Bring up Minnesota beer and the conversation will eventually touch on Surly, the Surly Bill, Furious, and Darkness. At a time when big Russian Imperial Stouts (RIS) weren’t available at every brewery around the block, Surly was brewing up a big, full-bodied, complex RIS before it was cool.
That beer has remained a stalwart release for the now iconic destination brewery. But craft beer fans are a fickle bunch. Newness is needed. And over the years, Surly has tested out barrel-aged versions of Darkness at fests. One fest might showcase a cherry and vanilla barrel-aged variant. The next? Fernet (one that was underappreciated and released in bottles last year).
It all led up to Surly releasing bottled variants of Darkness last year at its Darkness Day event in Somerset, located east of St. Paul and just over the border in Wisconsin (stop at Oliphant if you go this year and ask the about video games — Final Fantasy VII and N64, especially, and comics!). You can only get the Darkness barrel-aged variants by attending Darkness Day; these are not sold in stores.
This year the variants are different. (And before we go any further, full disclosure: I was invited as a media guest to try the new Darkness and its variants — as well as some hella good cheese — at Surly’s Brooklyn Center brewery on Thursday, for free.)
Double Stuffed, Mole, and Old Fashioned are the trio of barrel-aged variants this year.
Now, let’s get something out of the way — these aren’t the thick stouts of Forager. Full bodied? Yes. But unlike many barrel-aged beers fans are waiting in line for, these are a little different. They’re not skimping on barrel or adjuncts, but they’re full bodied rather than maple syrup thick (here’s looking at you, Pulpit Rock — a favorite of mine), and they’re complex, nuanced. Not better, not worse — but a concoction that really shows Surly’s technical and creative chops without going too mainstream or too indie. Though as an aside, I do think with Surly’s pedigree, they should just go full metal on these next year. Just crazy adjuncts and flavors. See what sticks, totally win, and totally fail.
Anyway. With that in mind, let’s run through Darkness and its variants.
This beer is eternal. The first bottled iteration, 2007’s batch, always shows up at epic beer shares (for better or worse, depending on how oxidized it is). This year’s is very punchy, and less hoppy, though those hops help balance the potion. Aroma and flavor is full of dark cherry, plum, cocoa, leather, and some fusel. Mouthfeel is full — not watery or syrupy, but right in the middle. There won’t be any legs running down any of these glasses, but that’s OK. This is a vibrant iteration of Darkness.
This is going to be the one that splits people, but this is no doubt going to be the favorite for most. For a lot of reasons. Double-Stuffed was only aged for three months in barrels, but the rum barrels were wet, meaning it grabbed the aroma and flavor quickly (typically, people like big stouts in barrels for a year). On first smell you’re hit with fusel notes. Same with taste. Once the rum and ABV subsides, it’s coffee cream, vanilla, rum, booze, and sweet alcohol. When it warms some bitter cocoa shines. Breweries typically release beers when they’re ready to drink, but in this one’s case, I would drink one and save one for about a year. If you haven’t done that before, stick it in a beer fridge that is set at 52 degrees. That’s your correct cellar temp for barrel-aged stouts.
On first sip this is a cinnamon bomb. Then pepper flesh from the anchos, and then a bit of heat on the backend from cayenne (though anchos can bring the heat as well depending on the peppers picked). As you sip, chocolate syrup starts to become prominent. As a biracial man with grandparents from Mexico, I love pepper beers and anything akin to mole, so I am biased, but I loved this one, even if I give Double-Stuffed the nod as the best one. But if I could cellar a handful of these for milestones, I would. It reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking decades ago, in that small south side Chicago kitchen. Now please serve this in the taproom with Sopa, Surly!
Old Fashioned Darkness
As a Wisconsinite, I was wondering if this was the proper Old Fashioned (the Wisco one, of course) or the imposter. All I will say is that this smells sweet. It smells like orange skin. It’s boozy. When you taste it you’re getting a boozy, sweet orange elixir. I love it. It is very similar to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout released last year (tasting fantastic a year later, by the way, as the citrus isn’t so punchy. But also, I liked it a lot fresh.). I would taste this one now, but I have a feeling some cocoa and barrel notes might take over the citrus in a year and make this a sleeper hit.
I also got to chat with sensory coordinator Bob Galligan. He used to be a brewer at Surly — and a teacher before that.
While I would love to transcribe some quotes, I’ll just briefly recap some of the things he told me and possibly post a short interview later, because I’m not getting paid for this and timeliness is important.
For starters, Surly doesn’t dump too much beer these days thanks to its lab it began utilizing over the past two years. I know someone who used to brew at Surly and he told me about a big batch of barrel-aged beer that was dumped about four years ago or so. That doesn’t happen too often now. But kudos to Surly for dumping bad beer and making sure they mitigate that issue.
Variants are chosen thanks to what people like to drink, but also what staff is interested in making. Double-Stuffed was requested last year at Darkness Day by patrons. It’s a pretty chill process, all things considered.
Some at Surly don’t like the haze craze, but it’s definitely taught them a thing or two — and they’ve made some great haze recently. Perhaps a hazy-like pilsner is on the cards for Surly some day. The takeaway is this profession is old and breweries are still learning about brewing techniques. Wild.