Pliny the Younger: World gathers in Santa Rosa for Beer

People come from all across the world to
try the Triple IPA Pliny at Russian River
Brewing Company each spring.

Joseph Barkoff

People come from all across the world to try the Triple IPA Pliny at Russian River Brewing Company each spring.

Erik Jorgensen, Staff Writer

Hundreds from around the world made their annual pilgrimage to the Santa Rosa birthplace of Pliny the Younger on Feb. 1. More travelers and locals waited in line on Fourth Street than ever before as the Sonoma County Economic Development Board studied the event for its impact on the local economy.

Russian River Brewing Company opened in April 2004 and quickly earned a reputation as one of the best breweries in the world. Pliny the Elder has been ranked as the number one beer in the world by Zymurgy magazine readers for the past four years. Beer Advocate magazine and RateBeer.com both rank Pliny the Elder, a Double India Pale Ale, and Pliny the Younger, a Triple IPA, as the second and third best beers in the world, respectively.

Of the four basic elements that transmute into beer (water, barley, hops and yeast) the hops most define an IPA. Usually added as a flavoring agent, hops also have preservative qualities. For this reason, British brewers added extra hops to beer sent to India by sailing ship, which could take months. When British soldiers returned from India, they brought along their acquired taste for this extra hoppy ale.

The real-life Pliny the Elder, born Gaius Plinius Secundus, was a Roman admiral, philosopher and naturalist whose “Naturalis Historia” became the model for all later encyclopedias. In it, Pliny documented and named hops Lupus salictarius, which translates to “wild wolf of the woods.” For this contribution to science, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River named the brewery’s doubly-hopped ale in honor of Pliny the Elder. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the Roman admiral sailed across the Bay of Naples to rescue friends and relatives from Pompeii and to document the eruption, thus becoming the first embedded journalist. Prevailing winds prevented his boat from leaving shore and Pliny the Elder died, possibly from toxic fumes. His nephew and adopted son, named Pliny the Younger, documented his uncle’s death and the eruption of Vesuvius in his “Epistulae.”

Brewmaster and co-owner Cilurzo is credited with inventing the Double IPA style in 1994 at his Blind Pig Brewery in Temecula, California. When Cilurzo and his wife Natalie opened Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa, they put both Pliny the Elder and Younger on tap from day one. The brewery offers Pliny the Younger only occasionally because it requires extra ingredients and takes more time to brew. It came, folks enjoyed it and then it went away. That’s the way locals liked it.

Everything changed in 2008. That year, San Francisco Beer Week coincided with the annual limited release of Pliny the Younger on the first Friday of February. People who had already traveled from around the world made the hour-long drive up from the Bay Area to visit the legendary Russian River Brewery.

At that time, Russian River allowed people to take home their Triple IPA in growlers – half-gallon refillable glass bottles. Limited in 2008 to four growlers per person, groups showed up and bought four apiece. The whole weekend’s allotment sold out by 7:30 Friday night, gobbled up by the greedy growlers.

Bars, even breweries, sometimes run out of beer, but a lot of feelings got bruised. Several people made vicious online accusations that Russian River deliberately created an artificial scarcity for cynical self-promotion. In reality, the greedy growlers selling their ambrosia online at a 400 percent markup dried up the well that year.

Gabe Rivera, manager, bartender and drummer in Russian River’s house band The Mud, The Blood and The Beer, has known Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo since he was a 15-year old in Lake Elsinore. On that February Friday, three taps continuously poured Pliny the Younger, one tap filled growlers and another filled half-pint glasses nonstop. The level of beer in the sight glass of the enormous holding tank slowly but visibly dropped, Rivera said. Since that year, procedure changed to allow more people access to this limited release. Gone are the growlers of the Younger, and now each day has a rationed allotment to stretch the annual event to last two weeks.

Seating guests in small waves rather than an endless flood has helped both visitors and employees. Russian River hostess Kai Schrade double-majors at SRJC in anthropology and studio art with plans to complete her Ph.D. in forensic anthropology. Schrade has seen three Pliny the Younger releases, and said this was the largest and smoothest yet.

“The crowd is more knowledgeable, and they get here understanding there will be a long wait in line. They know they won’t be able to get a table as soon as they walk in. They’re just in a better mood, and are more willing to work with staff to get served,” Schrade said.

Schrade also noted that they sold a lot more merchandise, including t-shirts, hats, keychains and patches. She plans on writing her observations of this event for her anthropology class.

Former SRJC student and Oak Leaf photojournalist Larry Muchowski covered last year’s Pliny the Younger release for TV station KTXL in Sacramento. This year he took the day off work to attend day one of the limited release, “This time for fun!” Muchowski said.

He was not alone.

An extreme, but not unusual, example are the Head-Cases, a group of 35 visiting their third release of Pliny the Younger. Originally meeting online in a forum about headphones, the group discovered they had other mutual interests and decided to meet up in real life. The Head-Cases flew in from all over the country just to stand in line for eight hours with their online friends.

For Brent Lawson of Tennessee, this was his third Pliny the Younger release with the Head-Cases – and he doesn’t even like beer. “Well, except for what Russian River makes,” Lawson added.

Fellow Head-Case and homebrew dabbler Scott had never been to California before, and flew in just to attend the limited release. He flew back to North Carolina after a total visit of just 31 hours, but the rest of the group planned to stay in Sonoma County for five to eight days.

On the first day of Younger, the line started at 3 a.m. The Head- Case group got in line at about 9 a.m. and by then the line already stretched down Fourth Street, around the corner, then past the second corner and back down Fifth Street. This massive line directly impacted local businesses. Several people got haircuts to pass the time. One visitor said he ate Italian, Mexican and Chinese food while waiting in line.

SRJC Viticulture and Enology student Balm Krueger attended on Super Bowl Sunday and was impressed with how Russian River management has improved the event. “Spreading out their allocation gives people a chance. It’s a different experience. You don’t have to show up the first day. Spreading it out (over two weeks) encourages more patrons, making it about visiting here versus not,” Krueger said. He pondered how to distill his observations for his economics class.

While the Sonoma County Economic Development Board will take months to analyze their surveys and reach a conclusion, a casual observer would exclaim, “There’s gold in them there glasses!”