Vinnie Cilurzo (brewmaster) and his wife Natalie acquired the rights to the Russian River Brewing Company (RRBC) brand from Korbel Champagne Cellars in 2003 after Korbel decided to exit the beer brewing business. On April 3, 2004, Vinnie and Natalie reopened RRBC as a brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa to great success. In 2008, they opened a production brewery about 1 mile from their brewpub allowing them to triple production and increase their distribution. Over the years Vinnie Cilurzo has earned dozens of awards for his beers at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup, and received the prestigious Brewer’s Association Russell Schehrer Award For Innovation in Craft Brewing in 2008. Russian River beers such a Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger have evolved to a type of cult status among many beer consumers.
My wife and I tried to visit the Russian River brewpub at 8pm on a Sunday evening. The place was PACKED, a band was playing, and there was a 2 hour wait to get a table. Now I’m all for a good party but not when sampling beers. Hence, we decided to visit early the next day. Arriving on Monday morning at the opening hour of 11am, the pub already had about 6 regular customers and began to fill quickly. We sat at the bar and were greeted by very friendly bar staff members. Monday heralded the release of Shadow of a Doubt Imperial Porter at the brewpub. About 15 six packs of Shadow of a Doubt lined the bar when we entered. All of the six packs on the bar were sold in less than 30 minutes. I hoped to sample Pliny the Elder on tap, but the brewpub had run out on Sunday. Fortunately, Pliny the Elder was available by bottle (and Pizza Port San Clemente gets kegs periodically). The Russian River brewpub offers beer samplers, but since our schedule was tight, I only had time to sample five beers. My tasting notes follow.
Damnation Strong Golden Pale Ale (7% ABV): Inspired by Duvel and other strong golden ales of Belgium, this beer pours a clear, bright golden color with white foam head and active bubbling that leaves a nice spider-web lace down the glass. Damnation smells of hay and Belgian yeast (a fruity/banana bouquet). The beer is medium-bodied with moderate carbonation on the palate. Damnation has a hay/straw, citrus, and malt flavor. Bitterness is mild. The finish is dry and subtly spicy with lasting malt. This is an outstanding beer that strongly pays homage to Belgian strong golden ales.
Supplication Brown Sour with Cherries (7% ABV): This is a Brown Ale aged in used Pinot Noir barrels from local Sonoma County wineries for about 12 months with sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus added to each barrel. Supplication has a clear, red-amber hue with off-white foam and active bubbling. A mild sour cherry and grape aroma dominates the aroma. This beer is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. Supplication was reminiscent of a fine Belgian Lambic. The taste starts with a wonderful, complex sour/tart cherry assault that has an integrated mild malt/bread flavor in the background. An exquisite oaky, sour cherry dry finish creates a sophisticated and luxurious ending. I felt like I needed to be dressed in a tuxedo to drink this world-class, delicious sour beer.
Propitiation Sour Barrel Aged Porter (7% ABV): Propitiation was born from one of the six components of Russian River’s Toronado 25th Anniversary beer. It was aged in used wine barrels for 12 months before being removed and carbonated. The beer pours a clear dark brown color (almost black) with tan foam that leaves a nice lace. Propitiation has a slightly sour grape and cherry aroma. The beer is medium-bodied with mild carbonation. Propitiation has a Lambic-like sour/tart grape/cherry flavor with roasted malt undertones of coffee and chocolate and a mildly dry finish. This beer is delicious but doesn’t have the complexity and sophistication of Supplication.
Blind Pig American India Pale Ale (6.25% ABV): Russian River Brewery’s first beer pours a clear light copper color with white foam. Blind Pig IPA has a strong pine resin and grapefruit aroma. The beer is medium to full-bodied with moderate carbonation. Blind Pig IPA provides wonderfully strong grapefruit and pine resin flavors that overlay the very mild tasting malt base. The beer has a dry, bitter finish. Blind Pig IPA is delicious and tastes like a grapefruit is included in every glass.
Shadow of a Doubt Imperial Porter (9.86% ABV): Shadow of a Doubt was named after the great Hitchcock movie filmed in Santa Rosa in 1943. This beer pours a black color with dark brown hue and rich tan foam that leaves a persistent lace webbing on the glass. Shadow of a Doubt has a rich cocoa/chocolate and roasted malt aroma with background of dark coffee. The beer is medium to full-bodied with mild carbonation. Shadow of a Doubt provides rich, delicious, and balanced flavors of cocoa and chocolate, roasted malt, coffee, and light smoke. A wonderfully subtle hops bitterness and hints of tobacco accompany the slightly dry finish. This world-class beer is addictive and demonstrates the same type of creative, dark genius Alfred Hitchcock poured into his movies.
Pliny the Elder Double American India Pale Ale (8% ABV): As noted on the Russian River Brewery website, “Pliny, the man, lived in the first century – 23 to 79 A.D. According to our brewing references, he and his contemporaries either created the botanical name or at least wrote about Lupus Salictarius, or hops, currently known as Humulus Lupulus. That was a very early reference to an important part of any Double IPA!” First released in 2000, Pliny the Elder Double IPA is now one of Russian River’s flagship beers and is recognized by prestigious publications such as Beer Advocate as world-class. This beer pours a slightly hazy copper gold color with white foam that leaves a beautiful lace down the glass. Pliny the Elder has a big aroma of evergreens, cut grass, and citrus. The beer is medium-bodied with a rich feeling on the palate and delightfully mild carbonation. Pliny the Elder is very smooth with sweet malt and biscuit flavors that are accompanied by assertive but integrated hops flavors that include pine resin, citrus, floral notes, nuts, and tropical fruits. There is a great dry finish with lingering bitterness. The alcohol is excellently integrated. Sometimes cults are born for a valid reason.
I barely scratched the surface of the many beers that are offered by Russian River Brewing Company, but I’m seeking cult membership. The sad news is that I drank my last bottle of Shadow of a Doubt while writing this article. Only 1000 cases were created so I better start looking for more now.
If you get a chance to visit Russian River brewpub, you should but be aware that this brewpub is the busiest I have ever seen in my life. Thanks to my lovely wife for supporting the trip and thanks to the bar staff at Russian River for making helpful suggestions for my limited sampling.