Ask any brewer about other brewers who have inspired him/her, and odds are Russian River Brewing Company Co-owner Vinnie Cilurzo will be on that very short list. In this very magazine, brewers have been quoted asking themselves the question, “What Would Vinnie Do?” in regard to their own brewing. That question spurred another one for us—“What Would Vinnie Drink?” His list is surprisingly devoid of the hoppy beers one might expect…
It’s sort of ironic that there’s not an IPA on my list,” said Vinnie Cilurzo, the brewing mastermind behind Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. Those beers need little introduction—the former sells out almost instantly upon hitting store shelves in the four states where it’s sold, and the latter inspires beer fans to wait in long lines every February for the once-a-year beer. Cilurzo’s recipes and techniques have inspired legions of homebrewers and professional brewers alike—many of the IPAs and imperial IPAs we drink have, in some way, been impacted by the dry-hop timing and techniques that Cilurzo developed for his signature beers.
But the beers that Cilurzo drinks while “off the clock” reflect the diversity of his brewing interests.
“If you think about it, I’ve been making IPA professionally since 1994, and I can count on one hand the IPAs that were being made in the U. S. back then,” Cilurzo continued. “My palate is still in a different place. I love the challenge of making an IPA, but for everyday drinking at home, these are my six go-to beers, and I probably have five of the six in my fridge at home right now.”
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is more than a beer, and represents our whole industry, because it has been around so long and has withstood the test of time. It’s a beer that still resonates with me as a foundation of what craft beer is, but it’s more than just respect—I love coming home and cracking open a bottle, then drinking it right from the bottle. It’s such a clear and crisp flavor. Over the years I’m sure there have been some minor changes to the recipe—that happens to every beer—but there’s still a yeast flavor from the bottle conditioning that I remember vividly from the first time I tasted it many years ago. There’s nothing like working out in the yard and cracking open a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—it’s so crisp and refreshing and hoppy.
For me, it’s as much what it represents for the industry as it is the flavor. I think about the Grossmans and how they run their business and the ethos that they have as well. Our brewery is about a three-hour drive from Chico, and we see a lot of people in our pub coming from Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp brewing events—whether they’re distributers or bar owners—usually industry people. The thing I hear most from these people after being there a couple of days, after brewing some weird and wacky beer that’s got strange ingredients or some oddball recipe they dreamt up, is, “Man, I forgot how great Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is.”
Younger consumers now forget, or don’t remember, the day when SNPA was a pretty progressive beer. It was one of the hoppier beers in America, and now some craft-beer consumers think of it as an almost pedestrian beer. It holds a place in my heart as a beer that was ahead of its time when I started as a homebrewer back in the late eighties. I still love that.
When I go to Dave Keane’s [owner of San Francisco’s Toronado beer bar] house, that’s what we’re drinking out of his fridge. You know that the beer is going to be in good shape, even if you find some little hole-in-the wall bar in the middle of nowhere and the bottle has some age on it because they’re such a technically focused brewery. There are very few, if any, more technical breweries in America than Sierra Nevada, so you can always count on it to be good.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company
(Paso Robles, California)
Pivo is a beer that’s always in my fridge next to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s pretty easy to get in California, and we’re not too far from the brewery. It carries these nice, refined, European hops flavors, and yet it still speaks toward being a pretty edgy, hoppy beer. It’s a beautifully well-crafted beer that Matt at Firestone has put together. A couple of years ago when it came out, I remember having it for the first time with Matt while visiting his family. We had this Pils, and went, “Oh my god. This is really what a Pilsner should be.” It’s dry, it’s hoppy, it’s crisp. It’s dry-hopped so it has a wonderful aroma, but it still really holds the classic German characteristics, albeit slightly hoppier. I’ve always said that a Pilsner can be every bit as hoppy as an IPA, but just in a different, more finessed way. That’s what I think about with Pivo. I’ve always been a closet Pilsner fan, so when we started brewing STS Pils a couple of years ago, it was inspired by a trip to Germany, but the one beer I’ve always sort of focused on is Pivo. It was hoppy, dry-hopped, and everything I wanted STS to be.
Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat NV
This is the strongest beer in my bunch, at 8.5 percent ABV. For me, Duvel is the ultimate breakfast beer—I drink it almost every weekend. Natalie and I go out to our favorite breakfast haunt in Santa Rosa—we got them to carry bottles of Duvel—and you can often find me drinking Duvel for breakfast with my omelette or corned beef and hash.
It’s super dry, and I love the high carbonation that it carries, plus the presentation in the Duvel glass and the thick foam. It’s a rather bitter beer—the hops bitterness, high CO2 volumes, and dryness all combine to make it pretty bitter. When you drink a few Duvels, the first one goes down a little harsh and edgy, but once your palate acclimates to the dryness, bitterness, and CO2, it’s got this remarkably full flavor for such a light-flavored/colored beer.
The hops aroma is beautiful, and of course the glass really accentuates that. For me, Duvel is a lot like an IPA, and it’s best consumed closer to the brewery. There’s a little farmhouse Natalie and I stay at when we’re in Belgium, and he always has really fresh Duvel. For me, those are just great flavor moments in beer.
I remember years ago, probably fifteen or twenty years ago, Natalie and I were on the Mendocino coast having dinner at the Albion River Inn. I remember seeing Duvel on the menu and ordering it, and I can still remember that Duvel. We were sitting in this amazing restaurant, I was drinking Duvel, Natalie had a glass of Roederer sparkling wine, overlooking the ocean and enjoying this amazing meal. It’s a reminder to me of how time and place can impact your perception of a beer.
I think that’s why for Natalie and me with the brewpub, we focus so much on our staff and remind them to never take this for granted and never rest on our laurels. People come here from a long ways away, and often this is their first time—a lot of these people have never been to Russian River and it becomes a bit of a “holy grail” trip. They expect world-class everything—not just world-class beer but world-class service and food—since it’s a special moment for them. In one sense, it puts a lot of pressure on us, and while we didn’t ask for this, we are very fortunate to have that kind of following, so we owe it to them to make it an experience they won’t forget.
Allagash Brewing Company
For me, Allagash White is probably one of the most under-appreciated American beers, both from a technical standpoint and a flavor/aroma standpoint. From aroma and flavor, it’s just the perfect mix of the malt, hops, spice, and yeast. There are so many different flavors coming at you when you’re drinking that beer, and yet it’s 5 percent ABV, so it’s easy to drink. It’s something you can have several pints of and still feel good, yet the flavors are so on point.
Allagash has worked so hard over the years to make that beer what it is. On the technical side, it’s a hard beer to make because it has all that yeast in the bottle, and you’re dealing with yeast and turbidity. If you have too much yeast, you can end up with autolyzed dead yeast flavor, and yet you still need to figure out how to keep the beer cloudy. It’s a very technical beer that many people overlook from that standpoint.
In my book, it’s hands down the best white beer made in America, and I would put it right up there against all the white beers in Belgium, too. From a quality and flavor standpoint, I would take Allagash White over any Belgian white beer any day of the week. For me, the flavors are just so specific to what I like in a white beer.
We were visiting Allagash last year in Portland, Maine, working on a collaboration with them. Drinking Allagash White in Portland, Maine, is like drinking Pliny right here in the brewery, with all the freshness. I came away thinking the white beer we make in our pub as a seasonal just pales in comparison, and I really need to step up my game to make ours even better.
Brasserie de la Senne
This beer takes us back to the lower ABV conversation. Pivo Pilsner is 5.3 percent, Allagash White, 5 percent, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 5.3 percent. Taras Boulba is also under 5 percent ABV. It’s such a simple beer—one malt, a couple of hops varieties, one yeast for fermentation, another for bottle fermentation. I love that he’s committed to bottle conditioning just like Duvel is.
Despite this simplicity, it’s such a complex, hoppy beer—and you just don’t find hoppy beers in Belgium. There’s a dryness on the finish that I absolutely love about Taras Boulba, and it’s probably my favorite aftertaste of any beer—likely related to the water they use, but I don’t know if that’s actually the case.
I like that their focus is on hops-forward low ABV beers, but not IPA-type beers. They’ve achieved some nice hops flavors, then perfectly tied those in with the beer. The choices they make for malt, their approach to tank fermentation, and even tank geometry—these foundations of their brewery really shine through in Taras Boulba. Yvan, one of the partners in the brewery, is a good friend, and there’s no one who’s as passionate about brewing and beer as he is. How can you not like a guy who refers to his yeast as “her.” He says, “She does this, she does that, and sometimes she can be so difficult,” and I just love that about him. He’s all about quality, and yet that brewery started out on a shoestring and had to work really hard like a lot of American craft breweries. So really, he and his business partner, Bernard, are part of that next generation of Belgian brewers who have a craft-beer mindset like we do. He’s more open and more willing to share, in contrast to the generation of Belgian brewers who aren’t willing to open up and share with others. It’s just not the way they operate. So Brasserie de la Senne is really the Belgian equivalent of an American craft brewery.
Orval Trappist Ale
If there’s a classic brewers’ beer, it would have to be Orval. It’s right there next to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in my book, and I always have it in my fridge at home. What can you say about Orval that hasn’t already been said in previous issues by other brewers? The complexity that it has, the way that it changes—it’s a different beer almost every time you drink it because the Brett is continuing to ferment a little bit.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the brewery and taste through twelve different bottlings of it at different ages, from thirty days to a couple of years old. It was definitely a lucky moment for Natalie and me to do that vertical tasting of twelve different beers, all lined up. When you do that, you really see the changes that the beer makes. It was one of those moments in my beer drinking that I’ll never forget—probably a Top 5 beer-drinking moment.
To taste young Orval, you really have to go to Belgium—in America it’s not ever going to be that young—and most of the Orval you get in Belgium is pretty young, so the Brett is much more subdued. The fact that it ships over here in a container and goes through the importer then the distributor, then spends some time on shelves—you can get some pretty decent aged Orval in America, which is pretty cool. When it’s young it tastes almost like an English pale ale before the Brett kicks in. And when the Brett kicks in, you get some of the spicy notes from the Brett and the funky components and a little barnyard as it continues to age and flourish.
I love Orval that’s 6–12 months old. The Brett is definitely there, but it’s not too much, and yet the beer has dried out a little bit more while it’s still super rich and creamy. When it’s just right, I get this amazing cinnamon spice note to it. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the age of the bottles and how they were stored and temperature and all that.
For future brewers talking about Orval in this column, they need to answer the question “young Orval or old Orval.” I’ve given my favorite time, and I know that because I’ve drunk so much Orval in my life (and that vertical tasting confirmed what I already knew). But when I talk to other brewers now, I always ask, ”Do you like young Orval or old Orval?” Most brewers will have an answer for you—they’re not going to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ve never thought about it.”
We have beers similar to a lot of the beers that I’ve mentioned. None of them are copies, but there’s certainly a lot of inspiration taken from them. To me, these beers mean so much more than just the flavor—like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale’s history, the technical side that it takes to make a good white beer that doesn’t taste like yeast autolysis after two months, Yvan’s passion for his yeast—there’s a lot more to these beers than just the flavor. I like the histories and backgrounds to these beers and how they relate to the people behind them just as much as the flavors.