On this episode of “Taplines,” host Dave Infante sits down with Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co., to discuss the birth of craft brewing’s semi-notorious “line culture.” One wintry Saturday in 2010, husband-and-wife team Vince and Natalie learned that when your beer gets internet famous, you should expect a bunch of dudes from the internet to show up and wait in line for it. Tune in for more.
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Dave Infante: Natalie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company. Welcome to “Taplines.”
Natalie Cilurzo: Hi, good morning. Thank you for having me.
D: It’s morning where you are. It’s afternoon where we are. Natalie, where are you joining us from today?
N: I am sitting in my office, oh, I guess it is afternoon. Just barely. I’m sitting in my office at our Windsor Brewery today.
D: That’s one of two for those who are not familiar with Russian River Brewing Company, and they will get very familiar over the course of our episode today. The original production brewery location for Russian River is in Santa Rosa. Is that right?
N: Actually, Russian River Brewing Company was originally located out of Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, was founded in 1997, and my husband was the brewmaster there and also the sole employee for a long time. Korbel owned it for about six years, and then in 2003, they chose to close the brewery and offered Vinnie the brand Russian River Brewing Company and all of the recipes that he developed and beer names — some of which include Pliny the Elder and Damnation and Temptation and offered him all of that in lieu of severance. We took the brand and all of his recipes and beer names and wrote a business plan and convinced 30 friends, family, and strangers to invest a ton of money into our new venture. We reopened under our ownership in downtown Santa Rosa in April of 2004. Our Santa Rosa Pub, for any of your listeners who’ve ever been there, is the original location under our ownership.
D: Natalie, we’re here today to talk about a phenomenon, I think, in contemporary craft beer — certainly American craft beer as an industry and as a community — that really hit hard last decade. Early last decade, we started seeing consumer behavior change and I think there were a lot of reasons for this. Of course, the rise of social media being a huge one. The phenomenon I’m referring to is this idea of lining up to get beer — to purchase special releases of beer. This was certainly a thing that happened earlier than that, but right around the turn of that decade — so going into the 2010s — there started to be more, I don’t know, ambient excitement, nascent excitement about some of these harder-to-get, bigger-flavored, limited-release beers. One of the ones that we talk about a lot here at “Taplines” HQ and is — I would say no matter who you are, is in the canon of American craft beer — is Pliny the Elder and a little bit later on Pliny the Younger. These beers are just iconic. Their names command an enormous amount of respect and attention even though they are not at this point, new beers. I was hoping that you could take us back to the creation of these beers before they were these enormous titans of the style that they are now.
N: Sure. I’ll start with Pliny the Elder because that was first. Pliny the Elder is a double IPA — one of the first commercially brewed double IPAs that Vinnie created in 1999 in response to a request from one of his accounts at the time — one of our still long-term accounts — The Bistro in Hayward, California here in the Bay Area. Vic called Vinnie and said, “Hey, I understand you made a double IPA at Blind Pig.” Which he did. Blind Pig was the brewery that Vinnie owned previously in the 1990s in Temecula. It was his first brewery project, so Vinnie made a beer called Inaugural Ale, which was technically a double IPA, at least the recipe was at the time. Of course, there was no style called that at the time so Vinnie agreed to brew a Double IPA for Vic’s Double IPA Festival at the Bistro in 1999. He had invited eight breweries. It was us, I think it was Arne at Marin Brewing — handful of others, not too many people because nobody really brewed this style. Vinnie and I talked about, what are we going to name this beer? We pulled out beer books, this is pre-Google and we started looking up ideas and we looked up hops and led us to Humulus lupulus which is the botanical name for hops, which led us to Lupus salictarius which was the original botanical name for hops, which led us to this guy named Pliny the Elder or Plini the Elder, as he likely would’ve called himself 2,000 years ago. He lived from 23 A.D. to 79 A.D. and he wrote a lot about botany, geology, geography, military strategy. He was an author, he was a Roman naturalist, and he wrote about hops and he wrote about how hops grow. He wrote about different uses for hops and he wrote the first, technically, book of encyclopedia. It was a three-volume set called “The Natural History.” In one of these books he wrote a lot about hops and we were like, “That’s a really cool name for a beer.” We’re going to call it Pliny the Elder, being that we are Americans, American English is a long “I” with one consonant. That is why we call it Pliny with a long “I.” Plus, it also rhymes with tiny, so when you order a half-pint, you order a tiny Pliny. For your listeners-
D: Which is the best.
N: -which is the best. If you — I’m sure many of your listeners are out there like, “It’s pronounced Plini.” You are correct, but that’s not the way we pronounce the name of the beer. That was in 1999 and literally, that is why that beer was born. It would’ve been born eventually, but it was in response to a request for a beer festival, which is going strong to this day. We were just there in February at the Bistro Double IPA Festival, but there are a lot more-
N: -a lot more than eight breweries and eight beers represented now.
D: I bet.
N: Which is cool.
D: In 1999, Natalie, I’m hoping you might be able to contextualize for the listener out there who was not either in the scene or at this point maybe wasn’t even alive in 1999 because those folks are now legally — able to legally drink. They’re 22 years old. There was a moment or now — a double IPA, I don’t want to say it’s de rigueur, but it’s certainly much more familiar, right? Like this has become normalized and we’ve gone beyond that as a drinking public, right? There are triple IPAs and we’ll get to that in just a bit. In context, how out there was the double IPA as a pseudo-style because as you mentioned, it wasn’t even a style at that time.
N: It was out there. For many of your listeners who have ever been to the Great American Beer Festival or if they’re in the industry and they’ve been to the Craft Brewers Conference and have entered beers into the World Beer Cup, that was not a style at the time according to the judging categories. We would enter Pliny the Elder in — I think we’ve entered it in the Strong Pale Ale category, or a Strong — yes, it was a Strong Pale Ale or a Strong, maybe just the IPA category. “Experimental Other” was another category at the time that I’m pretty sure we entered Elder in. I also want to make note that it was only a draft, so it wasn’t a bottled product back in those days. In fact, we never bottled it until we opened our first production brewery in 2008. It went almost 10 years as a draft-only product. You could really only get it on tap at the time at Korbel or at just a handful of accounts literally, because I think Vinnie, at maximum, made about 1,200 barrels one year while at Korbel, so it was a pretty small operation. Even when we opened our brew pub downtown in 2004 we were really only brewing about 3,000 barrels a year. It was pretty small back in those days. Yes, it did become more popular as time went on but didn’t really — it was definitely a slow burn. To your point, back in those days, there weren’t a lot of double IPAs. There certainly was nothing called a triple IPA at the time. I think the beer-consuming public was just starting to get used to copious amounts of hops in alcohol and then eventually craving more. It took some time.
D: They got hooked. Yes, but only after maybe they tasted some Pliny the Elder. One of the jokes that I’ve read over the years, and I don’t know if this originated at Russian River, it’s just something that fans of your beer have said, but the pronunciation discrepancy between Pliny and Plini — not only can you order a tiny Pliny, but Pliny rhymes with “piney,” which is that big hop-forward flavor that I think a lot of people encountered for the first time in that era. That’s another fun little — even though it might not be accurate to say Pliny, I always liked that little rhyme feature. Before we move on to the Younger and to the line culture at hand, I just want to emphasize for listeners who are not familiar with Russian River or Pliny the Elder, just how much of a sea change this beer was to the national scene at the time. I’m going to quote from Jeff Alworth, who writes the Beervana, which has been around for a long, long time, not quite as long as Russian River, but probably getting up there. Jeff wrote about Pliny the Elder. He wrote, “In 1954, Roger Banister broke the four-minute mile and redefined what runners thought was possible. Pliny was like that. It tasted like an IPA, it was recognizable, but it was so much more intensely flavor-incented, and the presentation was so sharp and crisp and intentional. In the space of a pint, we saw possibilities we hadn’t imagined before.” It set the stage for the moment that this episode is principally focused on, which is this turn towards more coveted, even more hop-forward beers that are getting buzz and getting interest from people who have never tasted them before, and who are out to go — what we would later refer to maybe as whale hunting, right? Like, go try to find these coveted beers. That brings us, more or less, to the beginning of what I’d like to talk about next, and I think you were about to go there yourself, which is the genesis of Pliny the Younger who in real life was Pliny the Elder’s nephew, I think, nephew, but fast forward a couple of millennia and it is Pliny the Elder double IPA’s, triple IPA offspring.
N: Yes, definitely a triple IPA offspring. That’s a good way to put it. Yes, so for just a little historical perspective when we opened our brewpub in 2004, times were very different than they are now. There was not a huge demand for craft beer. There certainly was not a huge demand for cult beers or beers that were highly sought after. It was not a thing at the time. When we opened our brewpub, we were very, very slow. For anybody who’s ever been to our brewpub in Santa Rosa and maybe had to wait to get in the door, it hasn’t always been like that. For a lot of breweries that have opened their breweries or taprooms in the last, say five to seven or eight years, you’ve opened your doors with a ready market. The world wasn’t quite ready for what we were offering at the time. In the winter of 2004 to 2005, the very first winter that we were open, we decided that we needed to drum up some business to pay the bills. We talked about brewing a winter seasonal, but Vinnie wanted to push the envelope on the Pliny the Elder recipe and see how far he could go with alcohol and hops and still make a balanced product. Which is a challenge. For any brewers out there, you know that if you have too much alcohol in your beer, it’s hot. If you have too many hops, it can get bitter or, back in those days, there weren’t a lot of what we would call designer hops or proprietary hops. There wasn’t Mosaic, there wasn’t Citra, but there was this hop called Simcoe, and Simcoe has always been the primary hop in Pliny the Elder. Vinnie decided to take that recipe, bump up the malt bill which, by design, would then bump up the finishing gravity, which would then be the alcohol, and then also add more hops and literally triple the malt, the hop bill and he came up with this recipe. We decided to call it Pliny the Younger because of the historical people you have Pliny the Elder’s nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger also is one of the reasons that we know so much about Pliny the Elder because he was also a writer and an attorney and he was able to write about his uncle’s life. His uncle Pliny the Elder died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius by the way, historically of interest.
D: He was on a rescue mission for a buddy, I think. He asphyxiated if I’m not mistaken.
N: That’s my understanding. Anyways, we brewed this beer in the dead of winter. We released it in February of 2005. This is the 19th annual release of Pliny the Younger. We’re actually in the middle of the release, by the way, for your listeners. We released it last Friday on March 24. We have it on tap and in bottles nowadays through April 6. We are right in the middle of the release and I thought this was great timing to talk to you about this phenomenon that we call Pliny the Younger. That year we released it with no hoopla and fanfare and the beer was well-received, people really enjoyed it. We made 20 barrels of it and it was gone in a while.
D: This is 2005, right? Winter of 2004/2005, the beer gets released 2005 winter?
N: Yes, February of 2005. Then that was that. Year after year we continued to brew Pliny the Younger as our winter seasonal offering and release it in February. Generally that first Friday in February is about that time that we would release it and that happened until everything changed in 2010.
D: Until everything changed. In those intervening five years, what was the response? You said that Pliny the Younger was successful, people liked it. You brewed 20 barrels that first year. Can you characterize a little bit how much thirst there was for this product? It seems like it became a little bit of an event prior to 2010, but still pretty localized.
N: Yes, definitely very localized. We only made 20 barrels of it probably for the first two years. Maybe we bumped it up to a double batch, maybe 40 barrels. By the way, the yields on this beer — our brewhouse is a 20-barrel brewhouse at our original pub in downtown Santa Rosa, but the yields are more like 14 barrels. It’s a very, very inefficient beer to make because there’s so many ingredients, so much malt, and so many hops, and that takes up a lot of volume in the kettle and it displaces liquid. At the end of the day, you need liquid to become beer, and so the yields were just so bad. It’s a very, very expensive beer to make and the yields are horrible and it takes longer too because it’s bigger so it takes longer to ferment. We would make it every year. Honestly, I don’t really recall too much excitement about the beer. I know people liked it. I don’t know that they really went out of their way to get it. Maybe in 2009 that started to change a little bit, but I really don’t remember anybody like — ooh, I can’t wait till you come out with Pliny the Younger, or I’m planning to make a trip from wherever to drink your Pliny the Younger. I don’t really remember that.
D: Yes. That was certainly, like I said, towards the top of the episode, that was, that culture in and of itself was still coalescing. That was still very much fringe behavior at that time. That was not just not something normal people “were entertaining” the idea of doing — spending a weekend sleeping in their Volvo outside of the brewery.
N: No, no, it definitely wasn’t. That wasn’t. There was not any community like that around beer yet, but it was definitely brewing — no pun intended — but it was definitely starting to percolate and it was coming. We didn’t really know that because we were just running our little pub in downtown Santa Rosa and weren’t really familiar with — just weren’t really paying attention to what was going on outside of our little world, just because we were just trying to make the best beer we could and get by and pay our bills, and pay our staff and do what we could to keep the lights on. Yes, things were definitely changing in the world. Particularly in relation to things like social media and chat rooms and stuff like that.
D: What are some of those platforms or factors that you point to as particular factors here?
N: The two platforms that I was thinking of earlier were ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com. Those were like the first two beer rating sites that had a forum where people could go on and review beers. “I tried this beer, and this is what I think about it and I’m going to give it four stars or five stars,” or whatever their rating systems are. I don’t know if there were parameters around you — it had to be so many words or whatever. I think they do things like that now just to keep the riff-raff out, or maybe it’s subscription-based. I don’t really remember, but we weren’t really paying attention to that at the time. We weren’t really tech-savvy and we just didn’t know this was really going on. We’d heard about it, but in those days, you relied on your newsletter or your blog to get the word out to your customer. We still do it, but not nearly as much as we used to do back in the day because you didn’t have social media, you didn’t have a way to communicate with customers or with fans, or whatever. The only way to do it was to collect a good old-fashioned mailing list and send them a newsletter via email, but that was really it. That’s all you had or if you had money, you spend money on traditional forms of advertising and print media and radio advertising or whatever, but we didn’t have any money, so the newsletter — who has money? Yes, so there was-
D: What is that?
N: What is that? There was this beeradvocate.com and this ratebeer.com and savvy beer nerds were getting on there. They’re from all over the world and they’re chatting with each other in almost real time and telling each other like, “Wow, I had this beer and it was really amazing.” There’s like people in foreign countries and they’re talking about Westvleteren 12, and they’re talking about Orval, and they’re talking about Cantillon, and here in the United States they’re talking about Bells and Sierra Nevada and I guess Russian River unbeknownst to us.
N: Probably unbeknownst to any of those other breweries, I’m confident that the monks in Belgium had no idea this was going on. I don’t feel as bad. If the monks didn’t know, why should we know? That’s when everything changed. This was happening in the background and people were rating our beers without us even knowing it.
D: This brings us to this moment that we’ve been talking around on this episode so far. In 2010 — in February, 2010 — this was the moment that Tom Acitelli in his book, “Audacity of Hops,” he highlights, this was the moment that we’ve been referring to here, when everything changed for Pliny the Younger and for Russian River to some extent as well, because you found yourself on the other end of the cash register from those teeming hoards who were desperate for this beer. I was hoping that you could take us there and tell us what that was like — that 13 years ago roughly — when all hell broke loose for Russian River and Pliny the Younger.
N: Yes. It literally was one day in the history of our company that changed everything. I like to compare Pliny the Younger to a bar band. This band — it play gigs night after night, they get paid $100 of beer, and they’re just going out and they’re just doing their thing and they love it and they’re passionate about it. Then one night, there’s a record label scout in the audience. I like to make that analogy because that’s what happened with Pliny the Younger. It was never received with any hoopla and fanfare until 2010. What happened was we were releasing the beer as usual Friday morning 2010 — the first Friday in February — and we had invited some friends to come up for lunch because Pliny the Younger was starting to become an event, if you will. It’s just a release, like, “Hey, we’re releasing Pliny the Younger. Oh great, we’ll come up, bring some people for lunch.” I think it was like Pete’s Slosberg, formerly of Pete’s Wicked Ale, and our friend Judy Ashworth, and a couple of other people from the Bay Area were going to come up, we’re going to have lunch with them. I had just had knee surgery as well and so I wasn’t getting around real well.
D: What a perfect storm here.
N: Yes, we were planning to get the doors open, get things rolling with Pliny the Younger, get the beer taps, open at 11, have lunch with our friends, and then go to our production brewery and work. That was the day and then we would go home and go to bed and whatever. That was the plan. Vinnie gets down to the pub that morning about 7 o’clock and he is just going to tap the beer — tap the Pliny the Younger — and then whatever, just go to work. There are people out front and he walks out the front and he’s like, “Hi. What are you guys doing here? We don’t open for four hours.” “We’re here for your beer. We’re here for Pliny the Younger.” He is like, “Oh, OK, well, like I said, we don’t open for four hours. How do you know about this beer anyway? We only make it here. It’s only available here and it’s only available in a handful of accounts. How do you even know about this beer?” They go, “Well, haven’t you heard? Your beer has been rated the best beer in the world.” Vinnie goes, “By whom? Who knows about this beer? Who is rating this beer and decided that it is the best beer in the world?” They said, “Well, there’s these beer-rating websites, beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com. On one of them, your beer was rated the second-best beer in the world,” and I think it was second to Westvleteren 12 that year.
D: Good company to be in.
N: Then on the other one, you’re rated the best beer in the world. He’s going, “OK, all right, well that’s fine. Well, you guys can hang out. We don’t open for four hours.” In the course of that four hours, the line continued to grow down Fourth Street. By the way, we had never, ever, ever had a line or anybody even waiting to come into our brewpub prior to this first Friday in February in 2010. I’m sure most breweries had never experienced such a thing. We opened the doors. I got down there, he called me and he was telling me that this thing was going on and there were these people waiting in line out front. I get down there a little early and we’re getting the doors open and stuff. These are the early days of our company. We really weren’t that busy. We didn’t have security. We really didn’t have a lot of support staff. We didn’t hold the doors. We have a front door and a back door. 11 o’clock rolls around. We turn on both the open signs, we unlock the front door and we unlock the back door. Not only is there a line of people standing out front on D Street, but all the cars in the back parking lot are full of people. Both doors open, and within about five minutes, the entire pub was completely full. If anybody has ever been in the restaurant industry, they know that that’s really a bad thing. Because then all of a sudden you have 130 people placing drink orders, placing food orders, and it’s not an ideal way to seat a restaurant. People just sat down. We didn’t even have somebody trying to seat people. I was going to help out behind the bar for a little bit and then, like I said, have lunch with our friends and then-
D: Just have a nice chill day.
N: That was the plan. We felt like we were going to get a little bit of a bigger turnout, so we decided to limit growlers of Pliny the Younger to four per person. You could get growlers of Younger to four per person.
D: It’s so much beer by today’s allotment standards, right?
N: So much beer, because we didn’t package it, we didn’t bottle it.
D: Of course.
N: Of course not. It was on draft. We made 40 barrels of this beer. Every person who walked in the door ordered one 10-ounce glass of Pliny the Younger and four growlers. Everybody who’s listening to this story that’s, like I said, has been in the restaurant industry, is like cringing at this moment. If you’ve ever had nightmares about the wheel going off, either if you worked behind the bar or worked in the kitchen, the wheel is literally popping off. It’s like a roll of toilet paper. It’s just rolling. It’s all over the floor. It’s just everywhere. I stationed myself at the tap behind the bar because I can work the wheel. The wheel is here and the Younger tap is here. Vinny, I think he made another Younger tap at the other end of the tap towers — at the tap lines. The taps come right off the cold box, so it’s a whole wall of taps. I think he might have made another Younger tap over there, spliced this one so that I could pour half pints and then I could pour growlers at the same time. Then he went back and started filling growlers off of the server. We were using a server and then anybody who came in, we just put to work because it was just so busy. We’d had employees coming in who wanted to taste the beer and get a growler. We had all of our friends showing up. We had other brewers we put to work. It was wild. If you picture a party of four walks in the door and they order four-10 ounce glasses of Pliny the Younger and 16 growlers.
D: Immediately weeds. You were just in the weeds.
N: Now it’s just order after order after order. It was just the same thing. Eventually, I just stopped even looking at the tickets and I was just, we were just filling, we were just putting glasses and growlers at the end of the bar. I think we were just reloading the growler boxes with full growlers of Pliny the Younger so that the servers could just take boxes and boxes of growlers to the tables. It was insane. I’ve never seen anything like it. The service was — it was by far the worst day of service in the history of our company because we just couldn’t take care of everybody. I knew it was bad when somebody actually ordered a pizza to be delivered from another restaurant. That’s when we knew things were really bad because our kitchen was so backed up. I think so. At one point I looked up and there was a Mary’s Pizza delivery person from the next block coming in and delivering pizza to table six, I think. Looking back, it was really funny, but at the time it wasn’t really funny at all. I remember by 11:10 that morning, we had completely changed the way we would ever, ever release Pliny the Younger again. We were like, “We need security, we need wristbands, we need a hostess. We need — we will never, ever, ever do growlers again.” I remember at 11:10, we were never ever doing growlers again. It ended up being a pretty rough day. Like I started this whole story, I had just had knee surgery and so I ended up bar-backing for a solid eight hours. I was just covered with beer because I had to lean up on the back bar and I was just soaked with beer. We poured — I’ll never forget this. We filled 815 growlers in about eight hours. I still remember that memory. Vinny and I left — I don’t know what time we left. We literally just limped and carried each other out of there. Vinny was sick, by the way. He was sick, fever, working in the cold box with a fever. He ended up in the emergency room the next day.
D: This was his “Michael Jordan with the flu” game basically. It goes to the occasion.
N: We ended up selling all the beer in about eight hours — not even 40 barrels of beer, whatever the net was, but we sold all the beer in about eight hours. Then the night shift — the night crew — just got beat up because they came to work. They had Younger for about an hour before they ran out. I think it was about 7 o’clock that night, I got the phone call that they had just run out of Pliny the Younger. Then the rest of the night, they were just dealing with angry drunks all night.
D: Right, on their hands, almost.
N: Back in those days, we didn’t have table limits. We weren’t telling people, “You have to leave.” People were literally like, they would get up from their table and they would go and get back in line and they would come back in and start the whole process over and order another 16 growlers. That’s when I started really getting into the black market of beer and starting to really push my distaste for the whole black market of beer because growlers of Pliny the Younger were showing up on eBay before we even opened that morning. I had already been watching eBay to see our beer for sale for ridiculous amounts of money. That was another reason that we were like, “We can’t handle the growlers.” Also, it’s quite frustrating that we had such a rough day and yet there were people reselling our beer for $1,000 for a growler on eBay or something. That was the day that everything changed. It was a rough day. It was an eye-opening day. We started paying attention more to ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com. Then social media started to come online. That was the turning point in the history of not only Pliny the Younger, but also beer releases in general because I remember that a lot of other breweries would have similar experiences when they released a highly sought-after beer that they didn’t realize was as highly sought-after. I seem to remember Cigar City had a beer release back in the day that went sideways. I remember Lost Abbey had a beer release that went sideways. By the way, that wasn’t our only beer release that went sideways. We had a bottle release for Beatification, which is our spontaneously fermented beer. We had a bottle of release that had gone sideways because it was really hard to gauge. We always say there are two things we can’t control: the weather and how many people show up, and that is true to this day. There’s nobody out there who can predict the weather, you can’t control it. You can predict it, but you can’t control it. You can’t control how many people come to a public release. You can sell tickets, but that’s not what we’re doing here. This is not a ticketed event.
D: Sure. That changes the dynamic.
N: That changes the dynamic, and it makes it exclusive, and it limits how — it’s not what we’re trying to do here, and it never was and it never will be. Over the years, Pliny the Younger has evolved into what it is today. Like I always say as well, it’s business as usual inside. The event is outside. That’s where it’s going on.
D: We learned a couple of lessons.
N: Yes, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned a lot. We could probably give a master’s class on crowd control and all that stuff. One year, we started doing wristbands, right? You have to think like a criminal, right?
D: A drunk criminal.
N: You have to think like a drunk criminal. Somebody went down 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 because you have to think like a criminal. They started selling wristbands in line. They were coming through the back door. They would just go show their wristband to the back door and just say, “Oh, I went out the front to have a smoke. I’m just coming in the back.” “Oh, no problem.” Security let ’em in. I remember looking up at one point, and there was like 200 people in the building, and we only had seating for about 130, and we’re like three-deep at the bar. There’s just bodies everywhere. We were like, “How did that happen?” and then somebody in the line told us, “Oh, there was this person, they were selling the same color wristbands to people in the line.”
D: Yes. A lot of the things that you’re describing learning through trial and error back in 2010 have since become the default — the standard — for coveted releases right? No growlers, limited allotment, table limits. You can only go through the line once, right? Like a lot of this stuff, you were breaking new ground at that time. It also strikes me as a moment where you realize, “Oh man, if we don’t keep an eye on this, the inmates are going to run the asylum here.” Your craft beer customers and enthusiasts are not afraid to try to get one over on us here. Do you think of it that way? Certainly not specific to Russian River’s customers, but I read the forums. I read the Instagram comments. Think about like, we hear about people who are pressing their grandma into service to be one of the other people in line so they can get double the allotment, right? This is behavior that, I don’t think prior to this moment — the early 2010s or whatever — this was not something that really dominated the beer industry. It was not something that was prevalent, right?
N: No. It is fascinating to me when you come across somebody who’s standing in line and you can tell that they don’t really understand what they’re doing, but their kid who lives out of the area said, “You need to go and stand in this line and you need to buy me two bottles of Pliny the Younger and you need to ship it to me and wherever I live.” You can tell that the parent or the grandparent is like, “I don’t drink beer. I don’t really want to be here but I’m doing this for my kid because I love them.” I’m like well, that’s not really cool. I don’t think that’s really very nice of your kid to make you do this. It’s not something that you’re into because all these other people around you, they’re really into it. They’re really excited to be here. This is their 15th year. This is their third year. They’re having reunions with friends or with family. They do this every year. There was a bachelor party here on Saturday and they all flew out from Salt Lake City and the bachelor party was coming to Pliny the Younger.
N: Coming for the whole experience of standing in line with all these other like-minded people from all over the world. Then, having the full Russian River experience when they came inside and there’s people celebrating their wedding anniversary here today. There’s all kinds of fun stuff going on. One day there was two 40th birthday parties and two 60th birthday parties. People really make a special occasion out of coming to Pliny the Younger. We love that. That means so much to us. I feel really bad when somebody has been talked into doing something that they really don’t want to be doing and they don’t want to be here. They’re like, “Is there another line for the bottles?” and I’m like “You didn’t see all these people standing in line? They want bottles too. No, there’s not another line for the bottles if that’s all you want.”
D: On one hand it’s like OK, maybe there’s an opportunity to bring these people into beer, but on the other, like you said, this has become something bigger and whenever something gets bigger there’s people who come to it for different reasons. Some of those reasons aren’t always as kind of wholesome and uplifting as others I suppose.
N: No for sure. I haven’t looked online but I can guarantee you plenty of Younger bottles are all over the place. I’m on this one website that I’m not going to mention because I hate them. I will look it up.
D: You’re always welcome to name names on “Taplines,” Natalie. You should just know that.
N: I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and then start going there and buying beer because the problem is there’s a market. If there wasn’t a market for the black market then it wouldn’t be a problem. Here it is. Here’s the website. I’ll show you. This is Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger. That’s — whatever. There’s more pages.
D: There’s more pages. There’s multiple pages there.
N: That’s Pliny the Younger, free shipping for — oh oh oh one bottle of each: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, free shipping for $145.
D: Oh my goodness. In retail, what would that cost in 2023, Natalie, if we came to that?
N: One bottle of Pliny the Younger and one bottle of Pliny the Elder is going to set you back about, let’s see, $20.
D: Right? So we’re talking about just a tremendous-
N: It’s a joke.
D: -egregious markup.
N: It’s an egregious markup. I can’t look at this. It makes my blood pressure go up.
D: Let’s take the blood pressure back down. I’m curious, in the midst of all this, something that’s as much of a phenomenon as Pliny the Younger endures more — what I was going to ask is, there’s a continuity there that is, frankly, as a journalist who’s been covering this space, kind of shocking. Like I said, it’s a canonical beer, but people just take this really seriously and have all the way through. I’m curious what changes you’ve seen over the course of maybe the past three, four, five years towards the back half, the last decade, then to this one, with regards to people’s relationship to Pliny the Younger from where I’m sitting on the opposite coast, of course, so I’m not as close to it, but from where I’m sitting, it remains as much of an event as ever. I’m curious, what does it look like for you? Who is behind the bar, so to speak?
N: We’re living it right now, so we are on day six of our 2023 Pliny the Younger release. What we find surprising is that year after year, a lot of people keep showing up. They’re willing to take time off work, spend money to be here because they are traveling from out of the area. They’re willing to stand in line for Saturday. It was five to six hours to get in, but they know what they’re getting into after all of these years. It was a little surprising, I think, for the first few years. Very few people come to our Pliny the Younger release now who do not understand what they’re getting into. I did meet a guy on Saturday who came up to me and he was from the Bay Area and he was like, “I’ve never been to this before. What’s going on? What do I expect?” I was like, “Oh,” and so I took a few minutes to explain to him what was going on, give him his options. My recommendation was to leave and to come back on another day.
D: Go now, run.
N: He didn’t know what he was getting himself into and he just wanders up. I think it was noon and that’s not a great time to get in because we’re just loading in the first wave. We’re finishing. We usually have just finished seating the first wave of people and they have two and a half hours at their table. A lot of days they will take all two and a half hours and so you can imagine that you don’t start turning tables for a while. That’s a bad time to jump in line and I was like, “I’m going to recommend that you go do some wine tasting, go hit some other breweries. Come back a different day and you’ll see that the weight will be a lot less and because you’ve never done this before, I want you to have a great time. I just want to make sure that-” We like to make sure that we’re managing expectations. We’ll put signs out that say, “From here, it’s two and a half hours.” For your listeners who’ve ever been to our Windsor Brewery, I don’t know if anybody has. Our Windsor Brewery is what we call our new brewery. It’s our dream brewery. It’s really beautiful and we designed it from the ground up. We designed it for this release with the parking lot being oversized for the rest of the year. It’s virtually empty for the rest of the year. Not virtually, but rarely, do we half-fill the parking lot for the rest of the year. It’s huge. The whole front of the brewery has this giant sidewalk that snakes around the front of the brewery, which is designed for the Pliny the Younger line, to go around the whole front of the brewery. Unfortunately, sometimes the line goes all the way out to the sidewalk and then down the street which it did on Saturday. We have bathrooms. They’re on electronic locks and the bathrooms are designed to have an outdoor access that we keep open 24/7 during the Pliny the Younger release. There’s clean bathrooms that get cleaned every day that people can use if they’re here overnight or in the middle of the night or two o’clock in the morning, or whatever. This whole brewery on the hospitality side was designed for these two weeks and I can’t tell you how excited I was the first year that we released Pliny the Younger at both locations, so now we have it at our Santa Rosa location as well as the Windsor location. The Windsor Brewery was designed also to relieve some pressure from downtown for Pliny the Younger as well as just in general. We offer guided tours here and self-guided tours as well. I was standing up on the guided tour walkway and I called our architect and it was like the first weekend of Pliny the Younger release 2019. It was the first time we’d ever released it here because we’d just opened. I said, Peter, it’s working. Everything that we designed this brewery to do is working. It is firing on all cylinders. It is doing exactly what we designed it to do because you have a vision. You’re like, “I think this is what’s going to work best for this. I think this is how people are going to use this space or I think this is going to be the best way to design this,” and we had designed this perfectly. The parking lot was full. The line of people was snaking around the front, down in front of the brewery. All the tours were booked up. The tours were going off every hour. There were people on the self-guided tour, there were people in the gift shop, the pub was full, the tasting room was full. It was just wild. It was so fun. I was just so excited to see our dream come true. We had this vision, we had this dream that we can design this in such a way that we make it work for our guests and they have a better experience when they come here and they’re not trying to find parking or they don’t know where to stand. They don’t know where to be or there’s nothing else to do. It was just really an exciting moment. I don’t think I answered your question but that’s a great story.
D: No, it was a better answer to a question I didn’t even think to ask, so there you go. Fantastic. I have one last question for you and I am going to need a direct answer on this. Knowing everything you know about Pliny the Younger since 2005 we’re coming up on what? Oh my gosh, the 20th anniversary of Pliny the Younger.
N: Next year. This is 19 right now. Yes.
D: Yes. My goodness. You’ve seen it take on a life of its own, gather that momentum. If you had to wait in line for Pliny the Younger as just a rank-and-file customer, as a drinker, as you’ve seen every year. What was the easiest year to get Pliny the Younger? Couldn’t have been the first year. The first year sounds like it was-
N: Terrible. It was the worst year.
D: Which year would you choose if you had to sneak in there?
N: 2005 to 2009 were great years.
D: No. Those are ruled out. 2010 onward. Yes. I didn’t mean the first year. I meant the first crazy year. From 2010 to 2023, which is where we’re in now, there had to be years where it might have been a little easier.
N: I think if I was going to pick a year, it’d be weather-related. It would have to be weather-related. I don’t know where your listeners live. If anybody lives in California, we’ve had a pretty rough first start of the year. We’ve had a lot of record snowfalls, a lot of record cold temperatures, and a lot of record rain. Yesterday was another one of those days. We moved the release last year due to Covid. We didn’t have it in 2021 because we were shut down and because of Covid. Last year we had it in 2022 and we moved it to late March because we were supposed to release it the first Friday of February but in January we had to close both of our pubs because we had a major outbreak of Covid. You remember that pandemic thing?
D: Oh yes. Sure.
N: Turned everybody’s life upside down. We had to close, not because of business restrictions, but because we didn’t have any employees and you need employees to pull off a release like this. We ended up postponing the release at the last minute and had it in March. The weather was great. The weather was really nice. We had a little bit of rain but it was like spring rain and it was really nice. We were like, “Wow, this is great.” Everybody’s having a better time because it’s not the dead of winter. It’s not freezing, sleeting cold rain sideways. The days are longer because time has changed and it’s lighter later and so let’s permanently move our release to late March and we’ll do distribution in February to our accounts when they really need it the most in the dead of winter. Then we’ll have it in the spring. We’ll do a spring release. It’s beautiful in Sonoma County. The vineyards are starting to leaf out a little bit and there’s mustard in the vineyards and it’s green and it’s such a pretty time here. We moved it this year. The weather has been dicey. Then yesterday, it was just horrendous. It was something. It was just, everybody was just joking as Vinnie and I were stoked. We spent a ton of time outside just because we felt so bad for people being outside. We spent a lot of time outside helping put up more easy-ups and getting heaters and whatever was going on and inviting people to come inside to anywhere that they could get out of the elements. It was just a joke because it was like it was cold and it was super windy and it was raining really hard for like the first half of the day. It was just funny, it was ironic that we had moved the release to spring and the weather was just as crappy as it normally is in February. If I was to pick one I can’t really pick a year but I guess it would be a better weather year, but there’s something about those days whether weather is just crap that there’s this camaraderie and this bonding that happens with the experience because it’s part of the story. It’s part of the journey to get inside. It’s more and, like I said, before the event is in line it’s business as usual inside. That’s where I think the magic is happening is out in the line and these friendships are being made, and this bonding is happening. The weather is so incredibly bad and there are people who don’t even know each other who are huddled up next to each other and talking about where they’re from.
D: For warmth.
N: Yes, just body heat, but they strike up conversations. Like, “Hey, where are you from? How many times have you been?” “Oh, I’ve never been before. What should I expect?” “Oh let me tell you, this is my eighth year.” I love seeing people coming back and bringing newbies with them. On Friday, the first day, we had a party of 16 show up downtown at the Santa Rosa Pub, and two of them — a couple — had been coming for eight years. This was their eighth year, and over the years they added more people to their group. This year they added a lot of people to their group and there were 16 of them. They had the best time. It just started with two people who had just so much fun year after year, after year, waiting in line, rain or shine, freezing cold temperatures whatever. Maybe they waited for eight hours. Maybe they waited for one hour, who knows? But they still had such a great time that they came back year after year, and that’s the biggest compliment of all to us, is that people come and they have such a good time that they continue to return. I tell our staff like, “Hey this is our time to shine, this is our Super Bowl, and a lot of it has to do with the service that we provide.” Most people don’t come in and just slam a glass of Younger, buy the two bottles and leave. That’s pretty unusual. That would maybe be, I don’t even know, five people might do that during the whole release, but most of them want the full Russian River experience. We have over 20 beers on tap at both pubs right now. We have a bunch of new beers out that we always release. We’re always getting people to try other beers. Lot of sampler sets going out. Our sampler set is legendary. We do every single beer that we make on the sampler set, so our sampler set holds 18 beers, and if we have more than 18 beers, we have to stack the other beers in the middle. It’s quite the presentation so it’s great. I’m just really proud of that, and so that’s the scoop. I hope every year we’re a little paranoid that nobody’s going to show up, and this year they showed up again, so we’re grateful.
D: They keep coming.
N: They keep coming so that means we’re doing something right and we’re grateful.
D: I think you’re doing a lot of things right. Natalie, thank you so much for joining us here on “Taplines.” It was a pleasure taking a small trip down memory lane just 13 years ago, although it feels like forever ago, I’m sure. If you’re anything like me, it feels like an age ago. Thanks so much for joining us and best of luck with the rest of your Pliny the Younger release this year.
N: Great. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun and I hope you can come visit sometime.
D: Soon. I’ll be out there in line asking what the hell all these other people are there for.
N: Well, they have a lot of time to tell you and they’re more than happy to talk to you, so come on out and do a podcast.
D: Perfect, next year.
N: All right, it’s a date.
“Taplines” is recorded in Richmond, Virginia, and produced by yours truly and Darby Cicci, who along with the talented Shane Firek, composed our delightful soundtrack. Just listen to it. I also want to give a quick shout-out to the entire VinePair team, and especially co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin, editor-in-chief Joanna Sciarrino, managing editor Tim McKirdy, and art director Danielle Grinberg, who designed our lovely “Taplines” logo. Of course, big thank you to you. Yes, you listener, for spending time with us week in and week out. We literally couldn’t do this without you. I’m Dave Infante and I’ll catch you next time.