Moonraker bests legendary Pliny the Younger in prestigious IPA contest

In a stunning David-versus-Goliath takedown, Moonraker Brewing of Auburn topped Russian River’s legendary Pliny the Younger to win the prestigious triple IPA competition at the Bistro in Hayward on Saturday.

Just days after being named by RateBeer as best new brewery in California and ninth best new brewery in the world, the victory promises to catapult fledgling Moonraker into the national spotlight and bring more crowds to the already bustling tasting room in Auburn. The brewery won’t celebrate its first anniversary until April.

“For it to take a gold — and not only take a gold but beat out Pliny the Younger in a blind tasting — is absolutely surreal,” Moonraker brewmaster Zack Frasher said Monday.

The win came at the 17th annual Bistro Double IPA Festival, which attracts the finest India pale ale craft brewers on the West Coast. The triple IPA category — more hops and higher alcohol content — is tasted blind and assessed by certified beer judges.

Moonraker’s winning beer is called Extremis and will be on tap at the Auburn tasting room when it opens again Wednesday. The brewery will also make a new batch that will be sold in 16-ounce cans in the next three months.

Frasher descibed Extremis as “lush with Mosaic and Simcoe hops through and through” that give it plenty of aroma and the flavor of pine, grapefruit and tropical fruit. Unlike Yojo, its coveted Northeast-style IPA with a distinctive hazy appearance, Extremis is copper-hued and clear and made in the West Coast style.

Indeed, when Knee Deep Brewing beat Pliny the Elder five years ago in Bistro’s double IPA category, it created a surge in demand for the extraordinarily hoppy beer. In less than three years, Knee Deep went from brewing in a 900-square-foot building in Lincoln to 28,000 square feet in Auburn.

Moonraker’s newfound attention is forcing owners Karen and Dan Powell to re-evaulate their business model. Yojo, for instance, sold out in five hours when the brewery released a new batch of 16-ounce cans a week ago — even with limits placed on how much each customer could purchase.

“It has been a ton of hard work, and it looks like it’s starting to pay off,” Frasher said.

When Frasher called in the news from Hayward on Saturday, “We were in shock and my husband didn’t believe him,” said Karen Powell. “Russian River is one of the greatest breweries around. It was so noisy in the background and my husband kept saying, ‘Am I understanding you correctly?’”

Pliny the Younger is a bona fide legend in craft beer. It is sold at the Santa Rosa brewpub for only two weeks every February and routinely attracts lines of up to eight hours just to get a taste.

Powell said she and her husband plan to meet with Frasher to assess all that’s happened “and see where we go from here.”

“At this point, we have to stay grounded, let the dust settle and make sure we all agree on the direction the company should go,” she said.

Referring to the past few days at the brewery, she added, “The weekend that we had was just insane in the taproom.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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