Russian River Brewing Company
725 4th St.
Santa Rosa, CA
Did you know that the Russians once colonized on the west coast of what’s now the United States?
Yeah. Neither did I. They didn’t teach us that in history class.
But it’s true. Sailing out of Siberia and Alaska down the west coast of North America, early 19th century Russian colonists kept going until they found friendlier weather and calmer seas in the temperate Northern California.
And just think, that was before the modern day California attractions like tofu, pot dispensaries, taxpayer funded sex changes, and Miley Cyrus.
Maybe it’s just as well. Had the Russians encountered any of that, they would’ve probably reboarded their ships and sailed right back to Siberia.
Now, the Russian River Valley is known for its pinot noir and zinfandel. And I am not much of a wine drinker.
But based on the crowd at 9pm at Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa, there’s plenty of beer drinkers here in the heart of wine country.
In fact, the hostess told me it would be an hour and fifteen minute wait for a table or a seat at the bar.
But after driving a rental car all day (and perusing the big chalkboard of handcrafted beers), I didn’t mind one bit standing around sampling the offerings.
And fourteen different beers were offered at that!
I was happy to see Russian River Brewing Company isn’t one of those boring, play-it-safe microbreweries that only offer up the obligatory red-ale, brown-ale, pale-ale, IPA standards.
The only problem here was deciding which to try first when the busy bartender asked me what I wanted.
“They’re all good,” he replied condescendingly.
“Give me something hoppy.”
He slid me a Blind Pig India Pale Ale.
It had a spicy, hoppy kick to it, but I was pretty sure next time I’d order something more exciting.
The beer list read like a theological thesaurus: Damnation. Supplication. Subjugation. Salvation. Perdition. Redemption. Sanctification. Temptation. Consecration.
Whoa. Did I come here to drink beer or relive 12 years of Catholic school?
The more helpful descriptions explained a wide variety of serious-beer-drinker beer styles available – Belgians, wine barrel-aged, imperial IPAs, imperial stouts, imperial pilsners.
Any beer with “imperial” in its name is a good bet.
Just as I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with all this decision-making and theology, two miraculous events occurred almost simultaneously.
First, the hostess texted me that a table was ready — after only 15 minutes.
Then, on my way to the hostess stand, I saw a waitress carrying in her hand the answer to my indecisiveness — and perhaps, the salvation of my soul.
It was the grandest flight of beers I had ever laid my eyes upon.
My waitress had hardly finished greeting me at the table when I said, “I want one of those!”
Most microbrewery beer flights are four or five samples of different beers, to give you a little taste of a wide variety of styles.
I see them as research projects for planning the rest of the evening. Invest in a little testing before committing to a full pint-sized roll out.
But Russian River’s beer flight IS the rest of the evening — a three ounce sample of each and every one of all fourteen beers for $15.
I was in hops heaven!
Of course my primary concern after ordering this king of all flights was how the heck would I be able to tell which beer I was tasting?
Russian River solves this crisis in a novel way.
The giant sampler comes out in a wooden tray with the bottle caps of each beer in front of each respective sample.
You’ve got to love American ingenuity!
The waitress helpfully advised that I start at the far left top with the Belgians and work my way counter-clockwise through the sour beers to the lighter beers and end with the hoppiest beers so as not to wreck my beer palate.
I dutifully obliged, giddy as a school girl at a Hannah Montana concert, all the while carefully taking mental notes about which ones I liked and didn’t like.
Everything was going fine until I got to Consecration, Supplication and Temptation – Russian River’s unique wine barrel-aged “sour” beers.
Being the adventurous beer drinking fellow I am, before I noticed the sampler, I was ready to commit to a full pint of Consecration.
Wow. Am I glad I didn’t make that mistake!
My first sip of Consecration, my lips curled, my nose scrunched, my taste buds rebelled.
I almost spit it out. The keg was bad. I’ve had that taste before.
It’s like a scorching sourness that makes your entire face contort in disgust — kinda like those old Keystone Beer “Bitter Beer Face” commercials Coors used to run..
When an unpasteurized keg of beer goes “bad” (due to some idiot not keeping it cold or just letting it get months and months out of date), bacteria begins to grow until the beer no longer tastes like beer, but a sour batch of grandpa’s cough medicine.
How can a microbrewery, where the beer is brewed in the big steel vats twenty feet from me, let their beer go bad?
Doesn’t make any sense.
Oh well. I moved on to the Supplication, aged in pinot noir barrels.
Same exact problem. Spoiled sour beer.
Same thing with the Temptation, aged in chardonnay barrels.
All three were “bad.”
That’s REALLY weird. No way can this be a mistake.
These sour barrel-aged beers are supposed to taste like this???
I pointed out to my waitress that these three beers either were spoiled — or were the worst tasting beers I’ve ever drank in my life.
While a bit defensive, she blamed it all on me for not following her instructions.
“You must have ruined your palate with an IPA before you tried it,” she explained.
I assured her I followed her orders religiously, although I did start the evening off with the Blind Pig. But that was over an hour ago.
“Well that explains it. A hoppy beer will wipe out your palette for 24 hours,” she said.
I must have had a skeptical look on my face because she proceeded to go into a broad scientific dissertation on how Russian Rivers sour beers have some special bacteria added to them before they are aged for months in wine barrels and allowed to essentially “spoil.”
To be honest, I didn’t quite understand it all. I was left with the impression that I was just too unsophisticated enough of a beer drinker to get it.
But the manager came over and assured me there were plenty of beer connoisseurs like me who can’t stand these unique concoctions either. But there are plenty of people who love them.
I guess to prove the point, my dining companion who hates beer actually sorta, kinda liked them and finished them off for me.
Fortunately my next stop-overs on my beer flight were pilsners, pale ales, and steadily hoppier beer.
Not spoiled on purpose.
By this point our “Mikey” pizza arrived — just in time to soak up all those various brewskie varieties floating in my stomach.
Topped with pepperoni, crumbled Italian sausage, and caramelized onions, this was really top notch pizza.
Once the pizza was polished off and all 14 samplers of my flight were drained, the waitress was ready to bring the check.
Not so fast, little missy.
It was decision time. Which of these 14 beers were going to get the honor of winning the contest?
What’s the point of plowing through 14 different beers if you aren’t going to order a couple pints of your favorites?
I couldn’t pick just one winner.
So I ordered two pints.
Yes. On top of the 15 beers I had already drank. (Thank God for non-beer-drinking designated drivers.)
The first champion was “Row 2/ Hill 56,” a hoppy pale ale made exclusively with the much-coveted, Washington-grown Simcoe hops. Absolutely delicious and spicy and sweet all at the same time.
The second was “Shadow of a Doubt” – a powerful alcohol-packed imperial stout – that went surprisingly well with the chocolate brownie and ice cream dessert.
And had me wobbling out onto 4th St.
But in that moment I realized that despite recoiling in horror from Russian River Brewing’s weird sour beers, this place is everything I could ask for in a microbrewery.
Even if some of what I tried made my face scrunch up like a sundried tomato, there’s no doubt that Russian River Brewing offers excitement and innovation on tap.
This is American ingenuity at its best. And that’s something those Russian colonists and Miley Cyrus would never understand.
Rating: Bought the Shirt!