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How Sonoma Pride beer sales are funding five impressive rebuilds

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Five new homes for Sonoma County fire survivors are nearly complete in southeast Santa Rosa, financed by proceeds from the release of a special fundraising beer called Sonoma Pride. A sixth home is expected to follow soon.

It all started just days after the October 2017 fires ripped through Sonoma County, when the owners of the Russian River Brewing Co., Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, decided to brew a special beer to raise funds for those most in need.

They revived their Sonoma Pride brand, began brewing a week after the fires struck, and in collaboration with 60 other breweries raised more than $1.1 million to help rebuild homes, feed people and replace kids’ bikes that were lost in the fires.

The largest allocation went to the Council on Aging, a $400,000 grant to build five homes to replace housing lost at the Journey’s End mobile home park in 2017. They will be completed soon, and funds have been earmarked for a sixth home. (Note: these are not at the site of the Journey’s End park.)

“We had to do something,” Natalie Cilurzo said during an interview at the brewery’s new Windsor facility. “It’s just what we do - we didn’t even think about it. When your community supports you for 14 years and then all of a sudden the community needs help, it’s just natural to want to jump into action.”

Vinnie Cilurzo noted that the brewery’s partners chipped in: malt, hops and yeast suppliers donated their products so all proceeds from the beer could go to fire victims.

What made the fundraiser unusual was that the Cilurzos licensed the Sonoma Pride brand to other breweries, including HenHouse, Seismic, Moonlight and Bear Republic. Each made its own version of the beer, then sold it in bottles or on tap and donated the proceeds.

Russian River began brewing Sonoma Pride on Oct. 16 and released the beer on Oct. 31.

“It was a beer that didn’t need a lot of time,” Vinnie said. “We wanted to make a beer that was really approachable by anyone. So it wasn’t a super complex, over-the-top beer. It was a hoppy blonde ale, at 4½ or 5 percent alcohol.”

Another popular aspect of the fundraiser was a raffle for line-cutting privileges at Russian River’s annual release of Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA sold for only two weeks in February each year.

The $25 raffle tickets yielded 14 winners who, one per day, were the first to enter Russian River’s Santa Rosa brewpub during the Pliny the Younger release.

One of the winners donated the prize to a first responder who had lost his home the first night of the fires.

“He had the best time” savoring Pliny the Younger with friends and family, Natalie said. “It was definitely an honor to meet that guy and hear his story.”

Some breweries weren’t able to brew Sonoma Pride but chipped in checks of $5,000 or $10,000. In the end, Sonoma Pride raised $1,122,116.

Russian River teamed with champion cyclist Levi Leipheimer’s nonprofit King Ridge Foundation to distribute the money to organizations such as Redwood Empire Food Bank; Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County; and Forget Me Not Farm, a Santa Rosa group that rescued lost animals during the fires.

The goal was to select nonprofits with local roots that would put all the money into helping people in the North Bay, Natalie said. Some funds went to St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, which provided a “home in a box” to evacuees who needed clothes and toiletries.

When the October 2017 fires hit, the brewery was about five months into developing its new brewing facility and brewpub in Windsor. (Its flagship brewpub in Santa Rosa is still going strong.)

“We could see the fires burning on the ridges around here,” Natalie said. “It was eerie.”

Within the first week, Russian River had received about 100 emails or calls from “friends in the industry” asking what they could do to help, Vinnie recalled. “Breweries we never even heard of said we have a connection to your community or we just love you guys, and we want to help you out.”

So the Cilurzos conferred with Leipheimer and attorney Don Winkle, a mutual friend, and got the fundraiser up and running. Within a week they had launched a website with a donation button.

The first days of the fires were “overwhelming and surreal,” Leipheimer recalled in a phone interview. “There was so much going on it really took a moment to comprehend what was happening.”

What the Cilurzos did was “really extraordinary,” he said. “What struck me is how much of a leader the Russian River Brewing Company is in the craft beer world. So many other craft beer companies from around the country jumped in on the fundraiser. The power behind it was really impressive.”

Beyond raising money, Russian River fostered community by reopening its downtown Santa Rosa pub almost immediately.

“The second day (Oct. 10, 2017), people needed a place to go,” Natalie said. “They needed information. They needed hot food, and they needed clothing. They needed power to plug in their phones.

“Even if their home didn’t burn down, most people didn’t have power, gas or water. Or they were evacuated. People really wanted a sense of normalcy.”

Some fire refugees came into the pub with just the clothes on their backs and had no way to reach their homes after being evacuated, so Russian River handed out hundreds of sweatshirts, Vinnie said.

The pub also provided meals to countless first responders and gave eight cases of its signature Pliny the Elder ale to the National Guard, whose members said they’re allowed to consume one beer after their shifts.

Leipheimer and Glenn Fant, owner of NorCal BikeSport, got the bicycle company Specialized to donate more than 400 bikes for kids who lost their rides in the fire. Each child also received a helmet, lock and water bottle.

Leipheimer said he was “honored and humbled” that he could “participate in this truly amazing effort.”

The King Ridge Foundation raised about $70,000 for victims of the Valley fire in 2015, he said, but working with the Cilurzos during the past 15 months led to a tremendous fundraising effort that has helped many people during a difficult time, he said.

“Without Vinnie and Natalie,” Leipheimer said, “we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.”

Sonoma Gives

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