Pliny release brings economic windfall to Sonoma County

Beer drinkers are lining up in front of Russian River Brewing Co. for Friday's annual release of Pliny the Younger. It will pump millions into the local economy.|

Despite the rain and hours-long wait, beer drinkers began lining up Thursday night in front of Russian River Brewing Co. for its annual Pliny the Younger release.

Thousands from all over the globe will make a pilgrimage to Santa Rosa to get a sip of the extra-hoppy triple India Pale Ale, which some claim is the best brew in America and is consistently at the top of various beer aficionado websites.

The beer, named after the ancient Roman lawyer and author, is one of the most exclusive in the world, sold for only two weeks at the downtown Santa Rosa brewpub and a few select places, mostly in California, in very limited amounts.

The first customers, a couple from the Los Angeles area, arrived at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to make sure they were first in line. When the doors open Friday morning, patrons will eagerly plunk down $4.75 for a 10-ounce glass. But that’s not all they will spend.

A 2013 survey by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that Pliny the Younger brought almost $2.4 million in economic activity to the area, with about $1.4 million in direct expenditures related to the event. Those figures are likely to go up this year.

“They have an effect on craft beer like that of the Mondavi family for wine in Napa,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “They have created an awareness of Sonoma County, an image for Sonoma County. It really has become a hallmark for Sonoma County.”

The list of economic impacts is long: Taxis. Coffee. Hotel Rooms. Gas. Food. And even women’s clothing.

At first glance the brewery’s target demographic for its two-week event probably isn’t the same as Punch Clothing & Accessories, a boutique women’s clothing store nearby on Fourth Street. After all, Russian River’s mostly male customer base favors baggy denim jeans, baseball caps (worn backwards) and T-shirts. It’s more Phish concert than “Project Runway.”

But at least 30 percent of Pliny the Younger’s customer base is female, made up of many fashionable millennials, said Natalie Cilurzo, who owns Russian River Brewing Co. with her husband, Vinnie.

Last year, Punch sold out of its stylish ladies’ “Beer Drinker” T-shirts that retailed for about $40, forcing the store to reorder. This year the store will also have a “Beer Lover” T-shirt for $52 by local designer Odessa Gunn.

“It’s something that girls can get into and still feel a little girlie with the guys,” said Camille Weber, manager.

Over at La Bufa Mexican restaurant, owner Delia Mora thinks standing in line for as long as 10 hours the night before is crazy, but she doesn’t mind all the customers who order a burrito to go.

Entrepreneurs have sought to capitalize on the hubbub. Last year, a mom brought her daughter downtown to sell Girl Scout cookies to the hungry beer fans. “They probably sold thousands of dollars worth of Girl Scout cookies,” Natalie remarked.

But across Fourth Street, Starbucks was closed one week for remodeling last year during the Pliny release.

“We were joking that somebody in management made the wrong decision,” she said.

And with the annual Pliny release now entering its 11th year, the sharing economy is getting involved. On Airbnb, one person is offering his studio loft for $75 night during the release, which they note “is walking distance from downtown (10-15 min).”

This is also the first year the Uber ride-booking taxi service will be operating during the event to shuttle drivers who don’t want to risk a DUI, though the Cilurzos said they prefer to support a local operator like A-C Taxi, which has been serving their customers for years.

Without a doubt the laws of supply and demand will be in effect even if under the radar. Last year, one customer waiting in line paid $20 to buy a glass of Pliny from another customer who snagged one of the last draughts before the pub cut off sales for the day (it sets a daily limit to ensure there is enough beer to sell during the two-week run).

The Cilurzos have a special events permit from the city for the two-week event, said Raissa de la Rosa, the economic development and marketing coordinator for the city of Santa Rosa. Portable toilets and additional trash bins will be provided, and police will step up patrols in the area. In past years, the crowd has been anything but unruly, opting to play board games or a read a book. That permit allows the Cilurzos to bring in additional food vendors and entertainment, de la Rosa said, but the couple has opted to give the extra business to neighboring merchants.

That attitude suits the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa just fine. The hotel has so far had 77 rooms booked for its special discounted Pliny the Younger rate. Two years ago, it had sold only 28 rooms by this time, said Lauren Kilcullen, Flamingo sales manager. Most average a two-night stay, though one couple from Indiana has booked for seven nights.

Hotels are indeed a beneficiary as the economic survey found that 65 percent of the estimated 12,500 Pliny the Younger customers in 2013 traveled from outside Sonoma County, and that 44 percent of those tourists stayed at a local hotel or lodging.

The bookings are especially helpful for the Flamingo because it is during the slow season. “It’s a definite boost for us,” Kilcullen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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