Russian River Brewing will start tapping its coveted craft beers Thursday in Windsor

Russian River Brewing Co. opened its $50 million brewery in Windsor Thursday morning, enabling one the nation's most beloved craft beer brands to expand distribution, while providing a topflight visitor experience at a brewpub likely to become one of Sonoma County's busiest tourist destinations.

The sprawling complex - located on 10 acres at the corner of Conde and Mitchell lanes - opened at 11 a.m. after a brief ribbon-cutting with local Windsor officials. They aggressively courted Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo to build their second brewpub in their town given the brewery's cult-like following among beer lovers around the world.

The much smaller downtown Santa Rosa brewpub will continue tapping beers a few miles to the south. The Cilurzos hope longtime customers now will be able to get seats quicker at the typically packed Fourth Street pub, which has room for 135 patrons, as more tourists opt for the Windsor site that can hold 324 people and has free parking. The downtown brewpub had almost 400,000 visitors last year.

“It's going to be a whole lot better,” co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said of the spacious new brewpub. “We have definitely been paying attention to our customers' needs and seeing where our bottlenecks are.”

Indeed, when beer lovers enter the Windsor complex - a red, white and blue building designed in a modern farmhouse style - they will have four separate areas to choose from. There's a large store carrying clothing and gifts for dogs, a tasting room with taps to fill growlers with beer to go, a room for self-guided and guided tours and the brewpub, the featured attraction.

The main restaurant dining and brewpub space, full of natural light from numerous windows, features two different areas with beer taps - a lounge area with a circular fireplace and an open kitchen section where visitors can watch cooks prepare meals. The full menu offers a major upgrade from the limited food served at the Santa Rosa pub, which has a small kitchen mostly suited for making pizzas and sandwiches.

The menu includes: flank steak with garlic and herb roasted potatoes at $23; an open-faced pastrami sandwich at $13; avocado toast at $8; and six different salads. Dessert items include ricotta doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce.

Russian River's Windsor brewery opening is one of the most eagerly anticipated events this year in the U.S. craft beer circles, said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Beer Association.

“There is no doubt this brewery will have a lot more visitors from the industry,” McCormick said.

He said it would rival top destination breweries, such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico and Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego, even though Russian River's annual 17,000-barrel production is much less beer compared with those two.

The Windsor brewery is expected to enable the craft brewer to more than double annual production next year to about 40,000 barrels, as it expands distribution mostly in California. However, it also will offer distributors in Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania additional Russian River beer varieties to sell to bars and taverns.

The almost two-year project in Windsor did go over budget by about $20 million from an original price tag of around $30 million, because of construction delays, currency exchange-rate fluctuation, cost overruns and the county's labor shortage, Cilurzo said.

“The fires hit (in October 2017) and all of the sudden there is a shortage of construction labor and the ones you can get cost more money,” she said.

The Cilurzos, who own the brewing operation and its Santa Rosa sister location outright after buying out investors years ago, secured bank loans to build the Windsor brewery. About 120 employees will staff the complex.

Wanting to open as soon as possible, Cilurzo said brewery tours won't be available for another month. In addition, she said she plans to buy patio furniture next year for the outdoor beer garden since only a few weeks of warm weather remain in 2018.

The new brewery started production with a porter the Cilurzos renamed Windsor Porter, a beer that has a chocolate note as well as higher alcohol content than previous versions brewed in Santa Rosa.

Vinnie Cilurzo, who serves as the brewmaster, said he is still working out the kinks in the German-made brewing equipment, which includes open-top fermenters.

“Once you get to the point when your beers get to be really good, to make them exceptional takes a lot of small changes,” he said.

Cilurzo is especially excited about a small batch brewery that will open in 2019 in a glass-encased space next to the dining area in the Windsor brewpub. His brewers will be able to experiment with limited-release beers to serve only on the property. That will give his brewers a chance to show off their creativity, especially since about 75 percent of Russian River's annual output now consists of two beers: its flagship Pliny the Elder double IPA and Blind Pig India pale ale.

“All of our brewers are smart. They work hard and they know how to make beer,” he said.

The brewery opening will provide a financial boost to the town of Windsor in tax revenue for the city's coffers and help increase foot traffic to nearby businesses, particulary those within walking distance in Artisan Alley.

“This is a home run,” said Mark Millan, a Windsor council member. “This is like a Disneyland for adults.”

Town leaders are considering a shuttle with stops at the hotel district, Russian River's brewery, Artisan Alley and the Town Green.

Already, Russian River operating in Windsor has spurred at least one local deal in the beverage business. Dominic Foppoli, another Windsor council member, said it has inspired Napa vintner Jean-Charles Boisset to invest in Foppoli's Old Redwood Brewing Co. he co-owns with Clay Fritz. Boisset will help build a high-end French bistro at the brewery site as part of Boisset's new brewing operation.

“This is going to push Windsor over the edge to finally have more great restaurants and entertainment destinations,” an ebullient Foppoli said.

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

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