The much sought-after beer Surly Darkness returns to Chicago tonight

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2015 Surly Darkness in the wild - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • 2015 Surly Darkness in the wild

It's hard not to compare Surly Darkness—the rare and much-loved Russian imperial stout released once a year by Minnesota's Surly Brewing—to Dark Lord, the rare and much-loved Russian imperial stout released once a year by Three Floyds Brewing. Each has an annual festival to celebrate its release, and both festivals consistently draw thousands of craft beer geeks from around the country. One major difference—aside from the taste, which I'll get to later—is that while Dark Lord Day is your only chance to buy that beer, Darkness is also available after Darkness Day.

It still tends to go fast. Last fall it sold out in 15 minutes or less at several Binny's stores, according to Chicago Beer Tracking. Earlier in the year, my colleague Philip Montoro managed to find one of the first bottles of Darkness for sale in the city since Surly's return to the Chicago market in late 2013; he wrote at the time that several liquor stores had gone through their allotments in a single day.

This year, your first chance to try Surly Darkness will be at Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park (1366 N. Milwaukee), which will be tapping the beer tonight at 9 PM. It'll be arriving at other bars and liquor stores in Chicagoland over the next week or so, according to a brewery representative (though he wouldn't specify which ones). I called several yesterday afternoon, including the Beer Temple, Binny's, Small Bar, and Hopleaf, and most said that they'd be getting some in, but they didn't know when or how much. There's also a barrel-aged version this year, available in even more limited quantities than the regular Darkness, which has spent several months in High West Rye whiskey barrels.

JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
Is Darkness worth the trouble of tracking it down—and the $20-plus price tag? I think so. The first time I tried it was in winter 2011, when Small Bar Division (RIP) had a keg, and it was very much worth the frigid walk to the bar. This year the brewery was kind enough to send me a bottle of Darkness (unsolicited, but not unwelcome). Considering the name, it's not surprising that the beer pours so dark it's nearly black.

It's an incredibly complex beer, made for sipping slowly; I was blown away by how long the flavors kept developing after I'd taken a sip. The texture is silky smooth, and in some ways the beer reminded me of good chocolate: creamy, not too sweet, with a distinct fruitiness—and, of course, plenty of rich chocolate flavor. There's a certain nuttiness too, along with some toffee and vanilla, but very little bitterness.

JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel

For such a dark, high-ABV beer (this year's is about 12 percent), Darkness is almost delicate. It's not nearly as heavy as one would expect, and the fruit notes are mostly bright—fresh cherries and dried apricot. Darkness is certainly less syrupy-sweet and rich than Dark Lord—I've never wanted to drink more than a few ounces of the latter but had no trouble going through half a bottle of Darkness (though it did take a while, as it should).  

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