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Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Younger beer release postponed due to omicron surge

Beer fans got devastating news Wednesday: Russian River Brewing Co. is postponing its Pliny the Younger beer release for seven weeks at its two local brewpubs, thanks to the omicron surge.

The popular two-week event was to begin Feb. 4, amid great anticipation after the 2020 in-person gathering was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, it will be held March 25 to April 7.

Co-owner Natalie Cilurzo made the announcement in the aftermath of Dr. Sundari R. Mase, the county health officer, on Monday issuing a 30-day ban on public gatherings that would end on Feb. 11, unless it is extended, rescinded, superseded, or amended at the county or state level.

The delay comes as a temporary setback for beer lovers who in past years have waited for hours in line at both its Santa Rosa and Windsor locations to get a chance to savor the triple India pale ale that is considered one of the best beers in the world.

“We feel that gives Sonoma County, as well as us, enough time to get through the surge in COVID cases and get our staff back to work and healthy,” said Cilurzo.

Her husband, Vinnie, is the brewmaster of the business founded in 1997 that has since become one of the country’s most beloved breweries.

Beyond the public health concerns for the community, Cilurzo noted Russian River itself has been dealing with ramifications from the outbreak, as it has had 20 of its 160 employees test positive for the coronavirus since the week before Christmas.

“We actually have never had this many employees out at one time, including during wildfire evacuations,” she said.

The omicron variant is now infecting about 700 Sonoma County residents every day, compared to 120 just two weeks ago, a 500% increase in cases, county officials said Wednesday.

Supervisor James Gore, in a public health press briefing Wednesday, said Cilurzo told him before the formal announcement she was delaying the release of Pliny, which brings thousands of people to Sonoma County, because she did not want Russian River to be responsible for sending more people to the hospital and further shutting down the economy.

“She also said while this is frustrating, we have to focus on pivoting it toward the future,” Gore said.

The spike in cases has forced both brewpubs to close on occasion over the past month, and the Santa Rosa brewpub has recently slimmed down the food items on its menu as a result of staffing challenges.

In addition, Cilurzo was planning to hire temporary workers for the event because it typically attracts as many as 25,000 people over the two weeks.

“This is really unprecedented times for us internally. We’re really struggling with staffing, and we were already feeling very stressed about how we were going to deal with trying to do Younger when we don’t even have enough employees to be open our normal business operations,” Cilurzo said.

The large crowds began gathering in 2010, spurred on by the advent of smartphones and social media that alerted more customers about the beer. They were attracted to come visit after various online beer sites named it as one of the top beers in the world.

Last year, Russian River held an online sale for bottles of Pliny the Younger, which Cilurzo vowed not to do again after it sold out within five minutes when 110,000 California residents tried to purchase the beer at once.

Those who were shut out later griped about it on social media.

The event provides an economic stimulus during a slow time for the local tourism industry until it picks up again in the spring.

According to a study by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, 23,525 people visited either of the Russian River locations during the 2020 event and pumped a record $5.1 million into the local economy from their hotel and travel costs.

Russian River brewed its first batch of the beer on Jan. 3 and halted further batches as it adjusted to the staffing shortage.

That first batch, however, will allow the brewery to wholesale ship for keg sales at the same time as in past years. Those limited kegs go to a few longtime customer brewpubs that have carried the specialty brew in past years, including a few in Sonoma County.

Those shipments will go out the week of Feb. 7, she said.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 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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