Reviewed: Russian River Velvet Glow
Official description: Velvet Glow is an homage to the Grace Family who once owned Grace Brother’s Brewing right in Santa Rosa. This is the second Grace Brother’s brand we have resurrected, the other being Happy Hops! Velvet Glow is a Helles style lager with a crisp malt character and a dry, refreshing finish.
Russian River Brewing Co. – Russian River Velvet Glow – 510ml bottled served in pilsner flute – 4.75% ABV
I’ve been closely following Russian River’s recent expansion in Windsor, CA wondering how it will affect distribution. So far, the effects have been impressive with fresh RR beers arriving in my part of San Diego ever more frequently. But perhaps even more interesting is the release of all-new beers. Intinction, a sour blonde with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, was released earlier this year along with the first bottled release of Happy Hops IPA. Velvet Glow is the latest bottle release from the brand new facility, but unlike the two beers mentioned above, this is an all-new recipe as well.
In addition to its new recipe, Velvet Glow breaks the traditional Russian River design language on its label. Instead of a logo in the center with a monochromatic background like we see in Blind Pig IPA or Pliny the Elder, there’s a vibrant harlequin design from top to bottom and no center logo. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that Russian River’s unhealthy obsession with the Comic Sans font has finally broken.
I was curious, though, about what this beer actually is. On the front is simply “Pale Dry BEER,” which isn’t super helpful. Reading through the micro-sized beer description positioned sideways on the right side of the label does mention “Helles style lager.” Right off the bat, I think putting “lager” or “Helles lager” on the front label would be an improvement.
I’m sampling Velvet Glow from a 510ml bottle that I picked up for $6.50 plus tax from a local bottle shop. On the bottom left corner of the label is an easy-to-read packaging date of 8/9/19, which makes this 3-weeks old. Into my pilsner flute, Velvet Glow is crystal clear pale straw in color with high carbonation that makes for an impressive head of eggshell foam that rises up over the edges of the glass without spilling over. Soapy bubbles stick around for several minutes before collapsing.
Aroma-wise, Velvet Glow is more malt-forward than expected. There’s tons of fresh yeast rolls and white sugar, which combine for a powdered doughnut aroma. Bright lemon is then layered atop for a freshly baked lemon squares character. In the background, there’s just a touch of candy corn.
Again in the flavor, Velvet Glow is malt-focused with minimal but not absent hoppy bitterness. Unlike many Helles lagers I’ve tried in the past, this does reward you with a substantive grassy hop bite for balance. Rich maltiness creates a “bread in a glass” flavor but it’s met with bright lemon peel-like bitterness. And even though it isn’t what I would necessarily call “dry,” it is relatively dry for a Helles lager. My first time trying this beer I thought it leaned sweeter as expected for this style. But a second bottle that I sampled a few days later did bring out more of an understated herbal bitterness that I greatly enjoyed. From my experience, Helles lagers can be over-the-top sweet compared to their hoppier pilsner brethren.
The mouthfeel is spectacular with sparkling, high carbonation plus a nice coating oiliness and snappy, quick finish. There’s an evaporative quality after each sip that positions Velvet Glow as a phenomenal session lager. My biggest complaint is that I want more. This would do extremely well in 6-packs of cans like Russian River’s competition has gravitated towards.
Perceived Specs for Russian River Velvet Glow
Velvet Glow is a world-class Helles lager. It’s malt-focused but still snappy and endlessly refreshing. It shines in the details with its understated aroma, moderate hop bite, and superlative mouthfeel. However, the $6.50 per single large-format bottle isn’t super conducive for a low-gravity, session lager. I’d love to see this in 6-packs of cans so that it can compete with other session lagers hitting the marketplace.
In addition, I’m not totally happy with Russian River’s decision to put simply “Pale Dry BEER” on the label and “LAGER” in micro-sized font in the far bottom right corner. Today’s craft beer world reacts to “Pale” as synonymous with “hoppy.” Plus, consumers expect big hop bombs from Russian River when they see these iconic 510ml bottles. The other beers in this lineup include Blind Pig IPA, Pliny the Elder, Happy Hops, and even STS Pils (not quite a hop bomb but definitely not sweet). For that reason, I venture to guess some consumers will be disappointed when they find a nuanced German lager inside.
Helles lager is highly under-represented in the American craft beer scene, but things are starting to change. Last year, Firestone Walker brought back their Firestone Lager after an 11-year hiatus. Big names like Great Divide and Sierra Nevada now have a pale lager in their year-round portfolio. In addition, Mexican-style pale lagers are a growing trend in American craft beer. I recently reviewed 21st Amendment’s El Sully Mexican-style Lager, which was excellent.
Other outstanding, lower bitterness pale lagers that come to mind include Upland’s Champagne Velvet, Hardywood’s Richmond Lager, pFriem’s Mexican Lager (review forthcoming), New Glarus Totally Naked, and Surly Hell. I’m sure there are many others, so please comment below if you think something should be on my radar.
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