Pliny the Younger is an anomaly, if a beer could ever be called one. The Russian River Brewing Company’s seasonal release, a rich Simcoe hop-driven triple IPA, has become the stuff of brewing legend since 2010, when Beer Advocate gave it a perfect rating, thereby dubbing it the best in the country.
It might be surprising, then, to learn that Russian River’s origins don’t lie in generations of brewing visionaries or grandiose ambitions; rather, the brewery has roots in Korbel, the winery that founded it, and a particularly innovative brewmaster named Vinnie Cilurzo.
Korbel’s brewing project was short lived — the operation only lasted from 1997 until 2003 — but when the winery decided to cut it, Cilurzo and his wife Natalie couldn’t let it go. They decided to take a chance and run the brewery independently. Turns out that was a pretty smart move. The following year, the Cilurzos were able to open a brewpub, and in 2005, Pliny the Younger was born.
This February’s release will be the first time Cilurzo believes that Younger is closer to perfect than ever before.
Paste: Tell me about when you realized Pliny the Younger was a big deal.
Vinnie Cilurzo: Until 2010, it was just another beer. [One morning], I rolled in the pub at 6 [a.m.], got the beer connected and looked out front, and there was a line of people down the block. I went out there and asked, ‘What are you guys doing here? We don’t open until 11.’ And they said, ‘Your beer is one of the top rated in the country on a couple of beer rating websites.’ I don’t think I even knew what Beer Advocate was at the time. I picked up the phone and called Natalie and said, ‘I don’t think we’re ready for this.’ In an eight-hour period, we poured 20 barrels [40 kegs] of Pliny the Younger. That’s when we changed our whole system.
Paste: What sort of changes did you institute over the years with serving Younger?
VC: We’ve instituted a three glass maximum. Everyone gets a wristband with little pull tabs on it, so as people order [it], a server takes a tab, and there’s a three hour table limit. Customers understood because everyone who comes to have Younger for the most part will wait in line some amount of time. It’s just kind of how it is now.
The city embraces what we’re doing because it brings huge tax dollars to the area. A couple years ago, the Sonoma County Economic Development Agency did…a mini microeconomic study just on the Pliny the Younger release. What they came up with was the economic impact of Pliny the Younger during those two weeks was $2.4 million dollars.
Paste: Why did you decide to make Pliny the Younger a Triple IPA?
VC: Elder was a double IPA; that style has roots in my first brewery — Blind Pig, where I made the first ever double IPA, supposedly. I always had it in the back of my mind that one day I’d make a Pliny the Younger, and so when it came time to actually make it, it was a question of, do we take the Elder recipe and dumb it down to a lower alcohol? Or do we do a bigger, higher alcohol beer? The decision was let’s make a bigger version of it.
Paste: What are some things that you wanted to change up with Younger through the years, but didn’t feel like you could because of that cult following?
VC: We’ve always made small tweaks. It’s not that we haven’t made changes to the recipe, but I will say this: what we brewed this year is identical to last year. We really feel like it’s in a good spot. It has taken us five years or so to get Younger where we want it from a recipe standpoint, from a flavor standpoint. In general it’s a lot of Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial hops — these are all fruit-forward in aroma and flavor — that work well on the bigger beer, because they’re sweeter and [have] a lot of flavor. [It’s] the sweetness of the alcohol, and it’s super bitter, so it balances the sweet character that the hops are giving.
Paste: How much of it do you brew every year?
VC: About 180 barrels. We make 15,000 barrels annually, so [that]’s a pretty small amount.
Paste: You’ve been a proponent of slow, natural economic growth for the brewery. Have you ever felt financial pressure to brew more Younger as a business move?
VC: We haven’t. We certainly had tough financial times. Natalie and I went some time without taking a paycheck. But we’ve always believed in this organic, slow growth. I always preface that with that we’re not against growing, we’re just going to do it at our own pace. For us, we’ve always been really comfortable in our own skin.