Beer geeks line up for Surly's Darkness Day

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 10/31/2013

The real party at Surly’s Darkness Day got started the night before.

Darkness Day has become one of the state’s biggest annual beer parties. Each year Surly unleashes its highly sought after Darkness with a massive bash filled with food, live music and plenty of beer. The event returned to Surly’s Brooklyn Center brewery on Saturday.

The feverish desire among aficionados to get their hands on this decadently rich Russian imperial stout has led to huge overnight lines. With the seventh annual Darkness Day, those lines have swelled from a couple of beer crazies to the legions that swarmed the brewery on Friday, a day early. Darkness eve has taken on a culture of its own, and the chance to buy a few bottles of the chocolatey, raisin-hinted Darkness for $20 each on Saturday morning is only part of the appeal.

“If I left without buying any Darkness I would still be thrilled,” said Levi Loesch, who has been to the past six Darkness Days. “Just hanging out drinking beer, giving it away, trying stuff that other people brought — that’s the event for me.”

Loesch took his place roughly 100 people back from the front of the sprawling line that stretched along 48th Avenue N. and wrapped around Lilac Drive in Brooklyn Center. The avid homebrewer brought six kegs of his sour beers, offering samples to passersby, many of whom left him with various beers they brought in exchange.

After dark the street turns into a tailgating shantytown, with tents, fire pits and tables displaying stashes of exotic beers to be shared. “You have to bring something special,” said Mark Sheriff of Columbia Heights. “You can’t be bringing what you can get at the liquor store. Everyone brings stuff that is hard to find.”

Sheriff and his buddy Dan Larsen were the first in line. They arrived at 10:15 a.m. Friday only to be kicked out until the afternoon, as Surly asked fans not to show up until 3:30 p.m. But Sheriff didn’t even stick around to buy his six-bottle allotment the spot afforded him. “I actually have to work tomorrow morning, so I’m not even going to buy Darkness tomorrow,” he admitted.

Although John Borgeson said he would be sure to buy his share of Darkness, the Minneapolis man most looks forward to the Darkness-eve bottle sharing. He has a card table lined with limited Surly releases, including Darkness bottles he’s saved from past years. Earlier that night he did a vertical — beer-geek speak for side-by-side tastings of the same beer brewed in different years — of Firestone Walker’s Parabola, a limited Russian imperial stout that isn’t sold in Minnesota.

“The great thing about the craft-beer community is we like to share the experience of the different beers we’re tasting,” Borgeson said. “The graciousness of people is amazing.”

Getting in on the bottle sharing requires little more than a friendly demeanor and a beer of your own. But some fanatics pre-arrange trades, often via popular websites Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. Finn Jacobsen set up a pair of Darkness-eve swaps with guys from Chicago and Madison, Wis., who have access to select brews not available in Minnesota. One deal had him trading the limited Surly releases Wet, Pentagram and SeVIIn for two cases of Zombie Dust, a popular pale ale from Indiana’s Three Floyds. “I’m pumped,” Jacobsen said with a convivial chuckle. “Everybody’s happy. It’s a win, win, win situation. I win, you win and the world wins.”

Erik Orwar didn’t have any trades planned before he drove up from the Chicago area to experience his first Darkness Day this year. But he has a longtime trading partner in St. Louis Park’s Ryan Schlais. After exchanging multiple beer shipments, the two met for the first time last weekend.

Mike Saboe is an annual early-arriver. In its first year, he was “just one of the crazy people” in line. Now he’s the brewmaster at buzzing Iowa brewery Toppling Goliath.

“Even back in 2007, there was like 10 of us outside but it was the camaraderie of that,” he said Friday, clutching a bomber of Alpine Nelson. “People that you’ll meet for the first time in your life, it might be the only time you meet, but tonight they’re your best friends.”