When it comes to 3 Floyds' Dark Lord Day, you either have an innate understanding of what makes it unassailably awesome, or you've heard enough stories that you've successfully avoided it for years now. Not many people are conflicted about it either way.
Most official accounts read like an entitled Yelp review, complaining about lines, access to beer and food, and ticket scalping. This is valuable enough information for people looking for a reason to never go in the first place. This year's accounts are more forgiving, citing the larger tents, smaller lines and general orderliness of the event as proof that "it's getting better." But what all those stories fail to understand is that the point of Dark Lord Day isn't to provide great customer service. Dark Lord Day is meant to release the spirit of a powerful demon upon the Munster, Indiana landscape in the form of an Russian Imperial Stout that still blows people's minds, as well as shore up the yearly financials for one of craft beer's greatest teams, and still relatively small producers.
Most people spend an decent amount of money, travel far distances, wait in exceedingly long lines, only to spend gobs more money ($15-$50 a bottle), on a famous russian imperial stout and its variants. Some do it for silly reasons, but some do it out of a sense of dedication and commitment to a brewery that raised them on great craft beer. But what's become significantly more important over the years is less about getting your hands on a bottle of Dark Lord, and more about the interactions, sharing and community that's developed around the event itself. Dark Lord Day has become a worthy symbol of what people in craft beer love the most about the movement — each other.
As you enter the grounds of the light industrial park, just off I-94 in Muenster, Indiana, your path is littered with empty bottles of some of the world's greatest beers like so many palm leaves under the feet of Christ as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. King Henry, Bourbon County Coffee Stout, Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Kentucky Bourbon Stout, Black Butte, Pliny the Elder, even Dark Lords from years past all line up like a macabre trophy case where only the dark spirits themselves can be considered winners. And each bottle is a symbol of something special, a moment of sharing and connection between the people that partook in its greatness. This might have been close friends, a couple, or complete strangers that came together because someone extended a hand and offered a pour. Many of these bottles have been aging in cellars and bedroom closets for years, representing some of the greatest scores a beer geek may have found in his or her lifetime. But at Dark Lord Day, none of these are too precious to share. And none of them are mourned.
As friends from Solemn Oath and Virtue Cider schlepped our firkin gift across the police tape and emergency cones, we entered a space that felt like it'd been humming for days. Standing in sunny seventy-five degrees and green fields, a swarm of black t-shirts, boots and barely-standing bodies surround new arrivals. At 1pm, it'd be easy to assume you missed the party, but Dark Lord Day moves in waves. Ticket purchasers reserve a time slot, and so there's a clear second and third wind that brings everything back to life just as others are shutting down, passing out, or moving on to Arby's and White Castle down the road. The bravest ones take a nap in their cars, and then come back for more.
The economic story of Dark Lord Day is also worthy of consideration. The shear number of people that roll in to this town in late April every year provide an incredible boon to the gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, and let's just assume local municipality revenue goals for citations get met. 3 Floyds itself is a small operation. Brewing since 1996 and producing 20,000 barrels, the growth of 3 Floyd's has been modest to slow compared to many other breweries with that long of a ramp, but it's demand has soared. The scarcity of its product has enabled it to build an incredible cult following and a reputation around the world for its product. Some complain that the brewery exploits this advantage come Dark Lord Day, charging higher and higher prices for tickets, higher and higher prices for the beer, and providing little in return for that advantage. However, compare these prices to any beer festivals of a similar size, and the complaints ring hollow. Dark Lord Day brings together some of the best and rarest guest taps under one tent, as well as sought-after metal bands that perform all day and night. And on top of that, they pretty much let you do whatever you want.
What's really happening here isn't exploitation. It's an attempt by 3 Floyds as a business to balance their limited scaling goals with their outsized demand. And in some ways, that makes the whole situation feel counter-intuitive to their success. It's easy for a business with the momentum of 3 Floyds to opt in to a quick scale-up scenario only to find that once they get bigger, they're suddenly not as desirable anymore. But if they stay too small, many Americans have an innate disgust for a lack of ambition and will write them off as laggards, or worse, content to rest on their laurels. But a business like 3 Floyds that relies on the intense passion of its biggest fans to fuels its growth and secure its future as a continuous innovator, staying slightly behind that curve is ideal. More demand than there is product will always make business sense if you take the long view. And so few take the long view.
If everyone that wanted a bottle of Dark Lord could get it, or a case that they could then trade and exploit themselves, then the day would be nothing more than a stop to grab some pricey booze on your way to a buddy's house for some MW3 and pizza. Instead, the intensely limited access and lack of a prescriptive format for the day, or even basic amenities in years' past, have encouraged an organic, self-sufficient culture among festival-goers that disperses ownership and blurs the line between consumer and producer. Everyone that goes to Dark Lord Day can choose to be an entitled critic and write a Yelp-like review of the experience from a "customer" point of view (many of which come from people who have never been there), or you can take a stake in the day yourself, bring a couple bottles to share, try some beers that are well "off the menu" and if you are so inclined, wait in line for one of the great craft beers that catalyzed an unstoppable craft beer culture we may never see the likes of again.
So, after some serious reflection, that's what Dark Lord Day means to me. But I'm just one member of this diverse and passionate community. To get a broader perspective, I threw out the question: "What does Dark Lord Day mean to you?" on Twitter and got a few great responses. Here are the thoughts of some of your brethren:
J.J. Creegan, @jjcreegan
When I think I about DLD I see more potential and growth for the industry. The fact that so many people traveled so far, at such an expense to be at the event shows the strength and support of the beer community.
Whether it was because of the hype, the music, or simply the quality and exclusivity of the great DL brew many of us spent hundreds and even thousand of dollars to be there and celebrate beer.
I alone traveled from Florida and visited 3 breweries while in the area. I don't see this bubble bursting. I see it evolving and DLD is just one example.
Sean Baker, @iamseanbaker
Ever since attending in my first year in 2009 with my brother, it's been something that I knew we'd never miss again. I think what really encapsulates the day, was what happened to me and my friend Dave while we were in the A line to get our beer on Saturday. We had just gotten through the gates and went right into the bottle line. By that time we had already cracked a few goodies, 2012 Dark Lord (a tradition), Consecration and Baller Stout. At 10:15am someone walked up to us with a bottle in hand and said "excuse me sir, I noticed your glass is empty. May I offer you a pour of this?" It was a bottle of Hardywood Bourbon GBS, I had heard about it but I never thought I would have the opportunity to try it. He poured each of us a nice taste, told us a bit about the beer and moved on.
That is Dark Lord Day, it's sharing beer you've brought with complete strangers. Whether buried in a bottle line with those in front and behind you that you've now become friends with, in the bottle share area or a passerby. Its the opportunity to explore new beers or beers you never thought in the world you'd have an opportunity to try. We may be complete strangers but at Dark Lord Day it's a community, we're neighbors.
Ross Hughes, @ross_hughes
This was my first Dark Lord Day, my motive to go was not to get a highly rated or rare(ish) beer, in my opinion there are plenty of great imperial Russian stouts easily available at my local liquor store but main decision to go was based on the ability to share local beer with people from all around the country and for the chance to try new beer from areas I have never been able to before.
I am passionate about sharing beer from my town and local area (I'm from Bloomington, Indiana so I brought lots of Upland and Sun King beers) and was glad for a chance to try lots of regionals beer from the Vermont (My first Hill farmstead, yay) all the way to Wisconsin and even Canada.
I find the beer community a pleasure to be apart of because many people are so passionate, generous and willing to share with others and based upon my dark lord day that was every much the case and I look forward to going back next year.
I was always of the mind that Dark Lord Day was about saying that you had attended Dark Lord Day. This year I finally attended, looking forward to it as though it were some rite of passage; if you truly are a beer geek, you have to go. My pilgrimage to Indiana this past Saturday solidified Dark Lord Day in my mind as a necessary experience for beer lovers. Here's the moment that sums up the whole day for me.
While waiting in line to exchange my general admission for a golden ticket, my roommate and I befriended the people behind us and struck a barter deal. We'd be trading bottles of Dark Lord for the Intelli/3Floyds snifters that the Intelligentsia people ran out of earlier in the day. Our new friends opened a first run Bitches Brew and shared it with us.
I met people who had been going for several years, some wearing shirts they'd had made listing every year they'd attended, some who had traveled from New Mexico or North Carolina to be there. I found myself imagining I'd make it a tradition for myself. I learned a lot from this first time about how I could make it better for myself in the future. For example, wear sunscreen. For the love of god, wear sunscreen.
Dark Lord Day means waving your freak flag high.
With love, probably the only girl who wore a dress to DLD. Lesson learned.
Upon reminiscing, one cannot help but feel that Dark Lord Day is much bigger than a beer festival. There is a life lesson here, probably lying somewhere near the mosh pit, waiting to avail itself. You have to peer through the tents packed with people, the mud, the empty bombers, the brewery itself to see it but it is definitely there. The lesson is this: do what you love. 3 Floyd’s has never sought approval for their beer nor for their tastes in music. You either like it, or you don’t matter. Simple. Damn, that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Dark Lord Day is a culmination of this creed. It is a pilgrimage to bask in mutual expression of love for the craft. It is a reminder to us all to tempt the fates, to be bold, to make no small plans. The grander the vision, the grander the result. Dark Lord Day matters because it is proof that if you stay true to yourself, even the most fantastical aspiration can become concrete. Or metal.