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New look coming for Russian River Brewing


As its popularity continues to grow, Russian River Brewing’s downtown Santa Rosa brewpub at times can take on the feel of a Tokyo subway at rush hour or the front of the stage at Outside Lands.

The brewery known for its Pliny the Elder double India pale ale has arguably become one of Santa Rosa’s top tourist stops, attracting people from across the world to buy its T-shirts or pick up some bottles for the trip back home. Fans typically show up before doors open at 11 a.m.

At the same time, the Fourth Street brewpub and restaurant attracts a horde of local faithful who want to go in to sample brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo’s newest creation after work or fill up a growler to take to a party.

“It’s gotten a lot worse in general. I turn away about a third of the time,” said Jason Cotter of Guerneville, who has been coming to the downtown brewpub since it opened in 2004.

Cotter said it’s frustrating when he stops in to refill his growler for Pliny the Elder and faces a long line on Fourth Street. “Sometimes I won’t try to go in and look somewhere else,” he said.

To help ease the congestion, Russian River is reconfiguring its brewpub and creating a new section specifically to sell merchandise such as shirts, glasses and hoodies as well as a refill station for growlers and sales of its single bottles. The new area, previously known as the “boardroom,” was used to serve large groups. The brewpub cannot easily expand its capacity because it is surrounded by businesses and has a city parking lot at its rear.

Co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said the new construction made sense after reviewing her sales and finding that 50 percent of the brewpub’s business comes from merchandise and to-go purchases. On Sunday, the brewpub had 1,840 guests, many of whom who had to queue outside to enter, she said.

“That’s not ordering pizza to go,” Natalie Cilurzo joked. “We’re trying really hard to accommodate our regulars who want to get bottles or growlers to go.”

The Santa Rosa Fire Department has visited the brewpub four times this summer, she said, to ensure that it remains in compliance with its capacity limit.

The Fire Department typically does crowd checks with restaurants and brewpubs once a month on a Saturday night, but the Russian River brewpub has not been a cause for concern, said Senior Fire Inspector Mark Pedroia.

“It’s not one of the chronic places that causes constant attention,” Pedroia said.

As part of the reconfiguration, three new tables will be added to an elevated stage area, though the restaurant will lose a few seats overall. The construction should be completed by the weekend.

“We think it can ease the bottlenecks with the kitchen and the bar area,” Natalie Cilurzo said.

To also help with crowds, the pub has recently used a new computer program that tracks its waiting list for a table via texts to a customer’s smartphone. The customer can also click on a link to track where he or she is on the queue, said Michael Deas, general manager. The brewpub doesn’t accept reservations.

That has allowed more flexibility for customers who may want to walk down the block to the Barnes & Noble bookstore to wait for their table to become available, Deas noted.

While local breweries Bear Republic Brewing Co. and Lagunitas Brewing Co. have ramped up their production facilities, Natalie Cilurzo reaffirmed her commitment that Russian River is not looking to join the pack in the near future, even as craft beer continues its enormous growth, with an 18 percent increase in production during the first six months of 2014.

Russian River has a capacity of producing about 14,000 barrels annually, with 3,000 at the brewpub and another 11,000 at a facility off Santa Rosa Avenue. In contrast, Lagunitas’ Petaluma facility can handle up to 600,000 barrels.

“We’re on hold as far as expansion goes,” Natalie Cilurzo said. The couple is still in the process of paying down debt after buying out all of their outside investors.

She noted that it would cost up to $20 million to build a new brewery, while grappling with politically thorny issues such as securing water and wastewater permits in the midst of a statewide drought. She added that any decision to expand in the future will be guided not by potential sales, but ensuring that it can maintain its high quality as Pliny the Elder is rated No. 5 on Beer Advocate’s user rating while its triple IPA Pliny the Younger is rated No. 3.

“Building a brewery is not a like a pop-up business,” Natalie Cilurzo said. “There are ways to grow your business without making more beer. We’re reinvesting in our pub.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

On Twitter @BillSwindell.