Surly Brewing didn’t invent the Russian imperial stout, but for many craft drinkers, it might as well have. Surly first released Darkness in 2006, and since then its annual revival has become Minnesota’s greatest beer ritual. People wait all night in the October cold to sample the new version (even though you really don’t have to), desperate to see how the brewery has updated the boozy, death-metal-inspired elixir.
It’s difficult to evaluate Darkness as a series because it changes so much from vintage to vintage. One year, the vanilla might be more pronounced. The next, it might be the smoke. Instead, you must view each release individually and evaluate it as a chapter in the Necronomicon that is Surly’s ever-evolving brewing record.
Darkness spills from the neck of the bottle with a brandy-like viscosity, a sure sign of its big, boozy backbone. In the glass, it stands by its name. Darkness is a soulless, daring dark. There is no glint of amber. No layer of golden brown. Underneath the toasted mocha head, there is only black.
Eleven different grains go into Darkness, including chocolate malt and roasted barley. Both are huge players in the sweet, roasty aroma. Of course, with that big of a malt bill, you get lots of alcohol, which gives the beer deeply satisfying esters of anise, raisin, bourbon, and spice cake. Darkness 2018 is promoted as having a “non-traditional dose of aromatic hops,” but you’d be hard pressed to detect any of the Warrior, Amarillo, or Simcoe underneath the onslaught of kilned malts.
Hellish branding aside, this is a very congenial beer—one that provides sweetness and comfort in place of fire and brimstone.”
This one will get you through the winter’s bleakest days. Darkness drinks like a flannel duvet, coating the throat and chest with generous, blood-thickening warmth. It's very common for Darkness fans to age new vintages for one or two years before consuming, and 2018 tastes like it might benefit from some time in the cellar. It leads with a lot of sweetness that could be mellowed by more booze emerging, though you’d be sacrificing the Simcoe bitterness that wipes the palate after each sip.
Surly would probably prefer we rate this beer a 666 rather than 99. This is a beer that comes with an unholy minotaur on the label and birthed its own antichrist. Hellish branding aside, this is a very congenial beer—one that provides sweetness and comfort in place of fire and brimstone. Abandon all skepticism, ye who purchase. Darkness 2018 subs in delight for despair.