Despite the occasional rain shower, beer fans persevered in rain ponchos and Patagonia fleece Friday after waiting hours in line to get a taste of Pliny the Younger, one of the most coveted beers in the world.
There were more than 200 people lined up in front of the downtown Russian River Brewing Co. by the time doors opened around 10:30 a.m. Fans then poured in to savor the triple India Pale Ale, which boasts a 10.25 percent alcohol level.
It currently ranks as the sixth best beer in the world by the users of the Ratebeer.com website, who have previously labeled it as a “hop bomb” with an aroma of “mega juicy citrus” and a flavor that is “moderately sweet with a strong bitter finish.”
The early crowd was smaller than in past years and rainy weather overnight was cited by many as a reason. But the fans came from as far away as Norway and the East Coast as well as all over California to get a taste of the beer that is only offered for two weeks, beginning on the first Friday in February.
Last year, more than 16,000 people visited the brewpub during the stretch, plunking down an average of $73 per person, according to the Sonoma Economic Development Board.
Boots Byrd, of Ventura, was the first in line at 11 p.m. Thursday.
“It was fantastic,” Byrd said sarcastically Friday morning. “Nice and wet. Cold. Freezing. A little frigid. Soppy shoes. It was fun, though.”
Byrd was second in line last year and decided to be first this year, driving up Thursday afternoon after his morning work shift from Southern California.
It was Byrd’s third year in a row at the event; he even brought his infant son up with him this year for the experience. His son slept in a nearby van with his wife while he toughed it out in the elements as the temperatures dropped to an overnight low of 55 degrees.
“My Pliny experiences have always been great,” he said. “It’s quite an event to be here and see everybody line up. At the same time, you feel a little crazy sometimes after waiting so many hours.”
He brought up a friend, Jerremy Waisman, to join him in the wait. Waisman said he had to change out of his soggy clothes at nearby Peet’s Coffee and Tea at 5:30 a.m. when the store opened. The nearby Starbucks had employees taking orders from Pliny customers so they wouldn’t lose their place in line.
After having his first Pliny, Byrd proclaimed himself satisfied, noting that this year’s version had more pronounced citrus notes as well as a nutty flavor.
“You don’t always have the balance for a triple IPA like this,” he said. He said he planned to add a little wine tasting to the day and visit Ridge Vineyards in Healdsburg later.
The event was special for brewery co-owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo this year as Vinnie’s mother, Audrey, attended for the first time. She and her late husband, Vince, had previously operated a winery in Temecula.
“I would have to think if you had been standing out all night in the cold, you would have been a little bit disgruntled. But they were all so pleasant and happy,” Audrey Cilurzo said.
Russian River debuted Pliny the Younger in 2005, but the crowds emerged in 2010 thanks to social media and rankings on various beer sites that named Pliny one of the top beers in the world. In past years, waits from eight to 10 hours to get in to the brewpub were not uncommon, as it can handle only about 150 customers at a time. A new location in Windsor is scheduled to open in late summer 2018.
As the beer’s popularity has grown, the Cilurzos have made the tasting experience more formalized to handle the bigger crowds, allowing only three hours per table and up to three 10-ounce servings of Pliny per person. Each serving costs $5.
Every year, Vinnie Cilurzo, who is also the brewmaster, tweaks the recipe slightly. This year, he added two more additional varieties of hops to the mix — comet and azaca — making it a little bit more hoppy but having less of a “hot” mouthfeel from the alcohol thanks to a cooler fermentation.
“We are always trying to enhance the bitterness... and the overall hop quality all the way through,” he said.
Eric Scheidt of Redding said he was pleased with this year’s Pliny batch after getting in line at 3:15 a.m. It was his first time trying it.
“I feel the alcohol percentage is pretty well hidden. It’s got a great full mouthfeel. It’s not harsh at all for a triple IPA,” Scheidt said. “It lives up to the hype.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.