The sun had just cracked the horizon, and already crowds had formed. They huddled around fires, roasted meats and waited for their Dark Lord.
It sounds medieval, but if you're a beer fanatic you know the scene is Munster, Indiana, 25 miles outside Chicago. The fires are portable grills, the meats are bratwursts. And Dark Lord is Three Floyds Brewery's Russian Imperial Stout, deemed one of the best beers on earth. It's available just one day per year during a mythic festival at the brew house.
Beer fans keep warm as they wait for the Dark Lord. Photo by Karla Zimmerman
Beer pilgrims stream in from around the country to get their lips on a red-wax-dipped, four-bottle allotment. But only those with a Golden Ticket can enter. And those tickets - all 6000 - sold out in four minutes back in March. Which explains the first guy we meet outside the gates, a hollow-eyed roamer who asks, "Brother, can you spare a beer?"
Beyond Dark Lord itself, the day is all about beer camaraderie. Hopheads stuff their backpacks with rare brews and home brews to trade. Strangers let you sip from their goblets. They even share their Girl Scout cookies. It's impressive, especially when you consider much of the crowd looks like a motorcycle gang straight out of Sturgis.
Gents get merry with a neon-coloured tipple at Dark Lord Day. Photo by Karla Zimmerman
Did we mention Dark Lord Day doubles as a heavy metal concert? Burly, thick-bearded gents with sleeves of arm tattoos bang heads and discuss the merits of bramble rye stouts with bespectacled beer geeks in hoodies. Another big topic of conversation: when to drink one's hard-earned, $15-per-bottle commodity.
"We're saving it for a special occasion," says a Chicagoan named Dave, munching from his pretzel necklace. "Like 3pm." (It's 2:35pm now.)
At one point the sound of shattering glass pierces the air: a man dropped a precious bottle. Later we heard it didn't go to waste: another guy dipped his finger in for a taste before the suds seeped through the pavement.
Precious four-bottle allotments of the dark, malty tipple. Photo by Karla Zimmerman
So what is this elixir that inspires people to lick the ground in an office park in Indiana? We pour a glass and bring it to our lips. Dark Lord looks like motor oil, tastes like a mocha shake (they dose it with coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar), and wallops your brain with 15% alcohol. Hopheads use lots of adjectives - plummy, velvety, notes of roasted malts. The best description: "F*cking delicious," says bartender Steve, his hair flying to the heavy metal beat.
More peculiar beer festivals
You may have missed the Dark Lord this year, but you can wet your whistle at one of these alternative beer fests:
- Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation (www.bierpallieters.be). This sleepy little beer fest is the place to be for hard-core lambic enthusiasts. Lambics are Belgium's famed brew, produced in the Senne Valley where mysterious airborne microorganisms allow the, yes, spontaneous fermentation of magical beers. The festival takes places on 26-27 May 2012 in Buggenhout, Belgium.
- Bitter and Twisted International Boutique Beer Festival (www.bitterandtwisted.com.au). The convenient thing about this fest is if you get into trouble, you're already in jail. Bitter & Twisted pours a slew of Australian craft brews inside a thick-walled former prison. Home brewers take workshops in Cell Block A, where inmates used to make moonshine using food scraps and sugar. Get locked in this 3-4 November 2012 in Maitland, Australia.
- Darwin Beer Can Regatta (www.beercanregatta.org.au). Locals save their beer cans during the year, then use them to build wildly creative boats to race. Alas, it turns out beer vessels don't always stay afloat, but spirits do since the regatta is all about having fun and raising money for charity, as it has since 1974. Start your tin can collection for 15 July 2012 in Darwin, Australia.