Even though the crowds still show up every year on the first Friday in February, Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo never take them for granted.
And they came again on Friday in front of Russian River Brewing Co. to sample Pliny the Younger, a beer touted as one of the best in the world and only served during a two-week stretch at the downtown brewpub — with a limited number of kegs available at a few very select locations around the area. The event draws more than 16,000 customers to a business that sees about 300,000 visitors annually.
“Pliny has been to Sonoma County what Robert Mondavi was for Napa,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, referring to Mondavi’s pioneering winemaking enterprise that to a large degree put the Napa Valley on the map.
But the Cilurzos, co-owners of the brewery, also realize that they can’t rest on their laurels. The Pliny event exploded onto the scene in 2010, growing from an in-the-know gathering for local beer geeks to a massive celebration of craft beer with more than eight-hour waits and an economic impact of almost $5 million in business last year.
“I always want Younger to be more than about Younger. I want it to be a more Russian River experience,” said Vinnie Cilurzo, who also is the head brewer.
So this year, the brewery is unveiling three other new beers for customers to try out over the two weeks of the Pliny fest, especially those who have already tasted Pliny, the super-hopped triple India Pale Ale that packs a hefty 10.25 percent alcohol content and only varies slightly in taste from year to year. Next year, the Cilurzos plan to showcase a new modern brewery and brewpub they’re working on opening in Windsor to attract additional fans.
A few other breweries around the country also attract crowds, including beer lovers from Sonoma County, for their special releases. For example, Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, Indiana, has an annual Dark Lord Day festival, during which it releases its Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. Tickets last year were $200 for the event, which typically attracts thousands of beer lovers.
Remaining fresh and compelling is the challenge for all in a Sonoma County industry that now totals about 30 craft breweries and has become a mecca for beer lovers and tourists from around the country and the world.
The sector differs greatly from the wine industry, where vintners are located in the prime areas where the grapes are grown. That gives the North Coast a massive competitive advantage over other areas in the United States, as evidenced in the moniker “Wine Country.”
In contrast, San Diego, Portland and the greater Denver also are big craft beer hubs; geography and climate have no effect on what the artisan brewers can concoct with water, hops, yeast and malt.
And as beer tourists continue to pursue the next mythic brew — whether it’s a farmhouse ale from Greensboro Bend, Vermont or an America double stout from Tulsa, Oklahoma — the Sonoma County beer industry has to figure out how to remain a trend setter and retain its reputation as having some of the best brewers in the country.