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Pliny the Younger brings in record $5.1 million economic impact to Sonoma County

If you bottle it, they will come.

That certainly was the case as visitors poured $5.1 million into the local economy during the two-week February release of Pliny the Younger at the two Russian River Brewing Co. locations, according to a survey by the county Economic Development Board.

Spending jumped $900,000 this year, when beer fans had added incentive to visit Sonoma County as the brewery bottled Pliny the Younger for the first time. Customers were allowed to purchase two bottles, at $10 each, per visit.

The survey found that 23,525 customers visited either the Windsor or downtown Santa Rosa location during the release. The average group comprised 2.7 people who spent $194 per visit.

The report also found that visitors - some of whom waited in lines as long as 10 hours - came from 14 countries and ?47 states, along with the District of Columbia. Out-of-town visitors spent $580 on average to fly into Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and $445 on lodging.

The release of Pliny, a triple India pale ale that is regarded as one of the best beers in the world, has become a shot in the arm for the local economy because it brings visitors during a typical down time in the tourist season. The 2020 release brought out even bigger crowds for those who wanted to buy the to-go bottles, some of which were later resold online for up to $120 a bottle.

The news was welcomed by local business officials because it came in the aftermath of the Kincade fire, which halted fall tourism when it struck in late October.

“This year saw incremental growth in both year-over-year economic impact, growing by $1 million, and a roughly ?$150 increase in average spending on lodging,” said Sheba Person-Whitley, the board’s executive director.

The shelter-in-place order from the coronavirus, however, has put an even greater strain on the tourism industry because bars, restaurants and taprooms have been closed for dine-in service for almost two months.

“It was just so wonderful to see such a tremendous economic boost to the community right before everything shut down,” said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing.

When the county shut down brewpubs in March, the company furloughed about 160 employees while retaining staff for beer production in Windsor and for to-go food and beer at its downtown Santa Rosa brewpub. It has retained 37 full-time workers and about 20 more employees with reduced hours.

Russian River has decreased its production by 30%, and its overall beer sales for April were down 20%, Cilurzo said. It did ramp up a business of selling beer directly to customers within the state, though the brewery will likely discontinue that during the hot summer months to ensure beer quality because the packaging is not chilled.

The future of the Pliny release for 2021 is still to be determined given the uncertainty around the virus, especially as it attracts large crowds waiting in line.

“I guarantee you the next Pliny the Younger release won’t look like anything that’s ever happened, without a vaccine,” Cilurzo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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