Maybe there’s no doubt. Once you’ve traveled over two hours specifically for one beer, and waited in line on Tuesday morning for that same beer, maybe then you can anoint that brewery the king. The title previously held by Ballast Point (and the home brew mart in particular), might have been stolen by Russian River.
Because I made the Pliny Pilgrimage.
Once a year, Russian River releases Pliny the Younger — only from the keg. And in limited release. So limited that people in my neck of the woods — the south bay — wait in line for hours without knowing if the keg will last to their part of the line. We wanted certainty, so we drove north to Santa Rosa on a Tuesday morning to test our livers and our wives. I’d heard so much about the beer, there was no way I was passing up that open seat in the car.
Pliny the Younger is a triple IPA! There aren’t a ton of triple IPAs out there. It’s not even a category on Beer Advocate — see the Younger listed with the Imperial IPAs. But it’s not so hoppy that your face will cave in due to bitterness. In fact, it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite beers, the Firestone Walker Double Jack. The Younger was smooth, well-balanced, sweet and hoppy, great from mouthfeel to aftertaste. Any IPA fan should make the trek once in their lives. You can’t get a growler any more, but you can drink as much as you’d like there.
But of course, to be the king, you can’t just make one great beer. Even if it’s one so great that people travel from far and wide to get it at the source. You have to make many, many great beers. And yes, Russian River fits the bill. Check out our sampler:
On the sampler list was Blind Pig — one of the most influential beers of all time, and one of the first California IPAs — Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder, as well as their decent Row 2/ Hill 56 pale ale. Janet’s Brown Ale was an okay brown which would actually stay on par with the Moose Drools of the world if it wasn’t on a sampler with so many heavy hitters. The OVL stout was a nitro stout, which could have used a tiny bit of sweetness, but was also very drinkable. And then you had the ‘Tions — Erudition (a solid saison), Damnation (belgian strong), Perdition (I don’t love Biere du Gardes, but this one blows Hermitage’s out of the water), Redemption (Belgian Pale), Rejection (Belgian Dark, very good, kind of felt like a Belgian black lager), Sanctification (an excellent non-barrel aged 100% Brett Saison), and Consecration (Barrel-aged American Wild). There might have been some other beers, but this was quite a list. I immediately wanted more Sanctification and Consecration, and made sure to buy some on the way out. I also lugged home as many Pliny the Elders and Blind Pigs as I could reasonably walk past my wife in the living room. The worst beer on the list — the Redemption? — was something you’d be happy to find in your average craft beer pub. Almost everything I’ve had from Russian River is amazing. You can’t drink those beers right now — some might be available at your local craft store — but do you see the lacing on those beers? Every. Single. Beer.
Sure, Ballast Point has more stouts, and may win on that level. And AleSmith’s Speedway Stout was not replicated anywhere at the brewery in Santa Rosa. I need to know more about Bell’s and Founders. DogFish Head has some excellent beers.
But that sampler blew me away. Almost more than the Pliny the Younger, which was worth the trip, by itself.
[Thanks very much to Rob, Adrian, and Jeff for inviting me along]