Some fellow Aleheads and I spent last weekend celebrating the nuptials of our mutual friend Goose in the lovely, NorCal hamlet of of Santa Rosa. I should point out that neither Goose nor his wife are actually from Santa Rosa…or California for that matter. Nor do they have family in the area. As far as I can tell, they selected the site for one reason…to give my fellow travelers and I an opportunity to spend the weekend attempting to drink every ounce of beer at the Russian River Brewing Company.
OK, maybe they actually picked the area because Goose and Mrs. Goose are huge wine snobs and foodies and the Napa region is rightly famous for its vino and chow. But still…when we bellied up to the bar on 4th Street, it certainly “seemed” like the Gooses had selected their wedding site just for us. Our crew ordered flight after flight of brews and enjoyed every minute of our time in the presence of beer greatness.
The Russian River Brewpub serves two flights…the “California” flight which is highlighted by their three IPAs, Blind Pig, Russian River IPA, and Pliny the Elder…and the Belgian flight which consists of the “-ations”. Having consumed my weight in Russian River beers throughout the preceding week in San Fran, I generally stuck to my two favorites, Pliny and Supplication…but I’m not made of stone. When you’re that close to the source (about a dozen feet from the fermenters), you’ve got to make like Pokemon and collect ‘em all.
I won’t go into too much detail about the “California” brews. I’ve already waxed ecstatic about Pliny and the Blind Pig. The third IPA, the cleverly named “IPA” is solid as well although it pales in comparison to its big brother, the Elder. I could have done without the Aud Blonde and Gaffer’s ESB, two well-crafted but unmemorable brews. Of Russian River’s two dark beers, I found the O.V.L. Stout to be standard fare at best (even with its pretty nitro head), but the Russian River Porter was outlandishly good. The Porter had everything you would want in a dark beer…chocolate, coffee, roasted malt, incredibly drinkable, and a nice kick of hops cutting through every sip. Why the brewery isn’t more famous for that beer is beyond me…
Which leads us to the “-ations”. Russian River IS famous for these beers. Other than the Pliny brothers (Elder and Younger), the “-ations” are what put the brewery on the map. These brews are all Belgian in nature…barrel-aged, fairly low-IBUs, and most are fermented with liberal usage of Brettanomyces yeast, the funky, wild strain that vintners shun and brewers laud. I’ll do in-depth tasting notes on each of these brews in the coming weeks, but for now, how about a quick and dirty run-down of these beauties:
Perdition: My least favorite of Russian River’s Belgian-style brews (which is like being the least talented NBA All-Star…you’re still better than 99% of other players). It’s a Biere de Garde (a hit or miss style for me) and while it gets the major notes right, I thought the fruity esters and the funky horseblanket aroma overpowered any malt sweetness. Surprisingly “bland” which is the last time I’ll use that word in this post. Drinkable and interesting, but it’s nothing compared to the rest of the Belgian crew. 2.5 Hops
Damnation/Redemption: I’m doubling up on these “similar” brews. Redemption, to me at least, tasted like a weaker version of the Damnation. Though I’m sure if I had gotten a full pint of the Redemption (instead of a small flight glass) and was able to truly dive into it, I would have found a lot more disparity between the two brews. I’ve always enjoyed the Damnation which I think is one of the closest approximations to Duvel made in America (though not quite as good as that near-perfect Belgian Strong Pale Ale). The Redemption was quite good in its own right, but closer to the less intense Duvel Green you can find on tap at many good beer bars in the US these days. Probably not fair to compare the Damnation and Redemption to the Belgian masters of the Pale Ale, but such is beer criticism. Regardless of not living up to Duvel, the Damnation and Redemption are deliciously spicy with strong undercurrents of fruit and yeast. Very enjoyable. 3 Hops for each.
That brings us to the Wild Ales. Russian River ages most of their various Wild Ales in different wine barrels. The brewery is in the heart of wine country, so why wouldn’t they take advantage of one of the great resources available to brewers in their region? The oak barrels they use are soaked in the residue of their former, grape-based inhabitants which adds color, depth and complexity to the beers. Various funky yeasts are also left in the barrels…including the aforementioned Brettanomyces strain. Taming these wild yeasts requires a brewer with the utmost skill…fortunately, Vinnie Cirulzo is one of the best in the business.
Russian River’s Wild Ales are sour, barrel-aged monsters that are each exquisite in their own right. I’m actually not sure if Vinnie simply takes the same recipe and just mixes up the barrels, aging time and the yeast or if each beer is completely different to begin with. The end results are certainly very unique and each has its own charms that makes it hard to choose between them. Nevertheless, I know my dear readers like “rankings”, so I’ll discuss them in reverse order, ending with my favorite.
Temptation: Aged in Chardonnay barrels, the Temptation is the lightest colored Wild Ale…almost a straw yellow. It picks up a ton of the classic Chardonnay taste…crisp, drying, and sour. My only complaint is that the delicate Chardonnay aroma and flavor doesn’t balance as well as I’d like with the “wild” nature of the brew. It’s not that it’s “too” funky or musty…I just find that the two dominant flavors (the yeast and the Chardonnay) don’t necessarily play off each other well. As Magnus eloquently stated, “I fucking hate Chardonnay.” Hard to love a beer when you don’t really enjoy the flavor of the wine barrel it was aged in. Still, it’s only “bad” in relation to the other Wilds. In a vacuum, it would be a ridiculously tasty beer. 3 Hops.
Sanctification: If you like sour, farmhouse funk, then the Sanctification is the beer for you. This one actually isn’t wine-barrel aged…but it IS fermented with 100% Brett yeast. That’s a tough chore for any brewer, but Russian River nails it. Perfectly sour, perfectly funky, and perfectly drinkable, the Sanctification tastes like an even more complex Temptation without all of that Chardonnay gumming up the works. A nice, dry finish and very little ABV burn make this one go down quick and easy. 3.5 Hops
Consecration: The strongest of the Wilds by far (10% ABV), the Consecration is a very dark ale aged in Cabernet barrels. The Consecration is also the “flattest” of the Wilds (though none of them hold a head or lacing particularly well) and has the most pungent noseburn and ABV astringency in the finish. But mostly it’s just a big, ol’ sour bomb. Tons of fruit, acid, good yeast funkiness, and an excellent, sweet foundation, the Consecration is an absolutely brilliant beer. As our friend Miss Risky said, “It’s changing my perception of beer as I drink it.” It doesn’t get much better than this one. 4 Hops
Supplication: Except that it does. The Supplication is, to me at least, one of the best beers in America. The Baron already wrote a glowing review of the brew, but I’m happy to talk it up some more. Viciously sour with an excellent candy apple sweetness balanced by earthy, toasted oak and the kind of mustiness you find at the bottom of a well, the Supplication is so dangerously drinkable that you’ll find yourself ordering another after the first sip of the one in your hand. It’s a special beer brewed by a special brewery. Thanks to Goose for giving us the opportunity to convene in Santa Rosa and partake in some of the finest suds in all the land. I can’t wait for a return visit. 4 Hops