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Staying calm amid the 'Pliny the Younger' clamor (w/video)

  • Natalie and Vinnie Chilurzo in the Russian River Brew Pub in Santa Rosa, CA.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Since 2010, Russian River Brewing has become a little more adjusted to the fame. The beer, often known simply as "The Younger," is strictly rationed now to make sure it lasts for at least two weeks. They've installed crowd control stands and hired security to police the line. They refuse to put the beer in growlers. Natalie even launched a campaign that eventually forced eBay to quit allowing the black market trade in beers across state lines.

Release day this year was Friday, drawing hundreds of beer pilgrims to stand in a line around the block despite a steady, cold rain. Kegs of the precious brew will start shipping out to other select bars and distributorships around the country on Monday, setting off similar frenzies anywhere lucky enough to score some Pliny the Younger.

In the 10 years since the Cilurzos founded the brewpub on Fourth Street, Russian River Brewing has grown from an obscure outpost built on a shoestring to one of the world's best-known and sought-after breweries, thanks to rapturous reviews by drinkers and critics.

Pliny The Younger Release

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Vinnie Cilurzo also has become a leader in producing a specialized form of beer known as sours, produced with various bacteria and unusual yeasts familiar to fans of beers made in Belgium.

The brewery has grown to be a potent economic force in Santa Rosa. The annual two-week release of Pliny the Younger generates about $2.4 million for the local economy, according to a study by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board last year.

Yet with all this frantic demand, the Cilurzos defiantly refuse to expand beyond their current capacity — only about 14,000 barrels of beer per year, or about 434,000 gallons. To put that in perspective, Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma says it produced around 500,000 barrels last year. Even Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing, considered a modestly sized brewer, made more than 70,000 barrels in 2013.

"In the beer industry, a common theme is if you're not growing you're dying," said Vinnie, 43. "And yet we look at it the opposite. Why can't we be like a small boutique winery that goes out and buys 10 acres and puts a winery on it?"

The refusal to grow has earned Russian River a fair bit of critical comment online, with fans grumbling about their inability to find the beers. It has led to a supply so tight that the brewpub itself once ran out of bottles of the flagship Pliny the Elder, the brewery's top-selling product. Distributors can languish on a years-long waiting list to get any Russian River brews.

The Cilurzos, however, say they like it this way just fine. While they have toyed with expanding, the price tag easily would run into the millions, a cost they are not eager to take on. At the moment, they are doing well financially and enjoying greater success than they had ever expected.

"I don't know why they get so mad at us," Natalie said of the people who are put out that Russian River won't grow. "It's our business, and we have every right to run it the way we want. It's not like we're not making beer to piss people off."


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