Robert “Boots” Byrd III arrived at Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa at 11:30 p.m. Thursday with his wife, Sara, and 18-month-old son, Robert IV. After the 400-mile drive north from Ventura, the young family was exhausted.
Their day wasn’t over, however. The trio waited outside in the cold and rain all night, standing and sitting and snuggling under an umbrella for 11 long hours. They endured all of that for the chance to taste a beer.
As luck would have it, they were first in line for the annual release of Pliny the Younger, an India pale ale so balanced with hops and malt flavor that many find it mesmerizing. This is the 13th year the brewery has released the creation of legendary brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo during the two weeks in February it’s made available at the Sonoma County brewery.
“This year, you definitely brave the rain,” said Robert Byrd III. “We had a lot of Patagonia gear, one umbrella to share that we squeezed under. It’s always fun. You deal with the freezing cold and the wet shoes and socks.”
Because of the hype and pent-up demand, Pliny the Younger is not only considered one of the greatest beers in the world, it is a modern marketing marvel that attracts fans from throughout California and well beyond. This one beer is such a draw that the Sonoma County Economic Development Board even quantifies the economic impact of its annual two-week run.
In 2016, the board found, the beer’s release attracted 16,000 visitors – 61 percent of whom were tourists who traveled specifically to try it – and accounted for $4.88 million in revenue for the county.
“Vinnie is a great brewmaster and he makes some of the best beer in the world,” said Byrd. “From the atmosphere, to all the people you meet in line who are new to the experience or have experienced it before, it’s just an overall experience, in general. It’s great. We look forward to it one year in advance every year.”
Since 2010, when the Pliny the Younger frenzy reached a tipping point, the line down Fourth Street has taken on a life of its own. A four-hour wait is standard. Eight hours are not uncommon.
To curmudgeons and local beer snobs, Pliny the Younger – and its year-round IPA cousin Pliny the Elder – are not even brewmaster Cilurzo’s best beers. They gravitate toward the smoother, less bitter Blind Pig, a fruity IPA that Natalie Cilurzo, the co-owner and brewmaster’s wife, calls her favorite.
On Friday, she was stationed outside at the front of the line, greeting customers as they got the good news: A seat had opened up, and it was their turn to enter.
“We’re really fortunate that people come from around the world to drink our beer. … We’re pretty proud of that,” she said. “I always say the event is in line. It’s not inside – it’s business as usual inside. The party is outside. People make friends. They have reunions here. We met a lot of people in line who come year after year.”
At about 10:30 a.m., Steve Berry of nearby Windsor became, for a moment, the end of the line. There were 329 people ahead of him, and it would be an estimated four hours before he would get his hands on a Pliny the Younger. Berry said this was his fifth year attending the release.
“The beer only comes out once a year. It’s the best beer I’ve ever had,” he said. “Two years ago, I waited eight hours.”
An hour later, with the pub packed and buzzing with energy, the Cilurzos walked to the front of the room and got the crowd’s attention.
“We really are truly humbled and flattered that you all wait in line and come out,” Vinnie Cilurzo told the room. “Every year, I try to make it a little better, make it a little hoppier. The bar is raised every year because every year I feel like I’ve made it softer, more drinkable but yet more hoppy.”
That’s right. As good as the beer is, Cilurzo can’t seem to leave it alone. He has been known to tweak the recipe every year. This year, he told the crowd he introduced two new hop varieties to the formula, using a total of eight different hops to build layers of hops that pack a punch and create a beer that is both smooth and bitter.
“My favorite time drinking Younger is halfway through the glass because it warms up a little and you cup the glass a little bit. That’s really when the hops just start jumping out of the glass,” Cilurzo said.
Back outside at around noon, the rain was coming down off and on, and many lining the sidewalk shivered as they waited. Is the beer worth this kind of endurance test? Worth taking the day off work? Worth the aching feet and stiff back?
It depends. To many, the pursuit is part of the fun.
Kim Hall and Steve Summers of Rocklin, sharing an umbrella, got a hotel room within walking distance of Russian River. They were practically relieved when they learned they would be waiting just four hours.
“We were going to be happy if we got in in eight,” Hall said with a smile.
If you’re wondering if Sacramento has anything to rival the Pliny the Younger frenzy, the answer is no. But the beer scene is growing rapidly and certain beers have developed devoted fan bases.
Several small-batch releases in cans from Track 7 and New Glory sell out quickly. On Friday, Moonraker in Auburn released its wildly successful Yojo IPA, brewed in the hazy Northeast style. That beer sold out in one day.
Still, what happens on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa is another level of beer love.
“I just moved to California from northwest Indiana. I’ve always been wanting to come, and finally was close enough to make the trip. We got here at 3:30 this morning,” said Eric Scheidt. “We sat and talked and met fun people.”