I'll start out with a mile-by-mile course description
Ok cutting to the chase, the gem of our trip was a visit to the Russian River Brewery and here is what I think you need to know.
Russian River Brewery is located in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa. If you are from the Midwest, you will be struck by the facade that screams, "I was once an AMF Bowling Alley." Perhaps someone can confirm my suspicions as I couldn't corroborate that with google. Once inside, you'll see vintage beer signs from the heartland and yes, the bar and pub tables are fashioned from bowling lanes. The famous chalk boards display the available taps, American styles on the left and Belgian styles on the right.
Russian River doesn't offer official tours. I'm told that they may accommodate you if there is staff available. We elected to focus on the tasting and didn't bother to ask. Fortunately the pub affords views of the Barrel Aging room as well as the main brewery.
I started out with a Consecration: A strong dark ale aged for 6 months inside used cabernet sauvignon barrels with currants added. It's powerfully sour due to the Lacto, Pedio, Brett dosing. At 10.5%, it's not to be trifled with. My companions elected to jump right to the Pliney and commented on the balance despite the expectation of hop overload
We kept our sever busy ordering Beatification (a 100% brett beer), appetizers, Blind Pig and pizza, swapping glasses with each other. At one point someone made the mistake of ordering a half pint of Pliney. It was ceremonious placed on the table and announce to everyone in the bar as a “Tiny Pliney”
One of the most impressive things to me, and I have not seen very much written about it, was the beer sampler. If most places offer you a drag race of 4-5 getting you from A to B to know that brewery, RR gives you an F1 course where you are encouraged to cut across the track. I know of no other sampler which covers so much of the Belgian styles as well as a primer on American Pales from 20 to 90 IBUs. Weighing in at 16 beers, our table looked as though we were playing a 4 man chess game with each sampler piece carefully debated upon, each person careful not to let go of the sampler until they were sure it was the correct move.
Caption: The sampler looks to be what one might envision the dance of Sac, Pedio, Lacto, and Brett under a microscope.
In the event you are traveling with wine people, RR offers a decent selection of wines. Foodies will appreciate the antipasto, focaccia and pizza. Solidly made crust and mozzarella cheese signal that the craft in craft beer also extends to the kitchen
If you have an opportunity to bring beer back home with you I strongly suggest you check out the Bottle Barn http://bottlebarn.com. Russian River sells a number of their beers at the brewery, however, it's quite common that the Bottle Barn will have offerings that the brewery does not. Give them a call beforehand to find out what's available. We found Supplication and Beatification at the Bottle Barn and these were not available at the brewery. I was also happy to find New Belgium Dark Kriek.
Consider picking up a 2 bottle shipper or a 15 bottle checked bag box for much cheaper than one of the many wine shipping services. Bottle Barn has the best selection that is close to the brewery. Note that Bottle Barn closes at 5pm on Sunday and 6:30 on other days.
A couple of other notes:
- We did visit the Silverado Brewing Company in St Helena and the Calistoga Inn in Calistoga. We found both places had clean, tasty ales, but they were not very challenging. Check them out if you have time, but press on if your beer itinerary has bigger goals.
- If you are in Calistoga and need a lunch or dinner with a quality beer, then head on over to the Hydro Grill. Hydro Grill provides quality food at affordable prices. The bar features 20 taps representing area breweries such as Russian River, Lagunitas, Bear Republic and Anderson Valley.
- Anyone remember Primo? It's back and is now becoming available on draft and in bottles. It's not craft quality but it is distinctive and nostalgic for many.
- If you elect to ship beer in a wine shipper, tell them that you are shipping olive oil or place that box in a larger box. If the shipper believes it to be wine (or beer) they will have to use a third party shipper and that will compound the charges and the shipping time.
- If you must do wineries (and chances are you probably will) visit some of the smaller wineries on the Silverado Trail in Sonoma County. These are much more low key than Napa and won't turn their noses up at brewers. My top recommendation is Vincent Arroyo.
Next time I visit I won't be distracted by any 2600 calorie deficit activities and can more fully focus on the other brewery gems in the area, namely Lagunitas and Bear Republic.