Russian River is a trendsetter. More than a decade before people were camping out for can releases, Russian River attracted thousands to its brewpub in Santa Rosa, Calif. The primary draw? Its annual release of Pliny the Younger, the intensely hopped triple IPA that continues to draw crowds today. The craft brewer was also among the first in the U.S. to make Belgian-style beers, barrel-aged beers, and mess around with funky microbial friends like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.
Now 21 years young, Russian River remains cutting edge. Here are 11 things you should know about the long-respected brewery.
Pliny the Younger. ‘Nuff said.
The first triple IPA to grace American palates, Pliny the Younger is infamous within beer circles. Introduced as a winter seasonal in 2005, the cult beer goes on tap the first Friday in February exclusively at the Russian River brewpub, and is now approaching its 15th annual release.
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Pliny the Younger is a riff on its predecessor double IPA, Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder is named for the eponymous ancient Roman author and philosopher who is believed to have created the botanical name for hops, Lupus Salictarius, now known as Humulus Lupulus, while the “younger” was his nephew, who immortalized the “elder” in his own writings.
This beer is big business.
Beer lines may be a nuisance for neighboring businesses, but they’re also a boost for the local economy. Pliny the Younger’s 2018 release brought 12,500 visitors and $3.4 million from around the world to Sonoma County. Nearby Santa Rosa hotels even offer special Pliny vacation packages.
Russian River only sells three beers year-round.
Back before the days of biweekly can releases, brewers would make the same beers over and over. In the case of Russian River, year-round offerings comprise two IPAs — Pliny the Elder, a double IPA, and Blind Pig IPA — and a pilsner, STS Pilsner. That said, rotational releases are aplenty, available in limited release.
But you’ll have to visit to taste many of its beers. Other than tight distribution of a select few beers in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, much of Russian River’s bounty is only available on tap or in bottles at its brewpub. The good news: Russian River is set to launch a second location in late 2018, giving beercationers a slightly better chance at scoring some Pliny or a rare barrel-aged beer.
IPA, DIPA, TIPA… and Belgian beers.
Though it’s known for its traffic-stopping (and causing) IPAs, Russian River, like many craft brewers, was initially inspired by the beers of Belgium. Co-owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo took his Eurotrip in 1989 and started brewing Belgian-inspired beers for Russian River in 1997.
All of Russian River’s Belgian-style ales are 100 percent bottle-conditioned, adding unique character and Champagne-like effervescence.
Russian River Brewing was originaly owned by a winery.
Speaking of Champagne! Russian River brewery was started in 1997 by Korbel Champagne Cellars, a Guerneville, Calif.-based winery specializing in “California Champagne,” or sparkling wine of the méthode champenoise persuasion.
Korbel’s winemaker was also a passionate homebrewer and talked his boss into opening a brewery. Vinnie Cilurzo, who had worked at Korbel for several years, was hired to do it. Immediately prior, Vinnie had been churning out double IPAs at another brewery called the Blind Pig. Those beers fell on deaf ears, but Pliny soon made its mark.
In 2002 Korbel shut down the brewery and Cilurzo lost his job. He negotiated the rights to the beer names, and he and his wife Natalie raised $1 million and then reopened the brewery in 2004.
Russian River was making barrel-aged sours in wine barrels before it was cool. (Well, it was always cool.)
Russian River has been barrel-aging, Brettanomyces-fermenting, and Lactobacillus-dosing its beers since 1999. Russian River’s barrel-aged sour beers include Temptation, a blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels with Brettanomyces yeast; Supplication, a brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus; Consecration, a dark ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels; and Beatification, a “sonambic” — a Belgian-style lambic inspired by the world-heralded lambics of Cantillon. All the wine barrels come fresh from local wineries.
Some winemakers refuse to set foot in Russian River’s brewpub.
Brettanomyces, or “Brett,” is a known enemy of winemaking. Because of Russian River’s use of the yeast strain in its barrel-aged beers, legend has it some winemakers won’t go anywhere near the brewery for fear of catching Brett.
Russian River is opening a new brewpub.
Holdin’ it down in one very popular brewpub since 1997, Russian River plans to unveil its long-awaited second location in Windsor, Calif. in late 2018. The new space will mimic the first, with a brewery, full kitchen, seating for 180, and a year-round patio and outdoor area. The Windsor location will also introduce guided tours by reservation and free self-guided tours daily, both of which are a first for Russian River. Pro tip: Pliny the Younger will be brewed and released here, too.
Russian River loves its equipment. No, really loves it.
When Russian River’s new brewhouse equipment for the Windsor location sailed into Sonoma on a ship from Germany, co-owner Natalie Cilurzo spent hours waiting to see it arrive.
“I camped out at the Marin Headlands for 3 hours waiting for the MSC Silvia, the container ship carrying our brewhouse, to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge for the perfect photo op,” she wrote in a blog post in January 2018. “I had a blast taking pictures of tourists while watching the horizon for that ship we had been following (there is an app for that!) for 6 weeks. It was really dorky and extremely exciting!”
Russian River is a family affair.
Along with being owned by husband and wife, according to Natalie Cilurzo, her mother and Vinnie’s were instrumental in their business’s success. The moms not only supported the pair emotionally, but practically as employees: Vinnie’s mom helped get the new brewery off the ground, and Natalie’s mom designed nine of Russian River’s beer labels.
Russian River is a Phoenix.
When Sonoma and Napa were ravaged by historic wildfires in October 2017, many breweries and wineries were devastated. Russian River was relatively unharmed, and thus stepped up to the plate right away by organizing several initiatives to raise funds for disaster relief. Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo partnered with the King Ridge Foundation to launch Sonoma Pride, a fundraiser that has raised more than $1 million to date.
Part of Russian River’s contribution centered around — you guessed it — Pliny the Younger. The brewery sold raffle tickets in October allowing winners to cut the line at Pliny the Younger’s February release. The funds raised from the raffle, in addition to proceeds from the sale of Russian River’s version of the Sonoma Pride beer, contributed to a $116,000 donation to the King Ridge Foundation for those who lost homes and belongings in the North Bay Area wildfires. Nearly 60 breweries participated.