Surly Darkness is one of the most intriguing and sought after beers in the Midwest, maybe even the country. Beer geeks, truck chasers and even chocolate malt loving Den Mothers chase this beer with a ferocity of twenty Captain Ahabs. If you offer this beer to someone via a trade, you will usually get something pretty special in return. It is for these reasons that finding a multiple year vertical set of these is a much easier said than done. However, through a remarkable aligning of the stars, I was able to partake in a marvelous event with several members of my neighborhood beer group. We tasted, side by side, each Surly Darkness from 2009-2015, including 2015’s regular and barrel-aged variety.
Surly Darkness is a Russian Imperial Stout which is released every year at the original location of Surly Brewing Co. every year the last week in October. The following week, it hits shelves only to be snatched up by avid beer geeks and truck chasers everywhere. Some liquor stores will cellar a few bottles from their already scarce allotments to be sold at a special sale later. Darkness is a stellar representation of one of my personal favorite styles of stout because of its complexity and depth. There are so many flavors that come through and it has a velvety and chewy mouthfeel that is an orgiastic delight for the senses. Now that you have a little information on the beer, here is my recap of what we thought of this tasting and overall uniqueness of this experience.
The idea for the Darkness vertical (A type of tasting where you try different years of the same vintage of beer) was hatched months ago as one of the group members used to be a very avid trader and collector of rare beers. Now, he has reached the point where he no longer seeks out beers or has the desire to wait in line for rare craft beers. As a result of this, his desire to cellar and sit on these whales (a term for rare or limited release beers) has waned to the point that he is more intent on sharing these beers with others. He mentioned that he has all the Surly Darkness bottles going back to 2009 and it would be fun to do a vertical tasting. When I came to and stopped drooling and my heart rate came back down, I said that would be a truly amazing experience and we should definitely do it.
Another person in our neighborhood beer group has a garage that would be the envy of any man with a thirst for beer, a love of cigars and the affinity for watching sports in high definition. This oasis is known simply as “The Man Cave” in our neighborhood and is fully equipped with a heater, a Traeger Smoker, 2 HD televisions (32″ and 60″), a fully-stocked beer fridge and every tool known to man. The owner of this Shangri-La is a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and a penchant for discussing sports, politics, and everything in between. Along with being a big fan of drinking good beer, he also enjoys having people over. When there was talk of doing this Surly Darkness vertical, he said that we should have it in “The Man Cave.” Everyone agreed that the garage would be the perfect venue for an event such as this.
We settled on the date of Tuesday, December 29th and people took the 30th off of work and we were all set to go. This date had been on the calendar for about a month and a half and as each day passed, my anticipation grew increasingly more rabid. I was admittedly late to the party on Surly Darkness and had only tasted it for the first time at Winterfest 2014. I really liked it and at that event, was able to try the 2010 and the 2014. I have since had it on tap a handful of times and really appreciate all it has to offer from the aroma, roasted dark malts and complex flavor notes of coffee, dark fruits, and chocolate. Stouts are probably my favorite cold weather beer style and along with the mystique of rarity and bottle art, Darkness appeals to me on many levels.
As I arrived, I saw a table of tasting glasses all set out and labeled by year. The bottles were set up on the table and it was decided that with the leftover amounts from each bottle, a Grand Cru would be made with each year and that would also be added to the tasting panel. That meant nine different samples to compare and contrast. The most enjoyable aspect of doing something like this is the discussion about what everyone is tasting. Between the six of us, there were varying levels of beer knowledge, and passion. The leader of our neighborhood beer group has been brewing beer for a long time and actually has a room in his basement that functions as a brewery. Now, I am sure that you are saying, “Well, I have that in my house, too.” Let me clarify; when I say functions as a brewery, I mean it has been plumbed and wired specially for brewing. It has separate water, gas, and venting supply from the rest of the house and is constantly kept at a much cooler temperature than the rest of his house. This is not just some janky homebrew setup, this is serious homebrew operation for someone who is an incredibly gifted brewer. As someone who has tasted his homebrewed masterpieces, I can say that all the equipment and ingenuity is well worth it because they are spectacular homages to styles and flavors.
To kick things off, one of our group members was generous enough to bring a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year, an incredibly smooth and delightful Bourbon Whiskey. As if there was not already enough sensory things happening between the bottles of Darkness being poured into tasters and the array of foods (ribs, meatballs, cheese, cocktail shrimp, sausage and cookies) to go along with the Russian Imperial Stout, now we had this incredibly rare bourbon batting lead-off! I am a bourbon fan, but far from an afficianado. I have tasted several other well above average bourbons and so I had somewhat of a flavor baseline to compare this Pappy Van Winkle. My words will not do it justice, so I will simply say that this was the smoothest drinking bourbon I have ever had. It was perfect.
Once we all snapped out of our bourbon reverie, it was time to kick off the Darkness tasting. We lined up the tasters in front of us and got to work. There were a few moments of silence with a few “mmms” and “ahhhs” peppered in. Then that conversation started. Understanding that everyone’s palates are wired differently, the conversation was filled with detailed descriptions of what they noticed and liked in the beers. I think that it was kind of fun having the freedom to taste whatever year you wanted and we did not have to follow a certain order. It was clear from that various responses that the early vintages (09-10) had taken on flavors of dark fruit, raisins and molasses. 2011 had even more fruit elements in it than the 2009 and 2010. The 2012 was a unique outlier in the sense that it did not have any of the dark fruit or raisin fruit flavors, but just came across as sweeter than the rest. The sweetness was almost cloying at the end of the taste and that sweetness remained in the aftertaste. The 2013 had a more pronounced hop bite which was great because it allowed for a great sense of balance in that beer. As we got into the 2014, we noticed a lot more dark chocolate malt flavor and coffee in the beer. The mouthfeel of the 2014 was also a lot fuller and robust that the earlier vintages, which seemed to thin out over time. As we got to the 2015 and 2015 Barrel-Aged variety, we really were picking up a lot of great dark chocolate bitterness from the malt and coffee flavor. These versions were much more velvety. However, we were a little disappointed at the lack of barrel flavor in the beer. We were hoping that it would be a much more pronounced flavor. The Grand Cru came across and just a collection of sweetness. With all the varieties put in there, it was difficult to hone in on any one particular flavor element. At the end, it was very clear that Surly Darkness is a beer that we enjoyed fresh. Aging will not hurt it, but we didn’t feel that it helped it all that much.
After the anticipation and build-up it was clear to me that this was well worth the wait. However, the best part of this night was not the fact that we were tasting an impressive collection of very hard to find beers, but rather the excitement and enjoyment of sharing these beers with friends who appreciate them. While I will have the notes that I took and flavor memories that are sure to fade over time, it will be the memory and appreciation of great friendship and laughter that filled “The Man Cave” that night that will stay with me over the years.
If you are sitting on a cellar full of whales that is just collecting dust, consider sharing some bottles with your friends who are really into craft beer. Not only will enjoy the conversation and camaraderie that a bottle share will bring, but you will also gain valuable insights into the beers based on the different subtleties and flavors that a variety of palates will pick up in the beers. In my opinion, craft beer is the illustration of the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The various years of Surly Darkness were only part of the reason why this vertical tasting experience was special to me.
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