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Pliny the Younger shows the economic impact for Sonoma County

Bruce Marts, left, Robert Ascencio, and Jackie Muniz receive their first glass of Pliny the Younger at the Russian River Brewing Company, in Santa Rosa, on Friday, February 3, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

BILL SWINDELL,

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.

“They are just being divided by more and more events,” said Joe Tucker, founder and CEO of the Ratebeer.com website, which now hosts its own festival.

The second annual Ratebeer Festival last weekend drew 2,000 people to the Sonoma County fairgrounds to sample its top-rated brewers from around the world. The event was held just five days before the Pliny the Younger release, to make it more attractive for attendees to travel to both.

That proximity greatly helped draw people from outside the area who will stick around and do both, Tucker said.

Sixty-one percent of Pliny visitors last year were tourists from outside the area, according to a study from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, and the average spent was $73 per person at the brewpub.

“People tend to pick events that are very meaningful to them,” Tucker said.

Visit Santa Rosa, a tourism program sponsored by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, also has helped the effort, including sponsoring events in past years at SF Beer Week, the weeklong gala put on primarily by the San Francisco Brewers Guild and featuring Bay Area brews.

The Beer Week event this year will be held from Feb. 10-19 and includes such local events as the release Feb. 11 of HenHouse Brewing Co.’s Golden Ale, a Belgian-style beer that was the first the Santa Rosa brewery ever made.

The effort is to promote the month as “Febrewary” to attract visitors from outside the area, said Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa. “It helps us in promoting the whole beer culture when we are making our pitches to the media,” Calkins said.

Visit Santa Rosa had a booth at the Ratebeer Festival and is handing out a beer passport for visitors during Pliny that can be stamped at local breweries and returned for prizes such as bottle openers or beer steins. In between events, it hopes to raise awareness for the other local attractions.

“It’s more about the beer tourism, but there’s also these other things you can do,” Calkins said.

Local brewers and taprooms have found ways to get involved even if they aren’t the central attraction for visitors. For example, the Local Barrel taproom in Santa Rosa had Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. out of Gilbert, Arizona, take over a tap while their brewers were in town for the Ratebeer Festival.

To take advantage of downtown crowds during Pliny, Sebastopol’s Crooked Goat Brewing Co., noted for its fruit-flavored beers, during the Pliny fest is doing an eight-tap takeover at La Vera Pizza, which is only about a block away from Russian River Brewing Co.

“A lot of people in Santa Rosa don’t even know we’re in Sebastopol,” said Karly Church, manager of the Crooked Goat taproom.

Like Pliny and the Ratebeer Festival, the new beer events and plans are the result of a grass-roots, organic process rather than central planning by an organization, as is more commonly done in the wine industry. What that process lacks in efficiency, the local brewing community makes up for in credibility among fans suspicious of corporate, mass-produced beer — particularly from the two dominant producers, AB InBev and MillerCoors.

“The authenticity is a big part of our event,” said Tucker. He added a brewer’s dinner during the RateBeer Festival so all the beer makers would have a chance to talk shop and compare notes.

The focus of beer visitors here is likely more on “craft” than “beer,” said William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics Department at Sonoma State University.

Silver noted that he sees parallels with other local food sectors, whose producers have taken a more artisan approach and have attracted fervent followings, from hard cider to cheese to teas.

“I think for Sonoma County, the brand is around craft,” Silver said. “It speaks to our artisan nature. We are not mass production of these industries.”

In fact, local vintners have struggled to adopt the term “craft” to their much more mature wine sector, which is dominated by fewer than 10 major wineries. Instead, companies like Santa Rosa’s Jackson Family Wines — the ninth-largest domestic wine producer, which produced 6 million cases last year — have bought smaller boutique wineries and kept the vintners in place rather than instituting some corporate takeover. Notable examples include Jackson’s purchase of Adam Lee’s Siduri Wines and Wells Guthrie’s Copain Wines.

“They are not going to morph that into the larger brand,” Silver said. “They are going to embrace, celebrate and learn from them.”

The trend has caught on in the corporate beer world as well. AB InBev and MillerCoors have been on a buying spree in the $23 billion craft beer industry, with the former having purchased nine craft breweries in its portfolio and the latter six.

But so far, no Sonoma County brewery has sold out to those two.