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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.

New brewery

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.

“We did this the old-fashioned way, with cash and debt,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who noted that they took out four loans from Comerica Inc. to finance the project.

“We’re still independent. ... We make the decisions ourselves. We don’t have a board of directors unless you include our three cats,” said Vinnie Cilurzo. “Some are going to see this and say ... ‘They have sold out.’ ”

The number of people, however, who will actually believe the couple sold out with the new brewery is likely few, given the strong reputation they have built over their careers, said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. Those actions also include fundraising for the local community, such as spearheading the Sonoma Pride effort where local brewers crafted their own special beer to benefit fire victims. The effort has raised almost $900,000 so far.

“I see a very bright future for them. ... They’ve really created a culture of its own,” McCormick said. “They really represent what our industry is at its core.”

A key reason for their success is the different duties the two play: Vinnie is the brewmaster, paying keen attention to detail and quality that have garnered many medals in various beer competitions; Natalie oversees much of the business and hospitality side, while being a major presence on social media.

Ben Stone, executive director for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, sees parallels to what the Cilurzos have done in the beer sector to how Robert and Margrit Mondavi helped popularize premium wine in the Napa Valley.

“They have been to craft beer here in Sonoma County what the Mondavis were to wine in Napa,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a testament to their hard work and being in the right place at the right time. It’s having that secret sauce.”

Economic indicator

The brewery also serves as a good weather vane on the local economy, which is still driven largely by tourism. The Economic Development Board this year will again survey customers during the Pliny the Younger release to analyze the economic impact of the event. A 2016 survey found it generated $4.88 million in spending by beer tourists, more than double the number from a 2013 survey.

The size of the crowds next month could serve as a harbinger of whether more tourists will return to the North Bay in the spring and not be scared off because of last October’s devastating fires, Stone said.

“We’re hoping Younger brings the tourists back,” Natalie Cilurzo said.

Even though Pliny the Younger has been rated one of the best beers in the world by various beer websites, most attend the event because of the experience, even if it meant waiting up to 10 hours in past years. Some fans attend annually and get their hair cut nearby while waiting in line; one man met his future wife while waiting, Natalie Cilurzo said.

Russian River experience

“It’s not just about Younger. It’s about a Russian River experience. I think we have succeeded in making it a Russian River experience,” Vinnie Cilurzo said.

The brewery again this year will unveil two specialty beers in addition to Pliny the Younger: Apicual Dominance, which uses a new hop to produce a pink grapefruit overtone to the beer; and Happy Hops, which has a flavor profile similar to hazy IPAs that are the hottest style in the craft beer sector at the moment.

“We want people to come back year after year,” he added.

Next year, Pliny the Younger will likely attract more fans at the Windsor facility, which will have room for 175 people and an outside deck with beer service only.

The couple joked that the costs to the Windsor brewery almost doubled because of their insistence that visitors be able to tour the facility. There will be a self-guided tour from a walkway that runs down the middle of the plant and a paid tour that will feature a more in-depth educational experience.

“It’s a full-on sensory experience,” Vinnie Cilurzo said of the group tour. “You are going to be able to test the ingredients. There (are) beer-tasting bars along the way. You will be able to see and smell the fermentation.”

The new brewery will feature open-top tanks where visitors can look down at the yeast rising to the top; and they will be able to hear the bubbling of carbon dioxide into fermentation buckets. They also will pass a new coolship — an open-top fermentation vessel used to collect wild yeasts for spontaneously fermented beers like its Beatification label — and visit the barrel room where certain beers are aged. Customers also will be able to go to the bottling line and sample some freshly made beers.

Picking up the pace

The new facility will allow Russian River Brewing to double its production to up to 35,000 barrels annually, though Natalie Cilurzo said they are not looking to expand their distribution network beyond California. The additional capacity will allow it to distribute a wider variety of beers to retail shops and bars beyond its main flagship beer, Pliny the Elder, a double IPA that also is highly rated among consumers.

The plant will feature a filling station for to-go beer cannisters, a separate gift shop and a brewpub. All three areas will be easily accessed via a courtyard without causing a logjam of customers that occurs at the downtown facility. The brewery plans to hire about 100 people later this year, which would double its overall workforce.

The Windsor brewery also will give Vinnie Cilurzo more opportunity to experiment and perfect different beers with the coolship and expanded barrel room playing a vital role. For example, the design of the new tanks will allow his staff better ways to dry hop beer right before it’s bottled.

Its STS pilsner will be made exclusively in open-top fermenters as well as a helles, a German pale lager beer that when done right, he said, is “the most beautiful dry, crisp easy- drinking beer.” He also intends to make a saison, which Russian River has never produced.

“This is a giant product,” he said. “We want to do it right.”

Editor’s note: Story had been updated to reflect correct capacity of the Santa Rosa brewpub.

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

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