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As Pliny the Younger draws crowds, Russian River brewery owners look to expand

An hourslong wait is expected today outside of Russian River Brewing Co. to drink Pliny the Younger, one of the world’s most coveted brews. Its annual release attracts visitors from around the world to the Fourth Street brewpub.

But long lines are no longer unusual for the popular but small brewery, even outside the two weeks in February that the extra-hoppy pale ale is on sale. Now owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo are looking to expand, searching for a second brewpub location, ideally in Sonoma County, that would appease locals frustrated by the crowds.

“We’re pretty certain we want to do it,” she said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right place.”

They have not settled on a new location, she added, but the driving factor in any new brewpub and production facility would be the ability to own the land. They lease both the Fourth Street location and a production facility off Ferdinand Court.

The Cilurzos looked last year at property off Shiloh Road west of Highway 101, but the deal did not materialize, according to a Windsor town official who asked not to be named.

“Vinnie and I want something to call our own,” she said.

Last February, the first customer arrived at 5:30 p.m. the night before the release of Pliny the Younger, which has grown in popularity over the past six years and attracted increasing numbers of fans as its reputation as one of the best beers in the world spread in social and traditional media. The early birds endured 17 hours on line, sometimes in the rain, waiting for the doors to open at 10:30 a.m. This year the pub opens at 11 a.m. and security guards Thursday night were discouraging people from lining up, at least until 11 p.m. when the pub closes.

Lines have also become commonplace on weekends and certain weeknights as the small brewpub, with a capacity of about 150 customers, struggles to keep up with its rise in popularity. The crowds have alienated some locals, who remember the days before it became one of Sonoma County’s top tourist attractions, when they could get a quick beer after work.

The decision to look for a second location comes as the popularity of craft beer soars; sales across the country grew in 2014 to command 11 percent of the overall beer marketplace. Locally, Lagunitas Brewing Co. of Petaluma entered into a 50-50 partnership with Heineken International in an attempt to grow internationally, while HenHouse Brewing Co. moved from Petaluma to a new facility in south Santa Rosa that can handle up to 75,000 barrels annually.

The Cilurzos have paid off all their investors and have never expressed an interest in rapidly growing their highly-rated Russian River Brewing brand, which is primarily available at their brewpub. A few local grocery stores and restaurants also sell the beer, mostly its flagship Pliny the Elder, a double India pale ale. Last year, the brewery produced about 16,000 barrels of beer.

A second location would be able to offer Russian River customers brewery tours, possibly self-guided ones, as well as a “real gift shop,” Natalie Cilurzo said. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s taproom in Chico is the type of experience that they would seek to replicate, she added.

“We’re exploring our options,” Natalie Cilurzo said Thursday. “It’s about growing the customer experience.”

Any increase in production to go with a new facility would not dramatically increase Russian River’s overall footprint, as distribution would likely be kept within the state, she said.

Jay Brooks, a beer author from Cotati, said out-of-town visitors would likely be attracted to a second location, possibly making it easier for locals to get a seat at the Fourth Street pub that opened in 2004.

But he said as the popularity of craft beer grows, such a reprieve may not last for long, especially given Russian River’s excellent reputation not only for its hoppy beers, but also with sours and other styles.

“I see it kind of like the analogy of having extra lanes on the highway. It helps for a little while, but the traffic catches up,” Brooks said.

Staff Writer Clark Mason contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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