Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Surly Barrel-aged Darkness 2015, with reflections on Darkness Day and other things

Editor's note: I wrote this about six weeks ago, on the evening of November 10, about events two months ago.What have I been waiting for? I don't know. Wait, I remember. I wanted to dredge up pictures from all the years of Darkness Days past. Too time consuming.Time to post. (Also, I wanted to make sure I was saying everything correctly, which is the constant struggle, and keep putting off the revisions.)

There have been ten years of Darkness Day, folks.
2007, 08, 09, 10. 2011, 12, 13, 14, 15, and this year, 2016. That makes 10 years of beer geeks coming together in the name of an incredible Imperial Stout.
I've been to them all. Was one of the first 10 in line early in the morning that December Saturday in 2007 when they first sold the bottles, and I've made my way there one way or another every year since.

My biggest regret is that I'm not a 9-5'er who can take a weekend off of work to hang out in an industrial park in Brooklyn Center to camp out and spend way too much on beer that I'm probably going to trade away for Whalez, Bro. (Clarification: that's not me, that's them. I am not that 9-5'er, with so much money to spare, and bottles to trade. For Whalez,Bro.)

Also, that I didn't figure out many years ago how to bike there, which isn't really that hard, it's only ten miles, if you know what you're doing. I slightly did this year. But, I still got a little lost and was late for first year volunteering for the event, assuring my right to purchase 6 bottles of the dark, delicious Russian Imperial Stout.
Self-Portrait photograph from my pouring station
on Darkness Day, October 15. My first time volunteering,
after attending every year since the start. 

And, oddly enough, this was the first year that no one needed to camp out. There were wristbands left when the line was done, for the first time ever. (Was it the date change, or something else, that kept the fanatics away?) I could have rolled in a few hours later and not spent 3 hours pouring beers, and still gotten my bottles. No matter, I enjoyed it, although it was, as they say, a busman's holiday, doing what I do for a living, for free.

I had my camera device on hand, and took some pics, but when I was freed from my servitude, the battery went dead. No pics of all my friends enjoying this annual event we all love. And that's what I enjoy most about the day, after getting my bottles, of course. The only pics I had were from my stand at the first serving trailer. That's where I had my view of Surly BrewMaster Todd Haug playing two guitars in a wizard's robe (or a monk's?), playing solo, at 11 am, at the start of the event. I wasn't aware of exactly what was going on.  I've seen him playing with various other bands, Powermad, Vulgaari, etc, but never solo. And this was a symphony I stretched my ears to hear, struggled to understand. It was a few days later, on Wednesday, as Jason and I were traveling up to Duluth, that we heard the news of his stepping down from the position he's held for 11 years and I knew at last what Todd was playing that morning. It was his his swan song to Surly.

That news was a shock to some, but not to me. I knew it was a matter of time, especially since his wife Linda's unexpected departure from the company, and it seemed that Todd waited to make it public until he could put that 10th Darkness Day beneath his belt. I only saw him briefly, and not Linda at all, unfortunately, (but I knew that would be the case), before I left the event. I hope it's not the last I see of the two of them. (The pictures attached prove that I'd get my chance.)
He means it with love, this I know.

Man. We take so much for granted. But the exit of Todd and Linda Haug speaks to changes within the corporate culture of Surly Brewing that led them both to go. In only a few weeks after that, the news came that the two are leaving the state to go to Chicago and work for their friends at Indiana's Three Floyds Brewing Company. It's heartbreaking and saddening and how we all wish they would have stayed here forever. Damn it. What happened?

Well, that's not for me to speculate, even as others go nutso over a picture of Omar holding Dick Leinenenkugel in his arms. We know that the brewery will do well with Jerrod Johnson and Ben Smith keeping their capable hands on the steering wheel, nothing's going south, nothing's going bad. For now. Will they be asked to brew recipes that will dilute the brand? Will there be less-Surly beers coming out of the Surly brewery? All in the name of pushing out product? These are the questions raised. I hesitate to speculate or come up with any conclusions out of my own imagination, but if I were to do so, I'd say a little of both. These guys will make some fun beers, that I can assure you.

Squeezing in a "selfie" with the two of them at their
going away party in late November. 
I will suggest that when Linda Haug was in charge of the restaurant / beer hall side of things, that she should have stayed in charge. She did put it together, and steered it towards success, She knew what the Hell she was doing. Everything would have worked out fine if it was just a Linda in the front, Todd in the back kind of production. Maybe someone else didn't like that kind of autonomy going on inside their house.

I recall the early days. It was only 10, going on 11 years ago, after all, and the word back then was "we'll stay this small." Those were wonderful times, before the rest of the drinking public caught on, and it was such a fun and inclusive club that was digging on Furious, and Bender, and Coffee Bender, and Cynic and Smoke, Darkness, SurlyFest  and such. It was as if we had this secret, this special thing that we supported, that we hoped would change the world. Until that changed, and the general public caught on and the pressure to brew more became too much. We want to have our Surly and drink it, too. We want everyone to be like us, and like the beers we like, but we want to be the only ones drinking. When a $30 million dollar brewery isn't enough, and expansion into other states means you can't make some beers like Wet because of lack of capacity, and you still can't make enough Furious, because it's all going to North Dakota and Nebraska, and Chicago. In the beginning, they were supposed to be making beer for us, that wasn't available here. Can't Nebraska come up with their own damned Surly?  South Dakota, what's your damned problem, step up, already, make your own beer, don't make us make it for you!
(I realize I sound like the hipster who establishes his cred by stating he liked that band before they were cool and popular.)

The question is posed in the minds of many: to boycott this Todd-less Surly, or not to boycott. That seems absurd. A few months ago, I had eight different Surlys on tap at Acadia, and thought that I would leave them all on until they run out and we have one left. My boss wondered if I did that because of Todd's leaving. No, not at all, just wanted to bring other local breweries back in, but that last one was Ten, and that meant if I kept my word I had to find replacements for Hell and Furious, which has never been off the taps at Acadia. And were the customers ever confused and perturbed! And, I've had one friend tell me she won't wear any of her Surly shirts anymore, but for Todd the Axe-man. (Oddly enough, that's one I don't own.) Also, my own sister nearly refused a pint of Simpsons Malt Scottish Ale I poured for her and said she was boycotting Surly because they didn't treat their head brewer right. But would folks have considered this boycott if they knew it all along,  that Todd didn't have a share in the brewery?  I doubt it. After all, it is the way things work at most breweries, though we don't expect that at places of Surly's stature and people of Todd's importance.

No, I will support them, and drink them and serve them as long the beer is good. It seems non-sensical to me. I won't jump on the bandwagon that says "it'll never be the same." No, no, it won't. But it will still be good. That's alright.

So, I feel this is a good time to open up a bottle of Barrel-aged Darkness. I only took notes on Darkness one time, when it was first released in 2006, from the tap at the Blue Nile. I never thought to take further notes on other vintages. I rarely drank them solo, usually with friends, when I'm not taking out the notebook, or clacking away on the the ol' keyboard. I have one and only one bottle of this and saved it for a year. And this year, at the Great American Beer Festival, it won a Gold Medal for barrel-aged beers. Surly beers have been so off-style for so long, it's great to see them win an award like this. And I've never tried it. Didn't get a keg of it at Acadia (a point of some contention. What, carrying the beer since the first week, ten years ago,  doesn't get us a keg? Boo.), never found it at any events, bars, festivals. Time to crack open and finally taste it.

Solid blackness, strictly Stygian, with a slim roasted, toasted ring of foam on top.

Nose is all types of richness, the thick of the bourbon, the massive malt, the charcoal and vanilla and marshmallow, the depths of the oak and caramel, the toffee and espresso and cocoa. Gigantic this one. A gargantua, an impressive mixture of all the blessings from the beer and the barrel. anise and molasses and whiskey and more.

In the mouth: Thickness. Richness. Depth. Deepitude. Coats the palate, pours over the senses, takes on every inch and spreads it's complexity for the tongue and the tastebuds to experience. Smooth, mellow, while deep, complex, rich and utterly satisfying. And something swells, something grows and builds within you while you imbibe this. This is absolute perfection. Everything comes together perfectly. Nothing is bigger than the other, nothing is greater than anything else.

Am I just reading things into this, because of other things on my mind, two days after the distress of the election? Am I looking at the drooling vampire bat on the label of this bottle and seeing the looming  disaster of our impending apocalypse? Is the bottle scaring me because the threat of four years of President Trump looms in the forefront of my mind?

Back to the beer, though: It is so good. Well-balanced, well-attenuated, great bourbon-y treated goodness. So good that it keeps every bad thing from the door. It strengthens and fortifies. It builds you up, and builds you up, and now you're solid. Solid as a rock. That's what this love is, that's what we've got, got, got, got got.

And it's damned delicious. Whoa. Got me quoting Ashford & Simpson instead of some Satanic death/gloom metal. Something's wrong with me, clearly.

I didn't want to drink this whole bottle by myself. But, I'm glad I did.

It's so good, so perfect, and so well, you know, put-together. This is my simple solace, in face of tougher times ahead. Wish I had another dozen bottles put away, but alas. I could only wait so long on this one, and the wait was worth it.

What do I predict for the future of Surly? Oh, I don't know. Maybe goodness, maybe greatness, and maybe the end-all, worse-all, of all times. There is so much going on in the local brewing community that a drop-off in innovation at Surly doesn't worry me that greatly. I'm glad they were there to get the whole local craft beer movement going, lit that spark, and set it on it's way. It's fairly true that without Surly, there would be no current brewing scene. And without Todd Haug, there would have been no Surly.

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