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Berger: Pliny the Younger and our craft beer heritage


For one thing, it's hard to make since it's a triple-hopped India Pale Ale (IPA) that calls for very exacting brewhouse work to perfect. Also, it's expensive: the hops Vinnie uses are among the most expensive in the world. And it is fragile.

"All IPAs should be consumed as quickly as possible," said Cilurzo. "They don't age and they begin to lose their aroma almost as soon as you finish making them."

So it's available only on tap.

Vinnie may be the most famed of the current set of micro-brew producers, but nationally the craft brew movement has exploded in the last few years. It may be strongest in northern California, where it all began some 40 years ago.

Today, smaller breweries are all the rage. One-time innovator and early craft house Sierra Nevada recently lost its "micro" title; it grew too large. Other Sonoma County breweries that have become successful include Lagunitas, Bear Republic, Woodfour and at least another dozen.

The nation's craft brewing "movement," such as it was, began in 1965 when Stanford graduate Fritz Maytag (of the appliance and blue cheese family) realized that San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Co., which was established in 1896, was to be closed.

Maytag acquired the building and spent years restoring it. In 1971, he made the first hand-crafted Anchor brews. Five years later, New Albion Brewing was established in Sonoma County, a logical place since one of the early agricultural crops of the area was hops.

And in 1986, a small group of passionate beer lovers opened Mendocino Brewing, the nation's first brewpub.

Russian River Brewing was founded in 1997 at the Korbel Winery in Guerneville. Vinnie was its first brewmaster, and he came to the craft from wine.

The son of Vince and Audrey Cilurzo, he grew up at his parents' winery in Temecula doing the routine chores a winery requires. But his real interest soon evolved into beer making.

When Korbel decided to close Russian River Brewing at the winery, Korbel president Gary Heck helped Vinnie and his wife, Natalie, resume production in a facility in downtown Santa Rosa, where traditional (and non-traditional!) beers were soon joined by exotic Belgian-styled ales.

Most of Vinne's brews are not bottled and are available only on tap, here and at a few other locations around the country. Today "RRB" is beer lovers' code for "you gotta try this."

Among his most popular brews is one called Damnation, an exotic Belgian Strong Ale that is most visitors' go-to brew. Sold in 375-ml bottles, Damnation is an aging beer and takes on added depth after a time in the cellar.

The Younger started out as a test. Vinnie wanted to see if he could go one better than the double-hopped Pliny the Elder, which is almost always on tap at RRB.

The Younger is amazing, but not for everyone. It's a tad bitter — by design. As such, it goes great with pizza, one of the best dishes at RRB.

Regulars at RRB often bring in their growlers to get them filled and take the brew to parties. But these are not beer busts. Attendees typically are beer connoisseurs who cherish fine beer the way a Bordeaux lover would fawn over a great older vintage Claret.

Last week, the line around RRB included one bearded man wearing a Pliny the Younger shirt, another with a T-shirt that simply said BEER!, and two couples who had come prepared with two soft-sided ice chests filled with food for the hours-long wait — without beer.