Surly Darkness 2014
This week we return to our continuing A Whale A Week series on Surly Brewing's Darkness. This beer is Surly's take on the Russian Imperial Stout, and was first brewed in 2006, in a very small batch and released in growlers. I never got to try that first year's release, but at the time it was pretty "ballsy" to put out an expensive-to-brew RIS for a very young upstart craft brewery. They are called Surly after all.
The second year they released a limited run of bottles (under 500) that they released in the very first Darkness Day event at the brewery. The event went well and the beer met with high praise. The bottle for 2007 Darkness featured a Grim Reaper, and while I have held an unopened bottle in my hand, I have yet to taste that batch. Anyone still have one of these gathering dust in a cellar?
For 2008 Surly increased production of Darkness to around 5000 bottles, a big increase from the previous year, but still a small run. The bottle was wax dipped and the demon label was a sticker placed on the glass bottle. The next year they began screen printing the bottles and scrapped the sticker. Check out my previous A Whale A Week post on the 2008 vintage HERE.
For 2009 the label featured a mummy. They sold the same number of bottles (5000) that day, but had another 2500 or so that they released to liquor stores a few days later. My review of the 2009 vintage is HERE.
In 2010 they increased Darkness production to about 14000 bottles, also wax dipped and screen printed. About 7500 were released at that year's October Darkness Day, and the rest to retailers later in the month. That year the label featured a vampire and my review is HERE.
I couldn't dig up details on the batch size for 2011. The label art for that vintage is a very creepy zombie done by local artist Michael Berglund. My review of 2011 is HERE.
The 2012 vintage was as usual released in October to much fanfare and an increasingly crowded Darkness Day celebration. They gave out 1500 wrist-bands to get 6 bottles of Darkness--making that year's brewery release about 9000 bottles. The art for that bottle was an angry looking werewolf (is there any other kind?) done by Brent Schoonover. You can check out his cool stuff including a lot of comic work HERE.
For 2013 they continued the 1500 wrist-bands for Darkness day, again selling up to 6 bottles per person for $20 apiece. The bottle art this year was done by Josh "Jawsh" Lemke, (the artist behind the Surly Eight label) and features the demonic horned Brewcifer. Last week's write-up is HERE.
And now for the crowning achievement of the Darkness family (as of now): 2014! Darkness Day was handled pretty much the same as previous years, with the same number of bottles sold. This year, however the bottles were aged in High West Rye Whiskey barrels! I missed the release again but managed to snag a few bottles from local liquor stores once they made their way out to the Western suburbs and exurbs. Shortly after this, I did happen upon a un-oaked tap version in one of our fine local eating and drinking establishments that was selling 20 oz pours at happy hour prices. My wonderful wife drove me home from that particular visit. I didn't actually get to try the oaked version until we made it to the new Surly Brewery for an Easter Brunch and tour and was quite impressed. I've been waiting for an excuse to crack this one and give it a proper tasting. This year's bottle featured a typically dark illustration by local artist Erica Williams--a harpy crouched over her cauldron of Darkness and a mess of dead and dismembered seafarers. I love this illustration and encourage you to check out her website HERE for some of her other works (known to have graced album covers, concert posters, and beer bottles of course!) Oh, and it looks like she's also the artist behind the art for the soon-to-be-released Surly Nein!
First off our panel of "experts!" Myself: BJCP National ranked judge, homebrewer for over 20 years, geek. Mike Lebben: excellent homebrewer, entrepreneur. Ann Osborn: homebrewer, greyhound collector. Steven Mathistad: homebrewer, busy father who needs a beer. So all of us are skilled at the brewing arts and ready to try this beast of a beer!
Aroma: (In which my panel is very concise and I talk too much...)
Eric: Boozy whiskey aromas waft out the second I'm finished peeling off the wax from the bottle and crack the crown. Even more of this wonderful boozy sweet cloud bubbles into the atmosphere as I serve the beer into snifter glasses for everyone. Rare that I can get that much aroma without even putting my nose in the glass! On closer inspection there is a lot of sweet maltiness and some milk chocolate and well-creamed coffee once the whiskey blows off a bit. Mild vanilla and cinnamon mixed with fresh Bing cherry as it warms. Hints of marshmallow. No hop.
Mike: Boozy, malty, roasty
Ann: Boozy. Coffee.
Steven: Dark fruit--plums.
Appearance: (In which we find that Ann is much more poetic than the rest of us.)
Eric: Deep brown but not black. Medium tan head with fine lacing that fades slowly and is easily roused. Thick and leaves legs on edge of glass when swirled. Almost opaque but has a hint of clarity at edge when held to a light.
Mike: Dark. Cloudy--unfiltered?
Ann: I thought it would be darker. Nice carbonation. The swirls in the beer are hypnotic.
Steven: Dark brown. Thin tan head.
Flavor: (In which we discover that this beer really opens up and gains complexity when warmed.)
Eric: Initially served fairly cold and the main flavor component right away was straight up rye whiskey booze. As the tongue acclimates to that powerful flavor profile I start to get light umami notes that are pleasant and unusual. Strong carmelized to almost burnt caramel flavors arrive late--like licking the crystallized top of a creme brulee. There is a very slight tart finish, but not sour. There is hop bitterness here, but not much flavor. As it warms up it gets even more complex with vanilla and marshmallow drifting in on a boozy wave. Definite alcohol warming going down. Lighter colored dark fruit (plum, sweet cherry.) There is some chocolate and coffee to the beer as well. Mouthfeel is fairly thick and coating, but the alcohol and roast give a dryer impression than expected.
Mike: Less boozy than aroma. Mellow (well balanced.) Vanilla and wood as it warms.
Ann: Tingles on my tongue. Boozy. As it warms--molasses and caramel.
Steven: Raisin. Rye whiskey. Mild molasses. More oak character as it warms.
Overall: (In which we find that I am the easiest grader...)
Eric: Much more complex than expected, especially after warming up. Alcohol and booziness are strong but this beer is easy to drink due to good balance. Warming and pleasant--almost like sipping a whiskey but more interesting and less burning. 5
Mike: Better warmed than cold. Delicious! 4.75
Ann: Thank you! I enjoyed it. Nice balance. Probably my favorite Darkness. 4.25
Steven: Very good. Needs to be warmed to be enjoyed. Very boozy but not a hot finish. 4.5
Overall Rating: 4.625
So having had all the vintages of Darkness within a short time, I would easily put this as my favorite. Now this is almost comparing apples and oranges since this is barrel aged, but still... I'd love to try the non-barrel aged version for this series. It looks like 2015 barrel and regular Darkness is currently fermenting/aging away and the artwork for the new bottle is already out as well. I'll update this series when I get my hands on those! Also some will notice the my wife Sj did not have any pithy and concise comments this time--she was off at Beadfest in Philly and left me to my own devices. Don't worry I have another bottle to share with her!