Minneapolis-based Surly Brewing has been in the beer press since mid-October, but not because of an expansion or a new beer release. This time, Surly’s top of mind due to the unexpected resignation of head of brewing operations Todd Haug on October 19. After 10 years of recipe development and brewing with Surly, Haug left for Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing; Mpls.St.Paul Magazine sheds some light on the reasons for his departure.
Haug (the Axeman) had his hand in some of Surly’s most beloved beers; namely, Darkness, the abyssal Russian Imperial Stout that makes its much-anticipated return each October at Darkness Day. This year’s Darkness release will be the last that Haug presided over (he even performed on guitar at Darkness Day), so it seems a fitting send off to pop the 2016 bottle in his honor. We tasted it alongside Damien, a previously draft-only beer that saw its first bottling this fall. It’s made from the used grains left over after brewing Darkness, a beer so brawny that a second, lower-gravity black ale can be made from its remnants. We also decided to pull Darkness 2015 and 2011 from our cellar to see how it had faired after one and five years under wraps. Here are the results:
Surly Darkness 2016
This year’s 12% ABV Russian Imperial Stout pours a super deep brown with lighter caramel-colored highlights and a dense, foamy, pancake batter-colored head. On first sniff, alcohol tickles the nose, but 15 seconds and a bit of swirling lifts that off to reveal the layers beneath. Berrylike coffee beans and dried cranberry scents are top notes to a rich base of graham cracker, Tootsie Roll and earthy wood aromas. The sip is decadently chocolatey, like a milkshake. Coffee bitterness settles in after the swallow, but the front half of the sip is all expensive Belgian chocolate, sweet hazelnut shells and mocha latte. The swallow closes with some ashy roasted grains and a near smokiness, a contrast from the front of the sip but still a comfortable progression. The body is a delight as well: creamy, soft and just slightly warming to the throat. It’s absolutely drinkable now, but certainly a year in the cellar could help round out the alcohol warmth and develop even more from the substantial malts.
Surly Darkness 2015
A smoky note threads the aroma of last year’s TK% Darkness release (of which a barrel-aged version was also bottled), dancing between ribbons of dark cola and soft botanicals. Sweet, dark fruits fill in the spaces between the smoke and earthy licorice scents, all of which floats above a deeper aroma of sticky tobacco and dusty dark chocolate. The flavor, however, is fruiter on the tongue than the 2016 version; cranberry sauce, fig jam and molasses lead, with a note of malt-derived leather that arrives at the swallow and persists long after. A subsequent sip also reveals a midpalate flash of milk chocolate that bridges the fruit and leather. The body is still outrageously smooth and lush; another year or two in the cellar probably wouldn’t thin out the malts too much.
Surly Darkness 2011
The cinnamon-colored head on this deep mahogany pour is thinner than fresh versions, as one would expect, but is still lively. Chocolate aromas like Hershey’s syrup dominate, with malted milk ball and graham cracker in support. A high, raisin note sings out from the balcony while faint umami soy sauce sulks quietly at the edges. The sip reverses the order of the aroma: Deep fruit leads before chocolate arrives at the swallow. Cherry, raisin and prune all charge at the fore, letting darker chocolate arrive midsip before swandiving into a wet leathery swallow. Roast has dropped way out of the flavor, punting the ball to huge, dark stone fruits that build with each successive sip. The flavors are all cohesive and enjoyable; body has held up well but is perhaps a beat past its prime, thinning just slightly. Our conclusion: Darkness’ sweet spot lies just between a year and five years in the cellar; three would probably be its peak.
Surly Damien 2016
Bottled for the first time this year, Damien is the “offspring” of Darkness brewed with the normally discarded grains left over from the beefy stout. As such, it’s a smaller beer, a 6.5% black ale that’s remarkably drinkable despite its sinister bottle. This could be packaged in 12-ounce cans and it would make a solid winter afternoon beer that we could drink in relative quantity while watching a game. The aroma leads with nutty, oatmeallike malts and graham cracker, deepened a bit by soft black licorice. Hop aromas are present as a low level and are very “green” in character, like chlorophyll or seaweed (in a good way, we promise). The sip opens with quiet bittersweet chocolate malts that gradually become toasty before a touch of char closes the sip; hop flavor is subtle, reading as a blip of tangerine and pine bark midsip. The mouthfeel is soft, smooth and nowhere near hefty—this beer’s not quite as sinister as it seems.