Russian River Brewing Company
725 4th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
A few years ago, I unwittingly developed a taste for American IPAs. From years back I enjoyed the IPA from Bridgeport, the rather enjoyable brew pub in Portland, OR whose killer app is the aroma from its non-stop pizza ovens combined with a variety of decent beers. But for whatever reason, a couple of years ago, I went from occasionally enjoying an IPA to suddenly finding it to be my favorite style of beer – well, provided it’s a west coast IPA, which I find to be cleaner, more focused and stylish than its Pacific-removed brethren. The recent evolution of IPA (as the story goes) took a step forward when Vinnie Cilurzo, then at Blind Pig in San Diego, jacked up the regular IPA with even more hops, and balanced the extra bitterness with more sweetness from malt, which inevitably led to more alcohol. And thus the double IPA was born. <Cue the manna from heaven sound effect.> Now Mr. Cilurzo is co-owner (with his wife) of the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, CA, smack in the middle of California’s tourist – sorry, wine – country.
There are a number of excellent IPAs (Racer 5 from Bear Republic in Healdsburg, CA and Stone IPA from Stone Brewing in San Diego are a couple of other faves) but in the end, the best IPAs for my taste come from Russian River Brewing Company. They’re just a bit more balanced and contain a bit more zest for life than these other offerings. Blind Pig is their regular (a.k.a. single) IPA offering checking in at 6% alcohol and 72 International Bitterness Units (IBUs) and would normally be considered a fantastic beer – except for it is in the same stable as one of the juggernauts of the beer world: the double IPA “Pliny the Elder” (8% alc, 92 IBU), whose namesake was a Roman naturalist who first identified and named hops. To me, Pliny the Elder is the best beer I’ve ever drank (and drank, and drank…). I recall that Saveur Magazine once named Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in one of its annual Top 100 lists. PtE is the evolutionary pinnacle (well, at least for now) of the SNPA gene line. The popularity of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder has skyrocketed in recent years, as demonstrated by the fact that the very limited triple-IPA “Pliny the Younger” sold out at the brewery this past February in a matter of hours. I had a chance to try Pliny the Younger and didn’t think it was worth the fuss, really – the knife-edge balance that characterizes Elder didn’t quite seem to be there.
Unfortunately, Pliny the Elder isn’t so easy to find, even in California. A number of places in the San Francisco Bay area carry it on tap, a more limited number in Southern California, and after that it becomes exponentially more difficult. Same story for the bottled version. The brew pub in Santa Rosa has an extensive rotating lineup of beers on tap, which always includes Pliny the Elder. Does the Elder taste better at the source? I think so, but it could well be the placebo effect. Frankly, it’s darn good no matter how you get your hands it. At the brew pub, in addition to a list of “normal” microbrew styles such as porter, blonde, pale ale, etc., there is an equally-long list of Belgian-style ales. Russian River Brewing Company also seems to be amongst the small vanguard pushing the boundaries of beer (or is it re-discovering old boundaries?) by producing a number of sour beers which exploit the normally reviled Brettanomyces yeast to produce beers with a whole range of funky/sour flavors. I’ve sampled the entire lineup a couple of times now, and much to my surprise the only beers that I really enjoy here are the IPAs. I admit I was all ready to annoint Mr. Cilurzo god-like status based on those beers alone, but none of his other styles really speak to me. I enjoy a wide range of Belgian and Belgian-style beers, but in the end would rather have a Delirium Tremens or Fin du Monde instead of the Russian River Brewing Company equivalents. I guess Mr. Cilurzo will have to accept demi-god status instead.
The brew pub does also serve food, which turns out to be better than normal fare. The wings were a winner, and the pizza was a tasty cushion for the potent Pliny. Russian River Brewing Company seems to be almost always crowded, but in a friendly way. Plenty of families in for a meal, and lots of locals enjoying a pint or three at the bar or at one of the many tables. So if you’re in the area and are having fruit-and-oak-bomb cab sauv overload, it’s well-worth a visit to cleanse the palate with some well-honed bitterness and see what all the fuss is about, straight from the source.
(Check out this very interesting article on the recent history of beer in the US if you’d like to learn more!)
Note: Pliny the Elder is available takeout from Toronado Pub in San Francisco, limit of 6.