I love you but I've chosen Surly Darkness

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Regular readers of Beer and Metal already know how I feel about doppelbocks and Belgian quads in the wintertime. Of course, when it's cold enough for your eyelashes to freeze together, a Russian imperial stout hits the spot too—and late last month, Surly obliged Chicagoans by shipping bottles of Darkness here for the first time.

This world-class stout was released in October in the Twin Cities, as per tradition, but Surly brewed a second, smaller batch to accommodate its return to the Chicagoland market. Those bottles started turning up in stores late in January, and a few local bars, including the Map Room and Fountainhead, have tapped kegs already.

Darkness made its first appearance in fall 2006, and it's been bottled annually since 2007. I first tried it in summer 2008 at the Great Taste of the Midwest, and though I've had it on tap a few times in the intervening years, this is the first bottle I've ever laid hands on.

In 2008 I called Darkness "very possibly the best stout I've ever had," with the hubris of a man who'd just started writing about beer. "Only Three Floyds' Dark Lord can compare, and that's a bit apples-and-oranges," I said. "Dark Lord is richer and heavier (though Darkness is hardly light—we're talking grades of motor oil here), but on the other hand I feel like I could drink more than four ounces of the Surly without needing to lie down and rest."

A lot has changed since then—I've tried many more imperial stouts, for one thing, and these days I can put away maybe 12 ounces of Dark Lord before it's nap time. But Darkness remains one of my favorite examples of the style, and I can't remember a vintage I like better than this one.

Brewcifer is a lot less imposing if you imagine hes made out of meringue.
  • Brewcifer is a lot less imposing if you imagine he's made out of meringue.
Every year Surly adorns bottles of Darkness with a different monster drawn by a different artist. The demonic fellow repping the 2013 batch is called Brewcifer, Lord of Darkness (or "Dork of Lardness," if you prefer), and he's the work of Josh "Jawsh" Lemke.

I bought my bottle at Binny's in River North on January 20, which according to Surly was the earliest that Darkness arrived anywhere in Chicago. It's likely to be hard to find now, given how fast it moves—yesterday I talked to staff at three different liquor stores who said they'd sold their entire allotments in a single day.

SAY MY NAME
  • SAY MY NAME
Darkness isn't as inky as its name would suggest—it's a very deep brown, with a sticky head the color of milky coffee that leaves lots of lacing. You can easily kick up a little more foam by swirling the beer in your glass, even after it's been out of the bottle for an hour. (Do you drink Darkness in a hurry? If so, allow me to suggest that you are wrong.)

Before you even pour this beer, you can smell rich, dark fruit flooding out of the bottle—not the blasted roastiness you might expect. It reminds me of the blackberry and blueberry in the 2013 Dark Lord.

Darkness likewise has a desserty aroma: dried sour cherries covered in milk chocolate, Black Forest cake (sans the whipped cream), pralines, blackberry compote, date syrup, and caramel that's almost burnt. Toward the tail end, I pick up black walnut, a whisper of espresso, and a bright spiciness like rye.

The flavor is lively and complex; the texture, silky but not heavy, with a fine, creamy carbonation. Here too Darkness is surprisingly light on the roastiness, and it carries little perceptible alcohol heat. Monstrous branding notwithstanding, it's not an aggressive, macho, "Can you handle this XXX-treme stout?" kind of beer.

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The taste, like the smell, leads with dark berries, dried cherries, and milk chocolate; they swim atop a tangle of vanilla, toffee, port wine, brown sugar, and toasted hazelnuts. That's not to say that Darkness entirely lacks the astringent roastiness so common to stouts—it's just more subtle, like griddled black bread and a fistful of pine needles tossed into a campfire. Long after the other flavors have faded away, the delicate bitterness of peppery, grassy hops lingers, which helps keep the beer from cloying—the next sip always comes easy. It's the alcohol content that will slow you down, if anything can (the bottle doesn't specify, but it's about 10 percent).

Even considering the expense—I paid $22 for my Darkness at Binny's, and I saw it for as much as $26 elsewhere—I'm sorry I didn't buy more than a single bottle. (When a beer is so sought after, most shops enforce a one-per-customer rule.) All I can do with this one, now that it's open, is review it. A bottle of Darkness ought to be passed around, preferably in a room full of friends who've come in from the snow to warm up in Brewcifer's lap.

By way of explaining my choice of headline, I'll remind you that there is (or was) an indie band from Austin, Texas, called I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness. These guys are clearly not metal. But because "The Owl," from the 2006 album Fear Is on Our Side, is an instrumental track, you can almost pretend it's the intro to a Neurosis song you haven't heard.

The video is at least reasonably metal. That owl looks like something from a Kvelertak T-shirt.

Of course I have quite a bit of bona fide darkness-related metal in my collection. For instance! Seattle-by-way-of-Colombia black-metal duo Inquisition included "Where Darkness Is Lord and Death Is the Beginning" on last year's amazing Obscure Verses for the Multiverse.

"Beyond Darkness and Death," from The Grand Tormentor, a 2012 album by New Zealand blackened-death band Witchrist, can perhaps be considered a rebuttal. Or a sequel.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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