In Santa Rosa, California, a score of years or so ago, the owners of Korbel Champagne Cellars opened a microbrewery that they named Russian River Brewing Company. They hired a brewmaster, Vinny Cilurzo, who is widely regarded by lovers of malt and hops as something of a beer prophet, because he is responsible for two of the most rare and famed beers on the planet: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger.
Disclaimer: before this “pilgrimage”, I had been to RRBC to fill the maximum number of two growlers with Elder, and I’d also sampled Elder from the bottle, as well as the only other RRBC bottling: Blind Pig IPA.
I was present at RRBC during the most recent February release of Pliny the Younger, but with the littles in tow I could not justify the multi-hour wait that it would have taken to get inside for Younger, so I waited in the “back” line to once again fill my growlers with Elder as I passed through town.
Since I’ve been on premises several times, I noticed something most attractive and exciting: the RRBC beer sampler. It beckoned to me, inviting me to sit down and get acquainted with all the other interesting offerings.
By interesting, I mean things that really aren’t found (or even attempted) at other microbreweries. This time, the offerings on the board included three different sours fermented with brettanomyces yeast, as well as a double abbey ale, a porter, a stout, several different iterations of IPA, a double IPA (i.e., Elder), a golden ale, a brown, and some other great stuff.
I asked Fr. A who joined us on our camping trip to the coast, if he’d like to make the pilgrimage with us on our way back home. As something of a beer connoisseur himself, it took very little arm-twisting to get him on board.
Whoever is responsible for naming the beers (I assume it’s Mr. Cilurzo et al.) shares a fondness — as I do — for religious or philosophical names. In addition to the two Plinys, names featured on the board included Consecration, Benediction, Defenestration, Damnation, Salvation… you get the idea. Some of these are terms which — particularly for Catholics — hold true meaning and are therefore highly evocative. I’d be interested to learn how the names were assigned. For Valentine’s Day they brew a Belgian dark called Rejection. LOL.
At any given time, RRBC has up to 18 beers on draft, and you can try all of them in the sampler for around $16, which offers two-ounce pours that are delivered on a special tasting board that they have ingeniously customized with little magnetic places for bottle caps to identify each beer. $16 may sound a bit steep, but it is over two pints of beer, and a lot of little glasses to clean when you’re finished.
Father and I agreed that unlike a lot of microbreweries that offer samplers, the distinction for RRBC is that every beer on their board is good. Maybe every beer isn’t the absolute best of its style, but several were the best I’ve tasted in their style, and every beer was good, delicious, and worth paying money to drink.
Of the sours, which were definitely the most, er, challenging, I liked the “Sanctification” the most, which is a golden that is “100% bret” fermented. Lots of lemons, kind of like a summer radler but more punchy. Also loved the “Row 2, Hill 56” 100% Simcoe IPA, and of course the Bling Pig and Elder. Pliny the Elder is their best beer in my book, but as noted I have not yet tried the Younger.
A note also about the food. RRBC offers a full menu that is not terribly inspired (leaving the inspiration to the beer) but nonetheless solid pub food. We ordered two large pizzas which arrived to the table perfectly hot and crisp, with a thin, crunchy, chewy crust and top quality toppings. I ate the leftover pizza, which I almost never do unless the pizza is really good (unlike most people, pizza is not my favorite food). Service was friendly and reasonably swift for the time of day we visited.
I am not aware of tours being offered to the general public, but unlike a lot of breweries, I would actually pay money to go on the RRBC tour if it were offered, assuming I’d get to ask as many questions as I wanted.
In short, for beer lovers, particularly the lupulin-dependent ones (like me), a pilgrimage to Russian River Brewing Company is not to be missed. Set in the midst of scenic Sonoma County, Mr. Cilurzo and his team brew dreams into their offerings, and elevate the art and craft of beer in an authentic (not snobby) way that respects beer for what it is: food.