sometimes feel more like an achievement than actually enjoyable. Notes of molasses, cocoa, and light espresso make for a rich but not dessert-y rendition of this beer, and though it’s got a thick mouthfeel (which is to be expected from a bossy stout), it avoids any syrupyness in lieu of what I, a Cicerone Level Negative Two, describe as “fluffiness” thanks to an interplay of thickness and carbonation retained while warming.
Listen: It’s a really good batch of Darkness, y’all!
Variant 1: Double-Stuffed Darkness
Just one sniff of Double-Stuffed and it’ll become immediately clear that this Darkness offspring was aged for three months in wet rum barrels. (There’s none left in the barrels.) Comingling with the original Darkness’ chocolate are strong flavors of vanilla and cream—almost like Bailey’s. She’s a bit hot, but will surely cool with time if you choose to age her (not that such a thing is a requirement.) On the other hand? Heathens like myself won’t tell you not to pair it with a gentle vanilla ice cream and live your best adult-meets-child dream come true?
Variant 2: Mole Darkness
No parent picks their favorite child, but as a fan of all Darknesses, this variant is what I most looked forward to sampling—and I was not disappointed. The ancho chiles (with just a pinch of cayenne) lap at the back of your throat, while cinnamon rinses around your sinuses. A hint of sweetness is imparted to the mix from a chocolate syrup cooked up by Surly’s executive pastry chef, Joanna Biessener, accentuated by the bourbon barrel-aging process that added very little heat to the mix. The end result is a beer that hits the palate like a really good mole sauce (which, for the record, is devilishly hard to perfect): warming but not spicy, earthy and in no way overly bitter.
Variant 3: Old Fashioned Darkness
Take your favorite bar’s rye whiskey old fashioned (no, not the kind with Squirt in it… or brandy) and envision an orange rind hovering over the glass's rim and a hint of burnt sugar somewhere near the bottom of your glass. Got it? Good. All of those flavors are palpable from nose to finish in this Darkness variant aged in (obviously) rye barrels. It’s a fascinating bit of trickery, how a cocktail ended up in the air surrounding an imperial stout, but that’s what Surly’s brewers have done with this variant. As long as you’re of the old fashioned ilk when not drinking beer, you’ll find this nothing short of wonderful.
…So, how does this work?
According to official documentation, all the beers weigh in at 12% ABV. Variants were developed post-brew, post-fermentation from the 2019 Darkness. Think of it as a weird 2019 Darkness beer family, with the variants as its sparring children? Artwork on the bottles was designed by Tim Chapman, and features a “unknowable six-limbed creature destroying the brewery.” Hopefully, in Chapman's metaphor, Darkness doesn't destroy the brewery.
Darkness 2019 will debut at Darkness Day on Friday, September 27—no sooner. Its three new variants will only be available with purchase of a variant ticket package at Darkness Day in Somerset. For more details on Darkness Day, and to purchase tickets for bottle packages, or individual day passes for attendance, visit surlydarknessday.com
September 27 to 28
Somerset Amphitheater, Somerset, Wisconsin