Beer has changed a great deal here in the Upper Midwest. Once upon a time (but well within living memory), it was uniformly a sweet, corny, fizzy yellow liquid only slightly more expensive and slightly more alcoholic than water, poured down gullets to lubricate hamburgers and bratwurst. Now, it’s the hub of a multifaceted scene defined by craft skewing toward art, a modern rejoinder to the local wines of Western Europe, the sake of Japan, and the spirits of the former Eastern Bloc countries.
Surly Darkness bears about as much resemblance to the old vision of beer as Donald Trump resembles a conventional American presidential candidate. Yes, X is technically in the category of Y, but no, it hews to none of your expectations.
I’m a longtime Darkness skeptic, enjoying the occasional taste while generally keeping a respectful distance from the stuff and the attendant whirlpool of hype. But here and now — in 2016, nearly a decade after the 2007 debut of this Russian imperial stout — I’m getting it.
Darkness is a special-occasion beverage, worthy of a time and place outside the norm. If you bring it to the right domain, the place unlocks the door for you. You could, of course, drink it at home on a Wednesday night while watching Luke Cage. But you’d be right to scoff at the value prospect under those circumstances. Darkness is a beer too huge to contain within a daily routine.
I brought my bottle out to a cabin full of friends in northern Wisconsin. It was presented to the group on the last night of vacation, served alongside a chocolate whiskey Bundt cake following a meal of fire-grilled chicken kebabs.
In this kind of atmosphere — wood smoke, cold air, good cheer — you have a chance for a beer to do something other than quench thirst, or pair with food, or marinate a conversation.
As befits its reputation and price, Darkness is a big beer. We tasted a banquet with each sip: dates and raisins, layers of chocolate and coffee, and a creamy richness that was syrupy without being obnoxious or cloying. One bottle sated ten people: We poured small glasses of the stuff, sipped it, savored it, and let it walk us through the evening.
If you can get your hands on a bottle — and then get your life into a new frame of reference — it’s worthy of the chaos that surrounds it.