Beer Baron: Get ready for Darkness Day — now in Wisconsin

September 27, 2018
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Darkness and its variants are dipped in wax, with this year's white wax representing the rum barrel coconut version.

Minnesota’s Surly Brewing has built a nine-state beer brand on being bold, but moving its signature event to Wisconsin just might be its boldest move yet.

The 2018 iteration of Darkness Day — equal parts heavy stout beer release and heavy metal music festival — is moving from the original Surly brewery in Brooklyn Center to Somerset Amphitheater, the big concert and camping venue in the Wisconsin town of the same name.

Let’s pause for a moment to gloat — woohoo, Wisconsin, yeah! How’s that taste, Gophers? — but also note that Somerset is just 2½ miles from the St. Croix River that forms the border between our fair states, well within what can reasonably be called the Twin Cities metro area. It’s not like Darkness Day moving to Sheboygan.

Surly brand experience manager Andrea Graham calls the new venue a necessary step for an event that began in 2007 with a release of a few hundred bottles of Darkness, a new Russian imperial stout that quickly became a sensation among beer geeks, along the lines of Three Floyds’ similarly enormous and complex Dark Lord. The brewery and its fans built on the bottle share that erupted in the parking lot and the concert staged in the brewing area that first year. (Now departed brewmaster Todd Haug is an accomplished metal guitarist.)

In recent years, Darkness Day has drawn 3,500 to 5,000 to Surly’s home in a suburban industrial park, many of them showing up the Friday afternoon of “Darkness Eve” to ensure they get bottles. They also do what beer people tend to do in lines for beer: share bottles from their cellars with friends old and new.

But after 10 years, Surly’s decision-makers decided to stop testing the patience of their neighbors, municipal officials and semi drivers making deliveries to the brewery.

“We really kind of outgrew what we’d been doing there,” Graham said. “We wanted somewhere safe, so we could have people legally stay overnight.”

A search initially focused sensibly on in-state options, but Somerset had so many amenities Surly decision-makers wanted for Darkness Day that they were able to swallow concerns about the address, Graham said.

“When it came down to it, it’s a space that’s going to allow us to grow this event over the years, because we don’t want to move it year to year,” she said. “It just made the most sense to have it out at Somerset because they have such a flexible space.”

The campground allows this year’s Darkness Day, which begins Friday, to actually become Darkness Days, with two full days of concerts and beer. The bottle share, technically on the down low in Brooklyn Center, is now legal and out in the open, thanks to Somerset’s more lenient liquor license and waiving of its usual no-glass policy. Surly is encouraging the tradition with a forum on the Darkness Day website allowing people to post what they’re bringing to share.

“The bottle share’s always been really cool, a key part of the community that Darkness Day has built,” Graham said. “People just go into their cellars and bring out some of their favorites to share with their friends. It’s a great icebreaker for meeting new people.”

Of course, the guest of honor is Darkness, which debuts exclusively at Darkness Day, about a month ahead of its Halloween release in limited quantities across Surly’s distribution footprint, including all of Wisconsin. New for 2018 are three barrel-aged Darkness variants available exclusively at Darkness Day through a special ticket package.

Surly also has lined up a murderer’s row of guest taps (for purchase) from more than 60 breweries near and far, several of which have never sold their beer in Wisconsin before. The guest brewery list reads like your Great Taste of the Midwest must-visit list spiked with big names like Great Notion, Gigantic and Pfriem (Oregon), Rare Barrel (California), Burial (North Carolina), TRVE (Colorado) and Other Half (New York).

All that beer will be enjoyed within earshot of a series of concerts by nine metal bands. I know nothing about the metal scene but the names alone shred: Modern Life is War, Angerot, Murder City Devils.

Graham expects about 3,500 to 4,500 fans at this year’s Darkness Day, similar to recent counts, with a significant amount of walk-up customers for the $35 ticket that doesn’t include the bottles of Darkness. This year’s event will be closely watched for what works and what doesn’t — and the potential for future growth at a venue that can accommodate tens of thousands of people.

Tons of high-octane beers, hours of heavy metal and thousands of people camping on site — what could go wrong, right? Surly believes it’ll be ready.

“Taking things to the extreme has always kind of been our M.O.,” Graham said.

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