10.3% ABV bottled
How do you remember how good a taste was? My “normal” friends always wonder how I can recall what beers I liked and what I disliked. How I can recall that a stout I drank in September of 2007 is better than one I drank in November of 2009. And, you know, they raise a valid point. How can one ever remember a purely visceral experience? For beers, one could review their tasting notes, but I’ll be honest with you, for 99% of us beer reviewers they’re just going to be packed with trite buzzwords scrawled on a cocktail napkin while toasted. IPAs are “hoppy,” “piny,” and “citrusy.” Barley wines are “malted,” “caramely,” and “boozy.” Belgian dubbels and quads have tastes of “candi” and “dark fruits.” Stouts are “roasted,” “chocolately,” and “coffee-like.” Yeah, big fucking help. We’re all frauds.
It would be like trying to explain why some random sexual experience in 2005 was better than some random sexual experience in 2007. Yet you could probably do that, right? Because what you’re remembering–what you’re using to “rank” the experiences–is the remembered pleasure you got from it. So, yeah, I do remember Surly Darkness 2008 as being maybe the sweetest stout I’d ever had in my life but I more remember sitting on my friend’s couch on a cold November night and both of our eyes just popping out of our heads, our jaws dropping to the hardwood, staring at eachother after the first sip and just saying similtaneously, “Is this not the best fucking beer ever?!”
And so, when I tell people Surly Darkness is the best stout I’ve ever had, I’m not telling them that based on side-by-side tastings with every other halfway decent stout I’ve ever had, but rather based on my seemingly clear but probably hazy memory of how I felt that one time I drank that one rare bottle. An inexact science, sure, something that will always be influenced by the time, place, surroundings, and what happened before, during, and immediately after the experience, but it’s all we got. And, hey, that bout of great sex you seem to recall having a few years ago probably is better in your memory than it actually was.
Legendary Minnesotan The Captain got me that one rare bottle of Darkness last year and the gracious dude also got me that one rare bottle this year. I’d heard that this year’s recipe was completely different from last’s–apparently brewmaster Todd didn’t like how sweet his last batch had been–and so I was a little concerned. The sweetness was what I had liked about last year’s batch, what I felt had set it apart from all the other legendary imperial stouts out there. So now I had assumed Surly had just gone all status quo and made your typical *BUZZWORDS!* “roasted,” “chocolately,” and “coffee-like” stout. You know, good, but nothing unique, just throw it on the pile.
I’m glad to report I was quite wrong. Darkness 2009 smells incredibly hoppy, totally unlike last year (as I recall!). Honestly, if you were blindfolded and this was put to your face you might guess it a DIPA or a barley wine. The taste is also a little more hoppy and bitter but that special underlying sweetness is still there. It’s really blurring the line between what we think of as a stout and perhaps the catchall “strong ale.” Man, this one drinkable motherfucker. Most imperial stouts naturally have a drinking “governor” on them if you will and through pure booziness you’re forced to take eye-dropper-sized little sips each time the glass comes to your face. But not Darkness. I could chug Darkness and it’s so damn good I struggled mightily to savor each sip. In my mind, I feel like Darkness 2008 was a hair better–of course even if I had a bottle of 2008 a comparison now would be invalid as it would be aged a year–but Darkness 2009 is still one of a kind and out of this world. I will continue to call it my favorite stout on planet Earth.
I had warmed up for Darkness with, perhaps, Surly’s polar opposite of a beer Hell (likewise provided by The Captain). The cool name betrays the very uncool style–helles lager, a kellerbier (aka zwickel bier) technically–and based on the internet geek buzz I was already kinda pissed off at this beer. Why was the great Surly, makers of boozy masterpieces like Darkness and flavor-packed hybrids such as Furious, Bender, and Cynic wasting my time with such a lame, low ABV (5.1%) style?!
I was so wrong. I totally expected to hate this, to bitch at Surly for eschewing their high-ABV flavorful beers, but I really dug Hell. So crisp and refreshing. Light and grainy. Bready and sweet. It’s like the best “shitty” beer I’ve ever had. That sounds like faint praise I suppose, but Hell is what Bud/Miller/Coors should aspire to. If I gave this to my macro-swilling chums there’s no way the wouldn’t now realize that Bud/Miller/Coors is adjunct-ingredient garbage. I’m not sure this style could be rendered any better. I could drink these all day long and probably would if I live in Minnesota.