There was a time, before the Russian River Brewing Company settled into its present downtown Santa Rosa site in 2004, when local citizens walked Fourth Street freely during the month of February.
By now, we’ve gotten used to long lines of beer gourmets from all over the nation, and the world, standing in line around the block for the annual two-week release of beloved beer called Pliny the Younger.
Regulars who have been going to “The River” — as many of them call it — since it opened can remember back to 2005, when brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo first introduced his potent triple India Pale Ale.
That was before Internet beer bloggers raised the saucy little beverage’s profile to global levels. A person could walk right in and order “A Younger” (not to be confused with immensely popular double IPA Pliny the Elder, available year-round.)
The Russian River Brewing Company dates back to 1997, when it was launched at Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville. When Korbel quit the brewing business, its brewer, Cilurzo, and his wife Natalie bought the company in 2002.
Before the brew pub opened to downtown Santa Rosa, Fourth Street had been long ruled by a colorful English-style pub called the The Old Vic. Forced out by the property manager in 2003, Old Vic owner Chris Stokeld closed his downtown pub and operated the Cock and Bull in Occidental. Stokeld later provided English fare at the Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square district, opened by his nephew Paul and others in 2007.
Displaced patrons of the Old Vic felt adrift for a while and dubbed themselves “Old Victims,” but many of them eventually settled into the new Russian River Brewery site. The Old Vic legacy lives on in Russian River’s OVL (Old Vic Loyalist) stout beer.
In the early years of Pliny the Younger, the release weeks were more relaxed, but momentum built steadily for the beer — a strong one at 10.25 percent, served only in 10-ounce glasses. (No pints.) The limit is three per person.
In 2009, it took 11 days for the entire supply to sell out. By 2010, it took just one day. The pub sold 600 gallons of Pliny the Younger in eight hours, mostly in take-home “growler” jugs. Reportedly, sold patrons resold the growlers online for big money.
Since then, the Russian River Brewing Company has made some changes. No more growlers. Pliny the Younger lovers consume it on the premises. And there is a specific window during which Pliny is served. This year, it’s Feb. 5-18.
It was in 2010 that the line for Pliny the Younger, winding around the block, seized the attention of all of downtown Santa Rosa. A fire engine even pulled up outside so the crowd could be assessed.
It wasn’t as if Sonoma County didn’t already have great beer. There was Lagunitas in Petaluma and Bear Republic in Healdsburg, to name two of the most prominent brewers. And even downtown Santa Rosa already had been pioneered by the Third Street Aleworks.
But Pliny the Younger, or rather its rabid fans, took the county’s reputation for beer to a new level. Since then, the county has gone on to become a beer lover’s mecca, with breweries, brew pubs and tap rooms popping up all over.