California’s Russian River Brewing brews the holy grail of Triple IPAs, Pliny the Younger, just once a year. The beer is released annually at its Santa Rosa and Windsor taprooms in late winter — typically between February and March — and is available for only two weeks. Once it’s gone, fans must wait another 365 days before they can get their hands on it again. And before Russian River started offering bottles of the stuff in 2020, the IPA was only available for on-site draft pours. Nowadays, people travel from all over the world to have the Pliny experience, camping out in the brewery parking lot the day prior to ensure their chance to try the legendary beer.
Co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo first brewed Pliny the Younger in 2005 as a boozier, winter-ready variant of the brand’s flagship double IPA, Pliny the Elder. The response was positive, but resoundingly mellow: Those in the know got to quietly enjoy Younger without waiting in Disney World-caliber lines. However, its reputation slowly snowballed before absolutely exploding in 2010 when, unbeknownst to Cilurzo, RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com users ranked the Triple IPA as the best beer in the world. So, on a Friday morning that February, the internet’s hop heads showed up in droves. After a wet ‘n wild eight hours of frantic growler-filling and pint-slinging, Pliny the Younger was sold out. For Cilurzo and his wife and co-owner Natalie, the annual drop would never be the same.
Over the next few years, the Cilurzos mastered the art of crowd control. The journey, though, was rife with unexpected challenges courtesy of conniving, immoral beer nerds.
“I started really getting into the black market of beer, and pushed my distaste for it because growlers of Pliny the Younger were showing up on eBay for $1,000 before we even opened that morning,” Natalie tells journalist Dave Infante on a recent episode of VinePair’s “Taplines” podcast. Sure enough, when something gets this big, people start coming to it for the wrong reasons, and usually it’s profit-incentivized: “People would get up from their table, get back in line, and get another 16 growlers.”
That year, the Russian River power couple vowed to never do growler fills of the beer again, and deduced a plan to hand out wristbands at the front door to prevent line cutters and double-dippers. “You have to think like a drunk criminal,” Natalie says. Low and behold, those drunk criminals struck again. “Somebody went to Party City here on Santa Rosa Avenue and bought the same color wristbands that we had, because I didn’t realize that we had to have custom wristbands,” she explains. The guilty parties started selling wristbands in line, and people began entering through the back door under the pretense that they were returning from a quick smoke outside. Since then, the Cilurzos have upped security and tweaked measures as necessary to ensure a streamlined, democratic process for selling Pliny the Younger on release days.
Many of the practices they’ve since put in place at Russian River have become the industry standard for handling a coveted beer release. The early years, though, were like a master class in line culture happening in real time. As Natalie says: “There are two things we can’t control: the weather and how many people show up — and that is true to this day.”