San Francisco Stars #7: Russian River Pliny the Elder, Santa Rosa
Date: July 5, 2019
The Story— Vinnie Cilurzo starated brewing at Blind Pig in Temecula in 1994. his Blind Pig IPA was one of the first huge-hopped West Coast IPAs — brewed not so much because he had a vision, but because he knew the hops would cover any defects of his fairly primitive brewery. A few years later he moved to the Russian River Vineyards to put their new brewery on the map. Within a few years, Russian River decided to give up brewing and sold the name to Vinnie and his wife Natalie and they moved to Santa Rosa to establish a brewpub that became a mecca for hop heads throughout the country.
In 2000 Vinnie received an invitation for a double IPA festival, a style he didn’t brew. The first Pliny the Elder became a cult classic, repeatedly winning the “Best Beer in America” in polls of readers of Zymurgy magazine. His ability to improvise made him one of the pioneers of craft brewing, but many of his later innovations were much more studied. He’s done path breaking work in creating some of the best American sours and has found new ways of getting more and different flavors from hops.
Pliny is still in production, but among beres of its reputation, it’s one of the hardest beers to find. It shows up in Philadelphia occasionally (Vinnie’s brother lives there) and the brew pub and in a few selected bars. We encountered it at the City Beer Store in San Francisco. (See more about that remarkable beer venue here.) We had tasted it at a tasting at DA’s RFD multi-tap, the sister bar to Washington’s storied Brickskeller in 2005. We thought it was as special as advertised, but we were even more impressed with our tasting this year. Maybe because so many IPAs seem to be engaged in shark jumping contests, we loved the reminder that innovations don’t have to be gimmicks.
Disclaimer: We’ve known Vinnie and Natalie for many years and they are two of the most gracious human beings that walk the earth. Even if his beers weren’t among the best in the country we’d probably really like them. Happily, they are among the best in the country.
The Beer— this could be “Piney” the Elder, but there’s so much more. This big, deep, flavorful masterpiece that had such a huge influence on so many other brewers shows the complexity that most of the imitators just can’t captures. The fruit shows citrus, expectedly, and a bit of South American papaya, which we didn’t expect. — Maybe the oils and resins help create the impression of pine and pine wood, and all of it is richly fulfilling. Just a touch of saltiness gives a nod to the 8% abv, but you almost have to look for the booze.
Value — Very good, even if you have to sell you watch to get it. It’s $16 an honest pint, but many have paid far more for far less.
Values: “fair” is a good beer at an above market price, “good” is worth the money, “very good” is a bargain, and “excellent” is a steal.
We just got back from a week in San Francisco. We hadn’t been there in eleven years and the remarkably vibrant beer scene we experienced then has become, well, even vibranter. Ellie, poor girl, had to work long hours during the day while I got to roam the streets checking out the best places to find great beers. At least when Ellie got off work I had places to take her before she crashed for the night. We’ll post a week or two of Beers of the Day by the Bay before returning to research for our book on Inns and Breweries of the Mid-Atlantic.
Interestingly, the downtown area of San Francisco, while awash with beers from the surrounding areas, has few brewing spots of its own. In that regard it reminds us of New York, where you have to leave Manhattan and go to Brooklyn to really find a nest of breweries. Away from downtown, several brewery taps thrive and public transportation gets you almost anywhere. Beyond the city limits, of breweries ring the city, and many of them produce exceptionally good beers and the myriad of tap houses all over town tend to focus on local beers. Name the style you like and you can find an excellent version of it, though at a price.
We’re often asked to share our tasting notes on over 33,000 beers; this blog is in answer to those requests. Not all our notes, though. The great beer writer Michael Jackson admirably followed the Thumper Rule, and we’ll try to do the same. (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.”) All the beers we post are from the top half of our ratings and most are from the top quarter. Of greater value, we think, are the stories behind the beers, and we try to give you enough about the brewery, the style and the places to find great beer to help you on your own beer journeys. At CulturAle Press we try to write books and publish posts that will help you “Drink Well and Travel Safely.”