Surly Brewing Company’s Darkness 2014, Russian Imperial Stout – Review

SurlyDarkness14_fullI have held out as long as I can. A man can only take so much, his limits only stretched so far, the very foundation of his wanton soul only shaken so vehemently, before he cracks, succumbs, knuckles under, and throws in the towel. It may surprise you to learn that along with this predilection for whisky, I’ve always had a certain, shall we say, fondness for beer. I have thought about writing about beer before, I may have even mentioned the stuff once or twice before, but as of yet, I have not yet been so moved to truly plunge into this fermented pool of wonderfulness.

Having moved to the Twin Cities, I am now moved. It’s easy to be moved by beer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. A new craft brewery/taproom opens approximately every 27 minutes, and fantastic stuff is being made, poured, bottled, canned, and growlered all over the place. Why the recent explosion and why here? Because of its strong German immigrant influence, Minnesota does have a long brewing tradition, and St. Paul’s Summit Brewing Co. could be considered one of the original pillars of “craft” brewing. This current explosion, however, is really thanks to Surly Brewing and the legislation it helped pass in 2011 that loosened the laws and allowed breweries that had retail-distributed beers to also serve and sell their beer at the brewery. Suddenly, breweries and tap rooms began popping up like curiously excited gophers on the prairie, and now today, we have one of the country’s hottest beer scenes.

SurlyDarkness14-labelSo yeah, adding beer more seriously to the mix here on The Casks was simply a matter of time, but where to start? Surly Brewing, with its aforementioned impact and influence, seems a logical choice. And what better Surly beer to take a look at than its annual, frenzy-causing Russian Imperial Stout, Darkness. Quite a few brewers around the country have that one yearly special release that drives people wild with primal beer lust. For better or for worse, these are the Pappy Van Winkles and George T. Staggs of the beer world. The Surly Darkness release at the end of October (Darkness Day) is usually marked by thousands of bearded guys in hoodies chugging celebrating beer, listening to loud, heavy music, and trying to act like not getting a bottle of Darkness wouldn’t be the end of the world. The first Darkness release was in 2007, and each subsequent bottling has been adorned with seasonally appropriate spooky artwork. This year’s release varied somewhat from the previous editions in that it was aged in High West (*and by extension, most likely MGP/LDI…see below) Rye Whisky barrels.

 The Appearance:  Darkness is an apt name, not surprisingly. Nearly opaque brown-black with a mocha-tan head that turns thinnish.

The Nose:  Lighter than I was expecting but still quite something. Sarsaparilla, bittersweet chocolate, molasses, softened earthy (not fruity) hops, and softened coffee notes – think cafe au lait. Macerated black cherries, subtle notes of boozy holiday spice cake with raisins, and a faint touch of whiskeyed oak hover around the edges.

The Palate:  Big and complex, yet sweetly languid at the same time. Almost syrupy but well shy of being cloying. There’s vanilla cream soda, more sweet, macerated black cherries, warm chocolate chip cookies, earthy, oak-tinged cinnamon and spice notes, and malt syrup. Finishes with a bit of coffee and faint hints of black licorice twizzlers.

Thoughts:   This is an excellent beer. I like big sweet stouts and I like barrel-aged beers, so perhaps I’m not the most impartial judge, but I thought the 2014 was pretty fantastic. Compared to the one other Darkeness I’ve tried (the 2013), it seems as if the oak has turned down some of the hops and stronger, bitter, roasty qualities. The trade-off is an increased complex sweetness that teeters on the edge of being too much and off-balance. But it keeps itself together and works well. If you’re a fan of this style, Darkness is not to be missed.

Surly Brewing Company’s Darkness 2014

  • Russian Imperial Stout
  • 10.4% ABV
  • Malts: Pale Ale, Golden Promise, Crystal, Dark Crystal, Oats, Black, Chocolate, Roast
  • Sugar: Belgian dark candi
  • Hops: Columbus, Amarillo, Simcoe
  • Yeast: English Ale
  • Original gravity: 29 Plato
  • Color: 55 SRM

*For those that don’t know, High West sources much of their whiskey from other distilleries. Much of what they use comes from a large commercial distillery in Indiana called MGP (Midwest Grain Products…formerly known as LDI, or Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). So while Surly may have aged this years Darkness in High West barrels, its worth noting that High West did not distill what was in those barrels. It is also worth noting that High West makes fantastic whiskey, and proudly admits to being blenders of the whiskey they source. I’d feel pretty confident that barrels picked and used by High West are going to be high quality from the wood to the whiskey. Yes, I realize that this is a rather semantic and geeky point to make…sorry.


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