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I own a brewery where fans camp out overnight to snag a bottle of our famous IPA. Here’s how we built up a huge community of customers.

Russian River Brewing Company owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo.

Russian River Brewing Company

  • Natalie Cilurzo and her husband Vinnie own Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California.
  • Their most famous IPA, Pliny the Younger, attracts beer lovers from across the globe.
  • Here’s how the IPA’s annual release became a community celebration, as told to writer Molly O’Brien.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Natalie Cilurzo, a brewery owner from northern California. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My husband Vinnie and I own and operate Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California.

Vinnie was the brewery’s brewmaster and sole employee for about six years after it was originally founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1997. When Korbel decided to shut it down, in lieu of severance Vinnie asked for the rights to Russian River Brewing Co. and all the recipes and beer names that he’d developed.

When Korbel agreed, we decided to open the brewery as our own business

Vinne and Natalie Cilurzo at their brewery in northern California. Russian River Brewing CompanyVinnie and Natalie Cilurzo at their brewery in northern California.

Russian River Brewing Company

We wrote a business plan, found two managing partners (whom we’ve since bought out), and convinced 30 friends and family to invest in our new brewpub venture.

In 2004, we officially opened our brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa. Today, we also have another brewpub and a production brewery in the nearby city of Windsor.

We self-distribute beer throughout Northern California to about 500 restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and bottle shops. We also have distributors in Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. But our most famous beer, Pliny the Younger, is only available once a year at our two brewpub locations. 

We first brewed and released Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA, in winter 2005

Pliny the Younger Russian River Brewing CompanyPliny the Younger.

Russian River Brewing Company

Pliny the Younger is about 10.25% alcohol. It’s double dry hopped, so it’s very dry and bitter — not overly sweet like some high alcoholic beers can be.

We really focus on the aroma hops. It has notes of tropical fruits, citrus fruits, and some pine and resin. It’s deceptively balanced and pretty easy to drink for a high-alcohol, triple IPA. 

For years, it was just another beer we released in the winter. The hoopla came as a big surprise.  

There was no marketing, no advertising — at the time we didn’t even use social media. But Pliny the Younger somehow gained traction on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, which drew attention from beer enthusiasts everywhere. 

In 2010, we were ready to release Pliny the Younger on the first Friday in February like always. But when Vinnie showed up at the brewpub at 7 a.m., four hours before we opened, there was already a huge line of people standing out front.

They told him they were there for the Pliny the Younger release, thanks to it’s growing status as one of the best beers in the world. Within five minutes of opening at 11 a.m., the restaurant filled up to capacity.

The atmosphere was wild. Every single person who walked through the door ordered our limit on the number of growlers you could buy. We ran out of Pliny the Younger in just eight hours, meaning we sold 80 barrels of beer in that time, which was extraordinary. 

Since that first year, the Pliny the Younger release has become a fan-favorite experience

The line outside of the Pliny the Elder release. Russian River Brewing CompanyThe line outside of a Pliny the Younger release.

Russian River Brewing Company

Normally we have a 14-day release period that starts the first Friday of February. We do two sittings a day at our pubs in Santa Rosa and Windsor during the release, one at 11 a.m. and another at 3 p.m.

The pub fills up at about 125 seats, and we don’t allow standing room to maintain a controlled environment. Each day, we give customers a free wristband with three pull tabs to track the number of drinks they’ve gone through — each person gets a maximum of three Pliny the Younger pours and two bottles.

We also hire bouncers to control the crowd and start wrist-banding people early to fight issues like line cutting. 

It’s a badge of honor to be the first person in line on the first day, so often people camp outside the night before

They bring tables, portable heaters, and games to play to pass the time. Once, I saw somebody set up a big monitor to watch movies.

Rain or freezing weather isn’t much of a deterrent — people just bring umbrellas, tents, and winter weather gear. 

In 2020, we had more than 23,000 people attend the release at our two brewpubs. The Sonoma County Economic Development Board estimated that the release brought more than $5 million into the local economy. 

Russian River Brewery CompanyAn economic impact analysis of Pliny the Younger’s 2020 release.

Russian River Brewery Company/Sonoma County Economic Development Board

The yearly releases are about community, not just beer 

The release isn’t just about Pliny the Younger — after more than 10 years, we’ve built a strong community that always shows up for the releases. It’s like a yearly celebration, and now there’s even a citywide FeBREWary event. 

Russian River Brewing CompanyEveryone can get into spirit at the Pliny the Younger release.

Russian River Brewing Company

We’ve had international travelers visit town just for the release and groups that come in matching outfits and “Pliny the Younger” t-shirts. Even Vinnie’s 92-year-old grandmother comes to the releases to join in on the fun. 

Although this year’s release is currently postponed to late March due to the pandemic, we’re optimistic for a great turnout and excited to connect with Pliny the Younger fans in person again.

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