While there are plenty of great beer destinations to seek out near and afar, few places in America have the draw of one Russian River Brewing Company (RRBC) in Santa Rosa, California.
The sheer number of breweries in the U.S. and abroad — good, bad or other — that you can now work into any type of trip is astounding. And while there are plenty of great beer destinations to seek out near and afar, few places in America have the draw of one Russian River Brewing Company (RRBC) in Santa Rosa, California.
RRBC began in 1997 when Korbel Champagne Cellars decided to dip a toe into the beer world. Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife eventually bought the brewery from Korbel in 2002, with a continued focus on barrel-aged sours and IPAs. When it comes to beer giants of the last 30 years, Cilurzo is certainly near the top of the list. His innovations elevated beer in the U.S. enough to create an almost mythical fascination — at least among beer-hunters on the east coast — with his highly coveted fermentations.
“Pliny the Younger,” a triple IPA, is one such beer I am still chasing, along with a trip to Santa Rosa, where beer and wine often meet perfection. RRBC sour ales in particular are strongly connected to the wine country they are brewed in because most, if not all, are aged in various wine barrels. Within those barrels the beer acquires characteristics of the oak, wine and whatever micro-organisms remain to work on the aging process. Inspired by Belgian lambics, this beer program is the paradigm for many brewers of wild or sour ales.
Yet, to only discuss the sours would overlook that Cilurzo is also credited with creating the first double IPA — the stronger, hoppier, big brother of the IPA. His legendary “Pliny the Elder” still stands up today as a timeless, complex and tightly woven hop experience with big notes of pine, fruit and honey, and a slightly warm alcohol finish. When the beer is fresh, it remains among the best in its style.
Thankfully, for those on the east coast, these epic brews can occasionally be found in the Philadelphia region at locations like Monk’s Cafe. (I missed “the Younger” by a day last visit.) While many breweries lose their intrigue eventually due to overwhelming availability, Russian River’s brews continue to mesmerize. (And, by a stroke of good fortune, they have been unscathed by recent forest fire destruction, and continue to brew and fundraise for fire victims at www.sonomapride.com).
This week’s recommendation: Russian River “Blind Pig,” a full-bodied West Coast IPA with citrus and pine hop character. 6.2 percent ABV. Santa Rosa, California.
— Colin Hubbell is co-owner of the Green Onion Pub and The Beer Hub in South Utica, New York.,