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“I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.” ― Luther Burbank
By Meagan Wilson
Photos by Ben Wilson
If you’re a craft beer drinker, or perhaps even if you’re not, Russian River Brewing Company hardly needs any introduction. Unlike a couple of the other world-famous breweries we had a chance to visit on our Pacific Coast Highway trip, Russian River is not one of the “Class of ’88” craft breweries that were established that year. They are, however, very well established, and downright fantastic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since I had my first taste of Pliny the Elder, shared several years ago by a soul in the Upstate New York Homebrewer’s Association (UNYHA), the Russian River Brewpub in Santa Rosa, CA has been on my must-visit list. I won’t keep you in suspense; it was a great experience.
The brewpub is located on 4th Street in downtown Santa Rosa, across from the main branch of the Sonoma County Library. If you’ve only heard of Russian River because of Pliny the Elder, their many-times award-winning double IPA, you’re in for a treat. The tap list is 20 strong, and includes styles as varied as stout, blonde, sours and barrel-aged beers. The ABVs range too, from the squarely session-able to the now-I’m-super-happy-and-fuzzy-after-one-beer.
It was a Monday evening in May when we visited, and there was a bit of a wait for a table. Maybe 20 minutes, at that point. Sounds funny, but that turned out to be fun. They’ll totally let you order from the bar, and take your pint out to porch while you’re waiting for a table. Ben said one of his favorite things from visit was being able to enjoy a fresh pint of Pliny the Elder while chilling on the porch. Kinda makes me want to take a beer out on my own patio right now, but it’s 100 degrees out, so I won’t.
When we visited Cooperage Brewing Co., Dan Hanes recommended we try the pizza at the Russian River brewpub. That advice was spot-on. The pepperoni pizza (New Yorker) was out-freaking-standing. I was too busy stuffing my face to pester them about their pizza-making methods, but it tasted like it was baked in a wood-fired traditional stone or brick pizza oven, and the small, lightly crisp, slightly spicy pepperoni was basically perfect.
As for beer, my first pint was Perdition, their 6.25% “Biere de Sonoma.” It’s a very good, delightfully malty, caramelly, and also somewhat citrusy biere de garde. You can barely get this one outside of their pubs, so it’s a great choice when you’re there. The previously-mentioned Pliny the Elder well deserves its reputation, and it’s especially excellent on tap.
We ordered the full sampler, so we could try basically everything that was on tap that day. For the sake of space and time, I won’t catalog them all, but each one was quite good. Two that I must mention are Supplication and Consecration.
Supplication is a 7% ABV sour ale aged in pinot noir barrels (naturally, the barrels are from local wineries). It has literal dark fruits in it (it’s aged with cherries), and the funk is definitely there, but not overwhelming. In short, it’s delicious. At 10%, Consecration warrants a bit more caution when imbibing, but if you’re having just one beer, this is well worth being “the one.” It’s a sour dark ale, aged in cab sauv rather than pinot barrels, and with currants instead of cherries. My tasting notes say, “Damned good beer.”
In case you’re curious, Russian River doesn’t currently propagate their yeast in-house, but in an email reply to my question about it, Natalie indicated that they have, “…plans to transition to in-house propagation within the next year. We also do spontaneous or natural fermentation with wild native Sonoma County yeast.”
The larger article about this trip was written with an eye toward family vacations, and Russian River Brewpub makes a fine stop for just about anyone. Behind our table, there was a family of four or six (don’t ask me to count people when I’m tasting 20 beers). The table next to us was occupied by two younger couples on a double date. The girls kept making blowjob motions to each other – I gathered the date must have been going well. All four people were also carrying on a reasonably knowledgeable conversation about craft beer.
Part of the Community
We just so happened to plan our trip at the same time as Copenhagen Beer Festival 2019, so the owners, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, weren’t available for an in-person interview. Gina Batti, their executive assistant, graciously facilitated an email exchange with Natalie, though.
While the trip started out mostly as a beer tourism jaunt, visiting Sonoma County and seeing both the destruction from the 2017 fires, and the rebuilding efforts, struck a chord. I’m from Oregon (about an hour from Rogue Farms) and Ben grew up partially in Santa Rosa, so the loss of lives, homes, forests and farmland due to wildfires cuts quite close to home.
After the Sonoma County fires, Russian River Brewing Co. and King Ridge foundation teamed up to create the Sonoma Pride fundraiser, which raised $1,122,116.23 and helped 680 families, according to the fundraiser webpage. Russian River were also highly involved in advising and supporting Sierra Nevada in their Camp Fire relief efforts after the wildfire that raged through Butte County late last year.
When I asked (via email) about their philosophy regarding community involvement, Natalie Cilurzo had plenty to say.
There was no hesitation to help the people of our community during the fires. These are the people who have supported our business all these years, so it was very easy for us to quickly mobilize efforts with our Sonoma Pride brand to help raise much needed money and resources for fire victims. Sierra Nevada was one of the first of 60 breweries to help us in our time of need. So when they needed help for the Paradise Camp Fire, we jumped at the chance. Vinnie and I even drove to Chico on Thanksgiving Day to help serve dinner to Paradise fire victims.— Natalie Cilurzo, Co-Owner of Russian River Brewing
If you’re planning a visit, you should also know that Russian River has a second location in Windsor, CA. We didn’t make it to that facility, but it sounds amazing. The beer garden is pet-friendly, and huge (one acre), the parking is free (and also huge; two acres). That’s their main production facility now, and while the tap menu is smaller, the food menu is larger. Visiting that location is definitely on my list for next time.