Ever since I could legally drink beer (and probably a little before, sorry mom), I’ve kept Surly Darkness on a pretty high pedestal. Before I could even get my hands on a bottle, I watched my beer-geek Dad and his brothers covet the stuff like rare Cuban cigars. When I finally got to taste it, it was everything I imagined and more.
In a lot of ways, Darkness is a perfect flagship for Surly Brewing. It’s blacker than a metalhead’s corpse paint, boozier than a punk show at the Triple Rock (RIP), and festooned with the kind of artwork that would look great on the side of van (speeding away from a crime scene). The beer has grown exponentially in popularity since its first release in 2007, to the point where folks have actually been lining up and pitching tents for a chance to procure a few bottles.
This year, Surly finally decided that its Darkness Day release event had outgrown the humble confines of its original Brooklyn Center Brewery location. They’ll be crossing the border into WI to host Darkness Day at Sommerset Amphitheater, and the additional space will allow Surly to treat Darkness day like a full-blown camping music festival. Metal legends Carcass are set to perform, along with Murder City Devils, Off With Their Heads, and others.
Making things even more exciting for the Surly die-hards, this year’s batch of Darkness has been divided into four distinct variants, marking the first time that the beer’s fundamental flavors have been toyed with by the brewing staff. Thanks to the good folks at Surly, I got to try all four last week. Here’s my review:
2018 Surly Darkness:
The colonel’s original recipe is still as delicious as ever, with deep, nuanced flavors of molasses, chicory, dark chocolate, tobacco, and espresso coming to play. Despite clocking in at a whopping 12% ABV, the booziness of Darkness is always bracing but never overwhelming.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Darkness with Vanilla Bean and Cherry:
The first Darkness variant we tried started out subtle, and began to show more character as it warmed in the glass. If you’re not a fan of fruity beers, don’t worry, this is no cherry bomb. Instead, think about the flavor of brandied cherries in a Manhattan cocktail and you’re getting close. The vanilla and bourbon combo works well with the beer’s natural booziness and trims off some of the bite. It struck me (In the best way possible) like the adult version of the cherry vanilla cokes that I loved as a kid.
Rum Barrel Aged Darkness with Coconut
Not gonna lie folks, I was really worried about this one. Coconut beers have a tendency to taste like suntan lotion to me, and this version of Darkness neatly sidestepped that problem by amping up the rum and downplaying the fruit (is a coconut a fruit? We couldn’t figure it out at Surly during our tasting). Rum barrel aging tends to taste a fair amount boozier than most other liquors, and the the result is Darkness that starts hot but finishes mellow.
Tattersall Fernet Barrel Aged Darkness
This was undoubtably the riskiest variant for Surly, a passion project formed from a mutual admiration between Surly’s head brewers and the barrel masters over at Tattersall Distilling in Northeast Minneapolis. Fernet is very much an acquired taste, it’s a bold and bitter liqueur that used to be a trade secret for bartenders and kitchen workers that needed an after-shift eye-opener. The good folks at Tattersall make an especially fine variety, and when combined with Darkness, the Fernet’s herbaceous qualities deepen the beer like a fine scotch. The liqueur’s pronounced bitterness shaves off some of Darkness’ characteristic sweetness for an incredibly unique beer, unlike anything I’ve ever tried before.
The Winner: Fernet Darkness
While all of these variants were incredible, my personal fav had to be the Fernet Darkness, and judging by the enthusiasm in the tasting room, it seems like it’s the favorite for Surly’s brewing staff as well. The intense flavors won’t be for everyone, but this was a truly groundbreaking beer, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. Here’s hoping the folks from Tattersall and Surly continue to make beautiful music together.