Pliny the Younger beer brings in more than $4 million to Sonoma County

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By The Numbers

• $4.2 million from visitors from 42 states and 14 countries

• $59.38 average per-person spending during visit to Russian River Brewing’s two brewpubs

• 3.02 average party size

• 1.8 average number of nights per stay

• $290 average nightly hotel cost

Sonoma County received $4.2 million in economic impact from visitors who came here from 42 states and 14 countries for Russian River Brewing Co.’s annual special release of Pliny the Younger in February, a significant boost from last year attributed mainly to the brewery serving the coveted beer at its two local locations.

In October, Russian River opened a $50 million complex in Windsor that includes a brewery, taproom and restaurant. The visitors who traveled here to sample the triple India Pale Ale there, plus those who visited its longtime Fourth Street Santa Rosa brewpub boosted the county’s financial windfall from the beer 24 percent from 2018.

The special-release brew is regarded by online beer forums as one of the best craft beers in the world. This was the 15th year for Pliny the Younger, which also was sold on a limited basis at a handful of county taprooms and to retail customers in Southern California, Sacramento, Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia.

The Windsor brewery enabled Russian River to double production of the Younger — named after a magistrate in Ancient Rome and adopted son of Pliny the Elder, a year-round double IPA and one of the brewery’s flagship beers — to 350 barrels.

The economic impact of the beer was derived from a survey conducted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. It was based on sampling almost 2,400 customers of the estimated 24,700 people who drank the beer at Russian River’s two brewpubs during the Feb. 1 to Feb. 14 availability. The survey also includes their spending for hotel stays, meals and gas.

The survey found visitors were almost evenly split on their location preference to drink the Younger. Forty-eight percent opted for the Santa Rosa site known for its tight seating and familiar pizza dishes, while 52 percent went to the Windsor brewpub, which features urban farmhouse decor and a broader menu.

“We were pleasantly surprised that the people evenly divided themselves,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who co-owns Russian River with her husband, Vinnie.

With the two taprooms, customers had shorter waits in line before sampling the beer. Most waited from one to two hours or less, rather than three to four hours or more in past years.

The average customer spent $59.38 per visit for the Younger at Russian River’s brewpubs, according to the survey. The hoppy beer sold for $5.25 per 10-ounce pour and customers were limited to three of the special beers in a three-hour period.

The economic spillover from the yearly Younger phenomenon at Russian River was good news for the county’s tourism sector, still recovering from a drop in visitors after the October 2017 wildfires.

For some people who trek to the county for this highly touted craft beer, “it’s a quest,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the county’s economic development board.

The hotel industry was a major beneficiary as the craft beer lovers stayed an average of 1.8 nights per visit, a 70 percent increase from 2018’s average of 1.06 nights. Those paying for lodging spent on average $290 per night, a 45 percent increase from last year’s $200.80 per night spending.

Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli was bullish on the effect his town gained from the sales tax the two-week beer event generated at other businesses, such as local coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and other brewpubs such as Barley & Bine Beer Cafe.

By The Numbers

• $4.2 million from visitors from 42 states and 14 countries

• $59.38 average per-person spending during visit to Russian River Brewing’s two brewpubs

• 3.02 average party size

• 1.8 average number of nights per stay

• $290 average nightly hotel cost

The town unveiled a free shuttle for the event this year that stopped at various locations, from the Town Green to the Sonoma County Airport Boulevard SMART train station, so visitors could patronize other area businesses.

The shuttle slowly has increased ridership, Foppoli said, and will be continued through the summer past its two-month trial run.

Beyond the Younger special release, Russian River’s new brewery has inspired others to invest in Windsor. Foppoli knows that firsthand as an investor with Napa vintner Jean-Charles Boisset and Clay Fritz in Old Redwood Brewing Co.

In addition, acclaimed winemaker Carol Shelton is in preliminary stages to open a winery and restaurant on a more than 3-acre plot near the brewery, said Mitch Mackenzie, Shelton’s husband and business partner.

The couple explored building a winery at their 22-acre vineyard near Healdsburg. However, the new limits placed by Sonoma County upon visitors and events for new tasting rooms made it untenable to attract enough foot traffic, Mackenzie said.

The winery is now located in an industrial complex near Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

Instead, the Sheltons’ planned Windsor location will take advantage of the crowds at Russian River’s brewery and brewpub, as well as offer a full menu for wine tasters that can stand out among the almost 500 wineries in the county, he said.

“What Russian River is for beer, we want to be for wine,” Mackenzie said.

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

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