It's a new dawn for Darkness Day.
The special release of Surly Brewing Company's cult-favorite Russian Imperial Stout is coming back after a two-year hiatus that has brought vast changes to Minnesota's craft beer rules, the pandemic-scarred hospitality industry and, vitally, to Surly's public image.
Despite the tumultuous journey to Darkness Day's return, Surly CEO Omar Ansari is hopeful that the event — planned for Oct. 8 at Surly's Minneapolis beer hall — will be a nostalgia-fueled love letter to dark beer, heavy metal and the brand's most devoted customers.
"We've been looking forward to it for so long," said Ansari, seated at a picnic table on Surly's expansive patio earlier this week. "It's a part of the fabric of the Minnesota craft beer scene, so it's great to bring that back."
Darkness Day started organically in the brewery's early years, when fans of the dark beer began congregating overnight outside its original Brooklyn Center campus to be first in line for the morning release. Enthusiasm for the first release of 500 bottles, in 2007, caught Surly's leaders off-guard.
"No one knew what was going to happen and it kind of came out of nowhere," Ansari said. "We had people camping out that night, a bunch of big beer fans." An employee's band played a set, kicking off a musical tradition to go along with the hop-fueled celebration.
The first release was an intimate affair, but it grew to the point where 1,000 campers were showing up the night before. "It got to be like, whoa, this is getting kind of crazy. We have to set up an infrastructure to make this happen," Ansari recalled.
Surly's production was also growing, and the company quickly ran into the threshold set by the state that prohibited large brewers from selling beer to-go in growlers, crowlers and 750-milliliter bottles, the Darkness vessel of choice. Despite the event's success, bottles of Darkness were suddenly off limits at the brewery to the people who wanted them most. (It was and is sold in liquor stores, too.)
Surly opened its colossal Minneapolis location in late 2014. To get around the state's restrictive laws, the event moved to a park in Wisconsin, where attendees were encouraged to camp at a full-blown beer festival that allowed bottle sales. But "it wasn't the same," Ansari said. "It took so much to get it set up, when we have this giant brewery here."
Fed up, Surly announced in February 2020 that it would be suspending Darkness Day until the law changed. Ansari was trying to make a statement, hoping to urge the Legislature to act on a bill to allow all Minnesota breweries to sell growlers, no matter the size.
A month later, Surly lost its bargaining chip when all Minnesota bars and restaurants were ordered shut in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus; when they were allowed to reopen, capacity was strictly limited.
"We would have had to cancel it anyway," Ansari said.
The Legislature finally modernized Minnesota's liquor laws for craft breweries in May, allowing larger breweries to sell growlers and crowlers, and smaller breweries to sell four-packs and six-packs.
The change opened the door for Darkness Day to be held at Surly's Minneapolis beer hall for the first time.
"I never thought it was going to happen," Ansari said. "The whole beer scene is very different now. Having people coming back with growlers to refill is great, because it's the connection that craft has with people that makes it different."
Surly's growler sales launched quietly Aug. 16. It's one of many Minnesota breweries integrating to-go sales back into their business plans.
The new liquor bill "was the largest beer legislation change that we've had in nearly a decade," said Bob Galligan, director of government and industry relations for the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, adding that to-go sales are a pivotal income stream post-pandemic.
A different world
With growlers just getting off the ground, Ansari doesn't know what to expect from Darkness Day 2022. The event is returning in a different world. And in a way, a different Surly.
One looming variable is the public perception of Surly, which withered in September 2020 when employees announced an intention to unionize just before Ansari announced the beer hall and its restaurants were closing because of sinking revenue due to the pandemic. (On-site sales of food and beer had been down 82% year over year.)
About 150 people lost their jobs, and union leaders said the closing was retaliatory, which Ansari denied. "Obviously, the timing isn't good, and I understand what people will think," he told the Star Tribune at the time.
Ansari insisted the closing had been in the works for weeks, and the union withdrew its unfair labor practice charge against the brewery about a month later. When workers held a vote to form a union, the effort failed by one vote.
Ansari understands that Surly lost some fans from that chain of events. "It's not helped" the business' pandemic recovery, he said. "But it's part of the history of who we are."
Some bars still won't pour a Surly beer.
"For me, the hard part is that I know how it played out," Ansari said. "The idea that we broke the union or did anything illegal, was like, nope. The employees voted and they voted not to have a union. And having a vote wasn't going to change the fact that we were going to lose over a million dollars. But some people's minds won't change."
The revival of Darkness Day might not be for those people. But it will be a chance for the brand to reconnect with everyone from casual fans of Russian Imperial Stouts to hardcore metalheads who plan to camp out on the Surly patio for a beer that, despite everything Surly's been through, only goes up in value. Darkness can age several years, and some 750ml bottles resell for $500. Ansari heard of an empty bottle, with its original artwork, going for $150. (Artist Eddie Wolf has designed the 2022 bottle.)
"That speaks to the passion people have, not just about the beer, but all the other pieces we're creating," Ansari said. "There's good energy, you can have fun with it, and that's what beer is all about — getting together with friends and sharing experiences."
Surly's Darkness Day
When, where: 11 a.m. Oct. 8 at Surly Brewing Co., 520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls.
What: The official release event will have live music, Darkness variants and vintages and exclusive Darkness bottle sales. (There could be unofficial gatherings before doors officially open.) The event is free, with beer and food available for purchase.
Can't make it? A bottle pre-sale on surlybrewing.com will launch soon. The 2022 Darkness will also be released in stores in boxed 16-ounce cans on Oct. 31.