If beer geeks ever decide to chisel a Mt. Rushmore of California brewmasters, there’s a good chance that Vinnie Cilurzo will make the cut. He started in San Diego at Blind Pig, where many people believe he invented the double IPA, then he took his aggressive brewing methods north. We recently tried 16 different beers at Russian River Brewing Company, the Santa Rosa brewpub he runs with wife Natalie, and every beer was good to great.
In 1997, when Russian River was still located at Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville. Cilurzo discovered barrel aging, pairing blonde beer with local Chardonnay barrels. This resulted in his now-famous Temptation. Since moving to downtown Santa Rosa, he’s fermented with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, but barrel aging isn’t the only aspect of his arsenal.
Walk past a patio full of pint-hoisters to enter a cavernous blue building.
Russian River’s twin blackboards offered the most comprehensive info I’d ever seen on a beer menu, not only the Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and International Bittering Units (IBUs), but also the Original Gravity (OG), which helps determine the beer’s alcoholic strength after fermentation. Russian River features 16 different beers on draught at any point, and since I’d never been in Santa Rosa before (and may never be again), we tried them all. They featured two-ounce tasters for 50 or 75 cents apiece. They came to the table in 8-beer waves, in caddies with each beer marked by a corresponding bottle cap. My four favorites: Consecration, OVL Stout, Pliny the Elder double IPA and Biere de Sonoma.
Redemption was a refreshing golden ale. Little White Lie was just that, a spicy Belgian white marked by a Beer Esteam cap. Perdition was a Biere de Garde beer that Cilurzo dubbed Biere de Sonoma, a smooth-sipping copper ale with a predominant maltiness. Damnation was a stronger golden ale. Salvation was a strong dark brown ale.
Cilurzo is known for his sours, and Santification was our first taste. It was fermented with 100% Brettanomyces, producing a golden color and a muted tartness. Consecration was marked by a Blind Pig cap, but the sour black currant flavor and red color were unmistakable. Finally, Temptation was a terrific cloudy blonde sour.
Aud Blonde was golden and creamy. OVL Stout was a pitch-black Irish stout with creamy coffee consistency. Beer Esteam was a copper-hued California common, a style of lager that dates to the Gold Rush and popularized by Anchor Brewing Company. Black Hopfather (60 IBUs) was amber colored and hoppy, with a sweet finish. Gold Pilsner was golden, spicy and citrus-y. Blind Pig IPA (72 IBUs) is a nod to Cilurzo’s San Diego roots, a golden, hoppy IPA. Russian River IPA (62 IBUs) is less revered, maybe because the amber beer had a stronger finish. Pliny the Elder (92 IBUs) packed the most bitterness, but the amber ale was still highly drinkable.
Russian River lived up to the hype as having one of the deepest rosters with some of the most flavorful beers on the West Coast. When Cilurzo turns his taps for the next season, it would be a good idea to make the return trip to his brewpub.