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November 02, 2012

The Best Craft Brewery in California

The sampler at Russian River Brewing Company

When it comes to taste, everyone has their say. Often one beer-lover’s nirvana is another beer-aficionado’s moment of mneh. So let’s use crowd-sourcing to justify our claim that Russian River Brewing Company ranks as the best of California’s many craft breweries. And by that I mean the blocks-long line that crowds out the otherwise unassuming town of Santa Rosa every two weeks each February when anxious beer hounds line up for hours, just for a sip of Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, a limited-release triple IPA.

But we don’t praise Russian River Brewing Company solely because of its hard-to-acquire limited-release beer. They win our affections because of the craftsmanship that goes into each bottle, barrel, and keg, from the hard-to-make Pliny the Younger to their Belgian-style sours to the endlessly award-winning Pliny the Elder, a double IPA named after the first person to write about hops back in 23-79 A.D.

Master brewer Vinnie Cirurzo came from a wine-making family at Cilurzo Family Vineyards, and started brewing beer for Korbel Champagne Cellars at the age of 18.  Despite his wine-making background, Vinnie was drawn to beer because, unlike wine, beer only took about 21 days to make.And then, in a perfectly ironic twist, Vinnie’s interest in beer at Russian River and his lifelong exposure to wine-making led him to experiment with barrel-aging beer, which meant his barrel-aged sour beers would have to wait 12 to 16 months before they were bottled.

In 2003, Korbel elected to get out of the beer-making business and sold the brewery to Vinnie and his wife, Natalie. They re-opened the former Russian River Brewing Company brewery as a brew pub in downtown Santa Rosa in April 2004 and self-distributed their beer to nearby clients. An off-site brewery followed in 2008, and today they now employ 60 part- and full-time employees. During that time, their beer has become one of the highest-rated and most sought-after products in craft beer. 

Yet unlike some microbrews, Russian River Brewing doesn’t have plans for world domination; each batch is still inspected by Vinnie himself, and the recipes are continuously tinkered with, to always aspire for perfection, rather than replicating what’s already done before. As a result, a 12-ounce bottle of Russian River Damnation can command as much as $25 on liquor store shelves in cities that aren’t part of their limited distribution (for now, Philadelphia is the only lucky recipient on the East Coast).

That attention to detail shows in every sip, but thankfully the vibe of the brew pub doesn’t come off as elitist or snooty. When I was there one sunny fall afternoon, the place was comfortably crowed with NoCal hipsters, beer-loving hippies, families, tattooed, long-haired musicians in death metal t-shirts, and blue-collar workers toasting the start of happy hour. Locals will wander in before work for a quick pint, leave the tab open, and return after punching out. And if you get inside during that famed two-week window for Pliny the Younger, you can stay as long as you can stand, and drink as much of that beer as you like—at least until the bar reaches the daily limit marked on the tank. 

Oh, and about the beer. If you end up there, start with the sampler, two-ounce pours of everything on tap. Selections typically rotate seasonally, but stand-bys like Pliny the Elder, the Damnation golden ale, the award-winning sours, and the Blind Pig IPA will most often be available. I tried 22 beers in all, roughly divided between pale ales and Belgian styles, along with a collaboration brewed with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and each one was flavorful, different, and thoroughly delicious.

My favorites? Pliny the Elder, the award-winning double IPA that accounts for 30 to 40 percent of the beer sold on-site, and the Supplication, a sour beer aged for 12 months in Pinot Noir bottles with sour cherries and a mix of different bacteria that deliver a funky complexity. In fact, all of the sours hit the Platonic ideal of taste that so many similar beers strive for in this trend, and often miss. But you’re certain to find your own favorite pour here—and that’s what loving craft beer is all about.

The brew pub has a solid beer-friendly menu, including pizzas, sandwiches, and salads. In addition to on-tab beers, they also have great merch and several beers available in 500 and 357mm bottles, so save space in your suitcase. Best time to visit? Just before happy hour (which runs 4:00-6:30 and all day Sunday) to get a seat. There is no brewery tour.

And, as you likely gather from the name, there are tons of fantastic Russian River Valley wines within a short driving distance of Santa Rosa, as well as other famed California breweries like Lagunitus and Bear Republic.

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Related Topics: Culinary Travel · Food and Drink


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We appreciate your comment, Erika - I've modified the write-up. When I was writing this post, I was also referencing the bio info printed on the back label of their Supplication: "Ironically, Vinnie decided his winemaking days were through when he discovered it takes just twenty-one days to make beer Ten years later it takes him more than a year to make one beer."

Thanks for reading!

Another quick correction - Vinnie was actually not a wine-maker at Korbel, he was their brewer.

Thanks, WC, for the catch. You're right, Avery is in Colorado.

uhmmm...odd that Avery is a 'famed CALIFORNIA brewery' since it's in Boulder, COLORADO. Didn't know 1275 miles was a 'short drive'.

I feel like drinking them.

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