Written by Josh Noel for chicagotribune.com
On one of the most important days on the beer calendar, when fevered drinkers from across the U.S. travel to Munster, Ind., to buy one of the world’s rarest beers, the unthinkable happened.
Cradling a box of his newfound bounty, a man in jeans and a black jacket dropped a bottle of the day’s manna. The 22-ounce bottle of Dark Lord — a pitch black, high-alcohol stout made by Three Floyds Brewing for release this very day — shattered, its black frothy gold spreading across the asphalt and toward a sewer grate.
Hundreds of beer lovers saw it happen, some standing in a two-hour line to buy bottles of their own, others merely drinking and rejoicing in the office park surrounding the brewery. They were of a single mind.
“Boooooooooooooo!” the chorus shouted.
Sheepishly, silently, the man plucked the glass shards from the ground and moved on.
Then the thinkable happened.
Brian Gaylor, a 24-year-old technology consultant who traveled from Columbia, Md., to be at Dark Lord Day, strolled up, bent over, swiped his index finger through the fleeing liquid and put the finger to his mouth.
The cheers were louder than the jeers had been.
“Can’t let it go to waste,” Gaylor said to one in particular.
This is the fervor of Dark Lord Day, which turned 8 on Saturday. It is the one day to buy Dark Lord, a limited edition beer that’s a completely different beast than most craft brews; it is a deep, belly-warming Russian imperial stout that is about 15 percent alcohol (huge by beer standards) and so black that the average consumer might think it worthy of a car engine. To the 6,000 people packed into the brewery and surrounding office park, it was something to treasure, trade, sip and discuss.
Better still, it was grounds for having a party. Dark Lord Day has become one of the nation’s great do-it-yourself beer festivals, where folding chairs and rolling coolers dot the landscape, strangers become friends and rare beer brought from homes near and far are freely shared — sometimes from the same glass. While cutting through the masses en route to the brewery, you’re likely to taste five beers you’ve never had.
Launched in 1994, Dark Lord Day has become so successful that it demands increasing organization — not that you’d be able to tell from the glorious fervor spun from the smell of grilled meat, the metal bands brought in by Three Floyds to shake the brewery walls and the constant flow of beer — from kegs, from growlers, from cans.
In the early days, tickets were not required for entry. The result was too many people leaving Munster empty-handed. Last year about 10,000 tickets were put on sale, but that brought too many bodies for one little office park. This year, Three Floyds sold 6,000 tickets, and staggered distribution so that everyone was guaranteed four bottles of Dark Lord for $15 each, even if it demanded interminable waits in line.
An even luckier few were randomly selected to buy a limited edition Dark Lord variation for $50: one aged in 23-year Pappy Van Winkle barrels, aged in brandy barrels, aged in brandy barrels with vanilla beans or aged in bourbon barrels with ancho and guajillo peppers.
If it all sounds ambitious, it is. And that’s where craft beer stands in 2011: a growing segment of the brewing industry while the classic mainstream purveyors lose share.
Dark Lord is unquestionably well made, interesting and worth savoring. But these days plenty of beers are well made, interesting and worth savoring. You’re unlikely to find many people at Dark Lord Day who cite the beer as their favorite, or even list it among their top five (a list most beer nerds will delight in sharing with you).
Which means there is a draw beside the beer, and this is it: the day itself. Dark Lord Day is a beer lover’s midnight premiere of the new Harry Potter movie. It is the guy trip to Vegas. It is the royal wedding. It is also marketing brilliance — make something unique and let demand far outstrip supply — and these beer fans are smart enough to know it.
“I have made up my mind to come here every year,” said Kyle Monahan, 26, a teacher from Cincinnati. “It’s a phenomenal beer, but I don’t even care about the beer itself. The thing is that you can’t name another national drinking party with no fights.
This is people who love drinking amazing beer all in one place.”It’s easy to forget while you’re in the morass, but look with fresh eyes and you recall that you’re passing time in an office park on an April afternoon. Everyone’s glass is full. And everyone is smiling.
Dark Lord 2011 review (by author)
Thickly bodied, though thinner than past years, it’s also sweeter than previous versions. Chocolate and vanilla come to mind and, as one person astutely noted, “think crème brulee and burnt caramel.” Rich and intense without being cloying, it’s is the definition of a smooth, long sipper for a cold night. Is it worth $50 on ebay? That’s up to you. But if you can get your hands on a bottle, it’s well worth trying.