I don’t usually get to drink very much Russian River as they do not distribute in Missouri. Still, I’ve been lucky enough to try quite a few of their bottles over the years via trades, gifts, tastings, etc. So, I know their beers well enough to form an opinion on them.
Sunday evening, I pulled out a bottle of Damnation for dinner. What an amazing beer. I just wished it wasn’t plastered with Comic Sans all over the labels…and that’s what brought me to this post. I both love and hate Russian River Brewing Company for several reasons, reasons I will list below, switching things up a bit by starting with the reasons I hate Russian River…
Five Reasons I hate Russian River:
1. Why, after carefully crafting beautifully tasty beers and placing them in fancy, Belgian-style, corked bottles would you cover the labels in Comic Sans? I recognize that I’ve mentioned this fact twice in the first 150 words of this post, but my displeasure over this assault on typographic decency cannot be overstated.
2. Russian River is hard to get in Missouri. Beer geeks are a crafty lot, but it’s difficult to get our hands on small-batch brews that don’t come to our market. Sure, there are ways, but it’s hard enough to keep up with what is distributed here without including hard-to-get beers from other markets. Of course, if Russian River expanded their reach, either the quantity or quality of their beers would suffer. Still, this is a risk I’m willing to take to see Russian River on local shelves.
3. My wife was giving me a hard time the other day when I casually mentioned spending $12 for a bottle of beer, an amount she rarely approaches when buying wine, conflicting with my argument to beer’s relative affordable pricing. (Of course, my real argument is that the best beers in the world can be had for $12 or less while the best wines are five times that or worse.) Anyway, the point is that Russian River beers are expensive. I know one typically gets what one pays for, but some of the Russian River prices are a bit steep. This makes mail-ordering a ridiculous proposition. Try paying $7 to ship a $12 12 oz bottle. It just doesn’t make much economic sense.
4. The hype over both the younger and elder versions of the Pliny franchise overshadows what Russian River really does well: sour ales and various Belgian styles. I have liked not loved Pliny the Elder. There. I said it. Now, I fully expect commenters to tell me all the reasons I’m wrong in my assessment of one of the most beloved and possibly (over-)hyped beers of all-time. I will admit that the times I’ve had Pliny that it might not have been as fresh as possible, but isn’t that also an indictment that the supposed best beer in the world has a short shelf life? Give me a Supplication any day of the week.
5. Did I mention the comic Sans?
Five reasons I love Russian River:
1. Aside from the Pliny beers, Russian River features some of the best artwork on any beer labels. The pen and ink drawings on their labels hearken back to olden times when beers were wild and fermented by the cat hair and spider webs surrounding open fermentation vessels. The sketches feature olde-skool tools that look more like torture devices than gardening implements, suggesting a challenge to your tongue lies within. I don’t know who the artist is, but Russian River figured out the label art factor even if they don’t understand typography.
2. These beers are really well-crafted. I often grumble about the Comic Sans and hefty price tag whenever I score some Russian River. Then I pour the beer into a glass. That’s when the complaints end. Let’s take the Damnation I had this week. Here’s a brief review:
Upon releasing the cage holding the cork, I observed the cork slowly rising from the bottle’s lip. Luckily, I grabbed the cork before any damage was done. The only other beers I’ve seen this much activity upon opening has been when opening a Jolly Pumpkin. However, if I’m not careful, I’ll lose half a JP brew just from the beer shooting out as soon as I lift the cap. The Damnation was fully active but not to the point of spilling all over the place. I poured the beer to find it golden and cloudy. The head was a good two-fingers thick, only dissipating to half that throughout the meal. I’ve never been overly concerned with head retention, but I’ve read that it helps to protect the beer from oxidizing while in your glass. This beer did not oxidize thanks to this unbelievable head. Then, I tasted it… It’s not as sharp or tart as Green Flash’s Rayon Vert (another favorite Belgian Pale), but it more than makes up for that by simply being complex and dry with loads of fruit without being fruity. Really, this was a freaking awesome beer!
Even my distaste for the hype surrounding Pliny subsides a bit when I get enjoy some. There really are no better crafted beers than those from Russian River.
3. I love that Russian River thumbs its nose at the wineries that surround it by aging beers in discarded wine barrels, often infecting them with bacteria and yeast strains that would normally destroy wine, causing some winemakers to avoid RR’s brewery altogether. That’s some some bad-ass punk posturing right there. Plus, even at a dollar per ounce, I can afford a Russian River bottle more often than I can afford the best wines from that same region.
4. The indie-craft ethos I love to promote on this blog is alive and well at Russian River. It stays relatively small and sticks to making artisanal ales that defy style and convention. I realize that the other side of this is the lack of availability, but I get enough RR to fulfill my needs. Never change, Russian River. Never change.
5. In case you haven’t noticed, even most of my complaints about Russian River have to do with how great this brewery is. It’s on my bucket list to visit their brewpub, if I actually had a bucket list. I don’t order and trade for loads of their beers, but I drink them whenever they’re available. So, really, it’s just a love/love relationship I have with Russian River. I’m okay with that.
Carrie Wade thinks she’s really funny, so funny that she posted this atrocity on my Facebook wall. Really? We’re supposed to believe that Pavement pairs well with 1 PBR? What, because they’re like hipster slackers of something? Eff that.
I’m taking it upon myself to pair some bands with beers that make sense. Comment freely or suggest your own pairings. The wrong that has been created on Drinkify must be stopped. I mean, we’re trying to build coalitions up in this joint.
Pavement – Saison
I considered choosing one beer for Pavement but settled on a style instead. With a band like Pavement, it depends on the record. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain might require the smooth quirkiness of a Boulevard Tank 7, but Wowee Zowee is a Boulevard Saison Brett all the way. The Saison is one of the more versatile styles out there. These beers can be loved or hated, depending on one’s mood, but they are generally appreciated. The range of flavors (earthy to citrusy to sour to bitter) is only equaled by the range of Pavement’s discography. Also of note is that Stephen Malkmus represents the entirety of the Stillwater lineup of artisanal Saisons.
Wilco – Schlafly American Pale Ale
What goes better with dad rock better than a slightly hoppier pale ale from the St. Louis area? Wilco, of course. This easy-drinking lesson in hoppiness is the perfect beer for the dad who wants to still show that he’s cool without drinking anything too bitter or high in alcohol. I mean, he does have to drive home. I also considered Three Floyds’ Alpha King, but figured it only paired with Wilco’s more obtuse work like A Ghost Is Born.
Fiery Furnaces – New Belgium La Folie
They’re both difficult to love sometimes, but if you put forth the effort to find what’s good, it’s totally worth it. Because of this, both have the most loyal of fans who must learn to ignore all the judgmental stares from their peers for choosing to like something so difficult. I considered several more artsy, more difficult bands (Joan of Arc, Beat Happening) along with other Flanders red ales (Duchesse De Bourgogne, New Garus Wisconsin Belgian Red). The pairing just seems right.
Guided By Voices – Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale
I realize that Bob Pollard drinks Bud, not sissy craft beers, but the classic IPA is perfect for macro-arena rock from the midwest. I was torn on several bands and IPA’s, but I settled on two classics. The best part of the IPA are all the variations it’s birthed along with other possible pairings. Dinosaur Jr ruins your eardrums like a Stone Ruination IPA (which is really an imperial IPA) ruins your tastebuds. Other Stone varieties also pair well with similar indie outfits such as Cali-Belgique (Yuck) or the 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA (Chavez). Of course, there’s always old standbys like a Modus Hoperandi (Superchunk) or Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (Archers of Loaf)…I could go on and on, but there are other beers and bands to pair.
Where was I?
Sonic Youth – Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout
There is a ton going on in a Sonic Youth record. Layers of rebuilt guitars and alternate tunings upon alternate tunings create a cacophony that’s all their own. And over the years, SY has grown into almost a completely different band. While they sound nothing like themselves 30 years ago, only they could have evolved the way they have. This is much like Canadian Breakfast Stout, the much hyped and oft-cited imperial stout of the moment. At the moment, there’s a lot of noise in that beer. The suspicion is that it will undergo a Sonic Youth-like metamorphosis while in the bottle that sits in my cellar. I’ve had a taste, but I can’t wait to have another.
Sufjan Stevens – He-Brew Genesis 15:15
Speaking of having a lot going on, this musician and beer pack a whole lota flavor in relatively small packages. Sufjan Stevens brings one layered opus after another from his home in Brookly, much like the brewers at Schmaltz/He’Brew. The religious imagery and connotations are undeniable…This is a pairing made in heaven.
Wild Flag – Avery/Russian River Collaboration not Litigation
The members of Wild Flag were never in any danger of suing one another, but they have collaborated to create one the year’s best records. The Avery/Russian River collab is nearly as caustic and full of riot grrrl power as Wild Flag is. Plus, at nearly, 9% ABV, it makes you as woozy as one might feel after a Carrie Brownstein windmill combined with a Mary Timony classic rock non-riff. Confused? You should be.
I think I have more, but it will take some time to sort them out. In the meantime, what are your favorite beer/music pairings? Do you like any of the pairings I suggested above? Do you have a better pairing for the bands and beers I listed here? As usual, leave some comments.
The advancement of the internet and shipping options has made it possible for me to survive a somewhat ho hum lifestyle in Middle Missouri. If I want a particular record, I usually have to mail order it from Insound. Certain beers are only available through similar means. Unlike ordering records online, beer costs the consumer quite a bit of money on top of the price of the beer for shipping. So, I don’t order too many bottles online unless someone puts together a group order.
Such an order landed me a Supplication from Russian River. The beer takes all of eighteen months to create as it is dumped into Pinot Noir barrels full of cherries1. Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus and Pedicoccus bacteria give the beer its flavor and overall character. This is one of those white whale or bucket list kinds of beers. I was lucky enough to get in on an order that provided me one bottle.
As I said before, records are easier to come by. Distribution of music isn’t policed by the government the way alcohol is. The problem is when you live in a town that only has two “record stores” that often run out of copies or never order certain records in the first place. I have no patience for this and so I order my records online.
Caribou’s latest Merge release, Swim, was dropped off late last week. The MP3 was downloaded immediately, but I’d have to wait for an opportunity to drop the needle on the record2. Earlier this week, my wait for both indulgences ended as I sat down with Swim as it should be heard and poured my beer in a proper glass.
Medium: Vinyl (although had been previewed using the digital version.)
Packaging: Gorgeous bi-fold with bright colorful artwork inside and out. Merge always comes through with some pretty slick packaging3.
Best Song: “Odessa”
Let me get right to the crux of the situation. “Odessa”, the first track, is as good a song as I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s complex and shows off Caribou’s ability to make even dance music seem interesting4. It’s just really cool. Check out the video…
Then there’s the rest of the record. To be honest, I don’t really want to write about it at all. It doesn’t excite me. It doesn’t anger me. I feel pretty meh about the whole thing. So, in order to protect a band I like a whole lot5, I’ll just leave it at that. By the way, have heard Andorra6?
Brewery: Russian River
Style: Sour Brown Ale
Beer Geek Stats: 7% ABV,
Packaging: A cool Belgian-style bottle with a cork that reminds you to use the proper glass7. The artwork is an woodblock print of an aeration device (I think), but for some unknown reason, RR persists to use COMIC-FUCKING-SANS8 all over their labels!!! I’ll revisit that later.
Pop! Actually, the cork made more of a drippy faucet sort of sound as I slid it from its place at the bottle’s mouth. The pour left me a beautifully foamy, tan head that didn’t want to leave. Clinging to the sides of the glass, this beer produced legs…er I mean lacing that slowly slid down the sides of my glass. The color was a rich, mahogany. My nose sensed Brett, caramel, cherries, funk, Pinot, fig, oak…I could go on and on. In fact, I may have smelt this beer too long.
The flavors were even more varied as the sour quickly gave way to the tartness of the cherries. The malt backbone was pronounced and worked with the cherries as opposed to one overpowering the other. The mouthfeel is nice as it coats your mouth. It’s not syrupy, rather, this beer is thick and it blankets your mouth instead of sticking to it.
I don’t often address packaging for a beer, but I have to continue a meme I started a while back concerning Russian River. STOP USING COMIC SANS!!! They craft some of the most tasty and beautiful beers in the world, take great care in branding their products through classy illustrations, and market themselves as the must-have brewer in an otherwise overcrowded market9. So, why does Russian River undercut their efforts by using comic sans on their labels?
Well, the beer is good. So, maybe it really doesn’t matter.
This really wasn’t even close. When I first thought to pit a beer versus a record/show, I thought this would be a good pairing. However, it was a blowout. In the future, I will try to do better. I have plans in the works to do a series of these posts with my homebrew Wowee Zowee against its namesake, Dark Lord versus the Liars’ record, and possibly a Mikkeller 1000 IBU versus another Pavement record or one of the three or so records I like from this year. Stay tuned and congratulations to Russian River. You have won the first ever Rock vs. Beer contest in BICTB&P history!
1There’s a video here in case you’re interested.
2Sometimes a record doesn’t make sense to me until I listen to it on vinyl, at home. It’s too easy to not pay attention in the car.
3I think this is one thing that separates them from many indies. The label’s packaging is not overtly extravagant. They just do what they can to match the artists’ vision, price be damned. Funny thing is that it usually pays off.
4Despite being named “best dancer” in my high school senior class, I can’t stand dance music, primarily anything electronic. I find its appeal fleeting. I welcome any examples that might prove me wrong. Animal Collective doesn’t count.
5I once saw these guys play in St Louis with backup drummer Ahmed Gallab and was simply blown away.
6Unbelievably great album. It was number 25 in my best of the oughts list.
7I don’t know if I took a picture or not, but the sides of the cork feature an illustration of a tulip glass and a pint glass crossed out.
8Easily the worst font of all fonts. That’s a fact.
9So, maybe Russian River doesn’t market themselves this way and the craft beer market is certainly not overcrowded. Allow me some license for a little hyperbole.