Come early Friday, the crowds will again start lining up on Fourth Street for hours on end to taste Pliny the Younger, one of the most heralded beers in the world.
As they have for the past eight years, beer lovers from around the world will make the pilgrimage to Russian River Brewing Co. to savor the triple India Pale Ale, a citrus-focused hop bomb that packs a punch despite its balanced mouthfeel, with an alcohol level of 10.25 percent.
The beer — which is sold only two weeks every February — has burnished the reputation of Russian River Brewing as one of the best breweries in the United States. It has also helped make Russian River’s brewpub into the most popular tourist attraction in Santa Rosa, with almost 400,000 customers in 2017.
Indeed, the future appears bright for owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo even as storm clouds gather over the nation’s craft beer sector, which has seen slowing growth, the closing of some notable breweries and layoffs.
The couple’s bullish outlook can be seen at a construction site almost 9 miles to the north of their downtown brewpub. There lies the future Russian River Brewing facility in Windsor, a more than $30 million project that will be part Disneyland, part Hofbräuhaus and an overall beer lover’s delight when it opens in the fall.
“It’s a legacy project,” said Vinnie Cilurzo as he and his wife walked through the site Tuesday. The facility is nearly 25 percent completed, with a major milepost coming in a few weeks when the rest of its German-manufactured brewing equipment leaves the factory headed to the Port of Stockton.
The new facility — an 85,000-square-foot building located on 10 acres — allows the Cilurzos to improve and update their customer service and brewing systems for the first time since they took over the business from Korbel Champagne Cellars in 2002, when the Guerneville winery got out of the beer business.
They opened the brewpub in 2004 and it hasn’t expanded beyond its 135-customer capacity since some outdoor seating was added, leading to long lines at peak times during the weekends as well as short waits to enter its gift shop to pick up T-shirts or beer to go. Once inside, walking through the main barroom can have the feel of a crowded BART train.
Its main production facility, located just south of downtown, has a maximum capacity of 20,000 barrels annually and doesn’t have room to conduct tours for the disappointed fans who call requesting such visits.
The couple, both Generation Xers in their late 40s, were looking for a place to own the land and dream up a brewery that would serve the beers they have always wanted to make. They want to provide a customer experience that could rival and even surpass a few breweries they admire, such as the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and New Belgium Brewing Co. plants near Asheville, North Carolina. There is an added bonus: longtime customers who have shied away from visiting the downtown Santa Rosa brewpub because of the crowds can now get their bar back as the tourists are likely to flock to Windsor.
The Cilurzos proudly proclaim their independence in an era of buyouts by private equity groups and foreign brewers, including the full acquisition last year of Lagunitas Brewing Co. of Petaluma by Heineken International. It compliments a campaign by the Brewers Association, which represents independent craft brewers, to put a seal on its members’ bottles to let consumers know they are not drinking a product from a major corporation.