Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, can quite possibly be credited with taking America’s recent fanaticism with everything craft brew and hop related, and turning the passion into epic fervor as powerful and vast as the Roman Empire during Pliny the Elder’s lifetime.
Well, that fervor could be more courtesy of its most famous beers: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. The Elder is the elder statesman for the brewery, providing it with its initial fame. The rebellious Younger debunked prior brewing traditions by creating a triple IPA that is now considered the quintessential beer and hopheads worldwide indeed do participate in pilgrimages to its hallowed grounds for the two weeks of the year Younger is produced each February. That, and the fact that it’s an excuse to visit California in the heart of winter.
Prior to earlier this month, my lone visit to the brewery’s tasting room and brewpub attached to the brewery itself in Santa Rosa, was in February for Pliny the Younger. Indeed, it is a truly sensational beer. It is immensely focused, hints of nutmeg and citrus in the aroma, and very strong without tasting in the least boozy at 11%. At triple the amount of hops than a typical IPA, the Younger actually seemed less hop driven than the double IPA Elder. Pliny the Elder strikes you as much more bitter and hop focused, a classic double IPA that every microbrewery now strives to replicate.
Was Pliny the Younger worth a 2 hour drive and 4 hour wait outside “freezing” California style? Of course. That doesn’t mean you need to do it again. It’s an experience.
Fast forward now to the summer and a much more relaxing experience sampling 18 of Russian River’s brews while watching Tiger Woods fall apart in the U.S. Open an hour away. Here are the tasting notes from one of the country’s true pioneering and consistently excellent craft breweries.
Pliny the Elder would go in this category, but the hands down winner was the spectacular Consecration, a Belgian sour aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. I could describe this “beer” like how I do with wine: plush, rich in tannins, yet very smooth, and sporting just a vague sour notion. Consecration is truly a perfect barrel aged beer. It’s aged 4-8 months with currants, creating a drink with a touch of tobacco to the mouth-feel and the luxury of a fine Cuban cigar.
Not far behind were Pliny the Elder, a not overly hoppy but far from mellow Simcoe single hop IPA called Row 2, Hill 56, a perfect rendition of a chocolate-coffee forward porter with some heft called Russian River Porter, and a beautiful Belgian strong dark ale, Salvation.
Near the Top
Belgian whites get a bad reputation thanks to Blue Moon, but do try Russian River’s Little White Lie. One taster caught some bacon grease in the taste, which everyone strangely agreed with. Lots of cloves and cumin going on as well. The abbey dubbel known as Benediction provides the Belgian quirkiness without seeming overly intending to lay you down. I loved the Happy Hops Pale Ale, with a bit more action and hops going on than a usual pale ale. The strangest beer of the day would be the Sanctification, a blonde with the profile of a slightly tart, hop forward lager, but the body of a golden ale. It’s brewed with 100% brettanomyces. The Noble Experiment Saison Blonde was a worthy rendition too, a bit less sweet and filtered tasting than most of its genre.
I’m torn on the Supplication, a very tart sour aged in Pinot noir barrels. On one hand, it’s a perfect version of a sour, beautifully smooth, and lovely in a taster. On the other hand, a full glass of it grew very unpleasant quickly forcing your mouth to pucker for a half hour. The Russian River IPA is a slightly calmer, still very hoppy typical IPA. Redemption, a Belgian blonde, had pleasant floral notes, but needed more to go with the terrific body and head. I could enjoy a pint of that or a pint of the Bière de Sonoma, inspired by strong, spice heavy Québec bière.
Not Next time
For some reason I can never understand what’s wrong with the Blind Pig IPA. Whether on draft or in a bottle, something doesn’t work. No taste sticks out, hops don’t come forward like you’d expect. This IPA is meant to be between the regular IPA and Pliny the Elder in terms of hoppiness. Aud Blonde proved to be a regular, harmless light ale, and the consensus final finisher was an unimpressive meager, watery O.V.L. stout crying for more cocoa notes and something to make it taste less chalky
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the craft brewing spectrum resides the new, very promising Cerveceria de Mate Veza. Occupying a prime corner of San Francisco next to Dolores Park, the sliver of a shop barely has enough room for sitting and enjoying one of its beers on taps, or room for its impressive collection of bottles for sale. The Argentina inspiration for the beers goes to the food too, mostly empanadas and cookies with dulce de leche.
Currently, only two beers are crafted by Matt Coelho and Jim Woods. Both are produced north at Mendicino Brewing, while a third is made in collaboration with Mill Valley Beerworks. All the beers are brewed with the Argentinian tea, Yerba mate, which is not too distant tasting from Japanese green tea. Only one of these brews was available on tap during a recent visit, an IPA that was lighter than expect an IPA to be with next to zero hoppy notes.
On the other hand, a bottle of the black lager with Yerba Mate was stellar, with the right amount of structure to be a lager with heft, spot on coffee and chocolate notes of a porter, and then that tea funk to make the brew almost seem Belgian.
Soon the store and bar in the Mission will make beers, though any visitor will wonder where that space in the cramped property will be. Open for only two months, Cerveceria de Mate Veza is already in the fast line to becoming an institution. There is a lot of potential here that will develop over the next few months without a doubt.