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The latest rage in California wine country? Beer.

November 3, 2014, 4:00 PM UTC
Burgeoning Craft Beer Industry Creates Niche Market For Limited Release Beers
SANTA ROSA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: A line wraps around the block to enter Russian River Brewing Company to taste the new release of Pliny the Younger triple IPA beer on February 7, 2014 in Santa Rosa, California. Hundreds of people lined up hours before the opening of Russian River Brewing Co. to taste the 10th annual release of the wildly popular Pliny the Younger triple IPA beer that will only be available on tap from February 7th through February 20th. Craft beer aficionados rank Pliny the Younger as one of the top beers in the world. The craft beer sector of the beverage industry has grown from being a niche market into a fast growing 12 billion dollar business, as global breweries continue to purchase smaller regional craft breweries such this weekÕs purchase of New YorkÕs Blue Point Brewing by AB Inbev. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photograph by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

There is a small stage in the front corner of the Russian River Brewing Company. Outside, a line stretches three city blocks, more than the length of two football fields. It is pouring rain, and it is nine o’clock on a February morning. The uninitiated might imagine that Bruce Springsteen had announced an impromptu performance in Santa Rosa, Calif. But the attraction that’s drawn a crowd from a handful of states and a few foreign countries is Pliny the Younger.

An homage to the Roman author who died in 113 A.D., Pliny the Younger is enjoying newfound recognition as the namesake for a microbrew that has developed a cult following so mind-bogglingly rabid that zealots travel from hither and yon to wait in line for up to 12 hours—in the rain—for a beer.

Vinnie Cilurzo was hooking up tap lines the first Friday in February 2010 when he noticed a line outside the brewpub. Cilurzo is Russian River’s brewmaster and his wife, Natalie, is the president of the downtown microbrewery they opened back in 2004. For their first anniversary party in 2005 Vinnie brewed a winter seasonal triple IPA—chock full of hops and 11 percent alcohol content. The Younger was a vibrantly smooth, souped-up version of Pliny the Elder, Vinnie’s signature double IPA, which he serves year round. For five years Russian River had offered Pliny the Younger as a special limited release starting the first week in February through their anniversary party in early April. Vinnie typically made about 40 kegs worth. In 2010, the entire batch was gone in one day.

Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, owners of the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, Calif.Photograph by Tommy Sullivan
Photograph by Tommy Sullivan

Pliny the Younger went viral after being honored on in 2009 as the best beer in the world. That line outside Russian River stretched up the block when Natalie opened the doors at 11:00 a.m., and the taps never shut, as all hands on deck took turns filling 10-ounce glasses and 815 growlers, the half-gallon jugs favored by microbreweries. “By the end of the day my jeans were soaked thigh-high from the splash and our entire supply was gone,” says Natalie. For the next two months the Cilurzos and their staff apologized to thirsty patrons who’d come to taste what all the fuss was about.

That kind of buzz happens organically and unexpectedly, though the growth and popularity of craft beer had been well documented. According to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, the total number of U.S. breweries in 1980 was around 100; by mid-2014 that number had grown to 2,538, with 2,483 of those defined as craft breweries (per the association’s classifications of small, independent, and traditional). The roots of the craft brew industry, whose annual retail value is estimated to be $12 billion, can actually be traced to Sonoma County, where, in 1978, the New Albion Brewing Company was the first microbrewery licensed in the United States post-Prohibition.

New Albion provided inspiration for Ken Grossman, the founder of Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale was among the first American-style India Pale Ales, and served as an inspiration for Cilurzo, who says, “I drank it, I dug it, and I started learning about it.”

Cilurzo’s family owned a small winery in Temecula, California’s small, young yet burgeoning wine region, located inland between San Diego and Palm Springs. He worked for the family vineyard while Natalie worked at another winery down the street. Their first date was his 20th birthday in 1990. She was 21, so she bought the beer, a selection of craft brew available at the time: Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, Pete’s Wicked Ale. In 1994, Vinnie co-founded Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula. His Inaugural Ale is often credited as the first commercially available double IPA. Natalie worked at the winery by day, attended Palomar Community College by night, and helped out at the brewery on the weekends. They married in 1995, memorializing both their love for one another and for IPA by adorning their wedding rings with hop flowers.

In 1997, Vinnie got out of Blind Pig and the couple moved to the Northern California wine country. Natalie worked in the tasting room at Silver Oak winery and finished her degree at Sonoma State, while Vinnie was hired by Korbel Champagne Cellars to help launch their new craft beer venture, Russian River Brewing Company. The initial offerings were generic: golden ale, pale ale, amber ale, and porter, but Vinnie had other plans.

The Cilurzos’ prized ale is named after Pliny the Elder, a Roman military commander turned writer born in 23 A.D. and who gained notoriety for having authored Historia Naturalis, a 37-volume compilation of scientific knowledge spanning a variety of subjects including horticulture and botany, and which contained what is believed to be the first-ever reference to hops. Vinnie first learned of Pliny while reading a brewing dictionary. His story survived an untimely death in 79 A.D. from exposure to toxic fumes from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, thanks to the diligent chronicling of his adopted nephew, Pliny the Younger.

Pliny the Elder—the beer—debuted in 1999, but after a few years in the business Korbel lost interest. They closed up shop and offered Vinnie a winemaking job, but he politely declined and negotiated as his severance the rights to the name Russian River Brewing Company, as well as the names to all the beers. “It was an opportunity to shape the brand in our own vision,” says Natalie.

That vision was to meld their winery experience and small family business sensibilities into a model patterned after successful boutique wineries, which run counter to the microbrew mindset. “There is a saying in the beer business that if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” says Vinnie, “but we wanted to remain hands on.” “We are involved in every decision,” says Natalie. “Our comfort zone is a family business operating like a small winery, where you have a plot of vineyard that yields a predictable but finite amount of product, which is served and sold primarily in the tasting room, or in this case our brewpub, and the rest is allocated to select accounts. And that’s it. And that’s O.K.”

In the same way that a Russian River Pinot noir vineyard produces about 150 cases per acre, Russian River Brewing Company’s facilities can produce about 28,000 kegs a year. They could pump out another 20,000 kegs if they converted the barrel room, which houses some 600 Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay wine barrels, but the barrel-aged sour beers they make are popular, unique, and tasty. They could ramp up production like the folks down the road at Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Company, which made a name with its own IPA and is eyeing expansion from 322,000 kegs in 2011 to upwards of 1.3 million kegs by the end of this year, but, says Vinnie, “There are more ways to measure growth than production. I can grow as a brewmaster and make better beers. We can grow the profitability of the business without growing production. Our production grew one-half of one percent last year. I’m guessing it will be about the same next year, but I’m guessing because we don’t do projections.”

Bars and retailers that are not on the Pliny distribution list have either quit asking or do so as a formality on the odd shot that they somehow someday might get lucky. Those that are on the list are often cleaned out within hours by resourceful fans who find out which day the distributors deliver. It’s a nice problem to have—but it is still a problem. “We field a lot of complaints because people don’t seem to understand that we are at capacity,” says Natalie.

The Internet-fueled sensation of Pliny, as well as other cult beers like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper Imperial IPA from Vermont and Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing’s Dark Lord Imperial Stout, coupled with a taste for craft brews with inventive names and ingredients that is growing annually at a double digit clip, plus the support of bar owners who are willing and eager to tap kegs of featured local beers have given rise to a new category: nanobreweries.

While the Brewers Association has not yet defined what makes a nanobrewery, loosely accepted limits are that it produces no more than six kegs per batch or 200 kegs in a year. The number of nanobreweries is a moving target as more pop up while others drop out—there were an estimated 370 in the U.S. in 2013 — but for serious homebrewers distribution is no longer limited to friends and family. “I get free beer all the time,” says Vinnie, holding a bottle of homemade IPA with an inkjet-printed label, a gift from a fan who stopped by Russian River to try the Pliny and share his wares. “More and more we hear from brewers who are choosing to stay small and focused and define success on their own terms.”

The success of the annual Pliny the Younger release has had a measureable ripple effect: a 2013 economic impact study by Sonoma County concluded that the tourism related impact of Pliny the Younger over its two weeks run was $2.4 million. However, the Younger is not the windfall one might expect. “It is a very inefficient and expensive beer to make,” says Vinnie, noting it requires more ingredients, more space, more labor, and more time. “A batch of the Elder takes about 21 days to make, whereas the Younger takes up to five weeks.” In addition to occupying tank space, the triple IPA produces a lower yield. The Cilurzos keep the price reasonable: $4.75 for a 10-ounce glass. (Bars that are found to price-gouge are dropped from the coveted distribution list.) And while the tourism study noted that last year the number of attendees totaled more than 12,500—65% from outside Sonoma Country and from at least 26 states and five foreign countries—that is actually lower than average for the bustling pub (max. capacity 134) because they do not ask people to leave, and after waiting in that line people tend to linger.

The line. It is a rite of passage for those who abide the adage that good things come to those who wait. It fosters camaraderie among a crossroads of society, connecting pilgrims who might only ever meet under these circumstances. It is the rule rather than the exception to see downtown lawyers bonding with West county hippies united by their one common interest. Giants and Dodgers fans talk beer instead of baseball. It’s a love fest, figuratively and on occasion literally, like a few years ago when a young man and a pretty girl hit it off in line, shared a few Youngers at a corner table, and then had to be asked to please zip up.

This year, Brandon Frankel and Bowman Chaney were the first in line. College buddies who met at Chico State, Frankel and Chaney, both 25, got to town the night before, had dinner, and sampled a variety of beers until last call, at which point they drained their pints, picked up their folding chairs, walked outside, and sat back down by the front door. “It rained pretty hard from one in the morning until about four,” said Chaney, still damp as he savored his Younger. “I’ve never waited ten hours in line for anything,” said Frankel, “It’s as much about the experience as it is the beer, and both were totally worth it.”

I Plinyed (it is often used as a verb) with the friend who first introduced me to the Elder and our wives, who had never experienced the Younger. Sitting to our right was a table filled with Boeing engineers who had road tripped down from Seattle. They weren’t exactly rocket scientists, but the Pliny phenomenon did not defy even their advanced logic. To our left were members of a beer league softball team from Napa. “My wife is at home with our three- and one-year-old daughters,” shared Eric Appleby, 30. “And she is 39 and a half weeks pregnant, “ he added, “and she was two weeks early with our other daughters.” It was not clear whether he had take the liberty or been given a pass, but it was immaterial. “I would not miss this for anything.”