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Photos courtesy Russian River Brewing Company

Russian River Brewing Company

by Gregory Daurer on January 3, 2019, 08:31 am MST

www.russianriverbrewing.com

Santa Rosa / Windsor, California

Founded: 1997

Privately owned

Employees: 215

Industry: Brewing & Distilling

Products: Beer

Owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo welcomes guests to his award-winning brewery in California wine country.

When you open a new 85,000-square-foot production brewery – about 6,000 square feet of which is devoted to two separate walkways designated, respectively, for the brewery's guided and self-guided tours – you definitely want people to visit. "We wanted to be able to give our guests this amazing customer experience," says Cilurzo.

At Russian River's new $50 million facility in Windsor, California, visitors have the ability to see the brewers in action, as well as the brew bubbling in the new open-top fermenters imported from Germany; smell the wort, and the barrels filled with aging sour beer; hear the rattle of the bottling line; and, naturally, "taste the freshest beer that we've bottled or kegged." Seeking to provide a multi-sensory experience, Cilurzo wants patrons "to feel like a brewer, and kind of experience all the things we experience as a brewing team."

Opened in October, it's a brand-spanking-new 75-barrel brewhouse with a capacity to produce 65,000 barrels per year -- although, right now, Cilurzo is shooting for 35,000 annually. The Windsor brewery will heftily complement the 3,500 barrels brewed annually at Russian River's downtown Santa Rosa location, and it replaces Cilurzo's previous production brewery with its 13,000 barrel yearly output. Russian River has distribution in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania -- all of which can count on steadier streams of its long in-demand beer.

Vinnie Cilurzo, 48, has a storied history as a brewer. When he opened his first brewery Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, California in 1994, Cilurzo brewed what he says was the nation's first Double India Pale Ale. Cilurzo thinks he might have been the first brewer to use Simcoe hops, and says he was definitely the first to use Mosaic. ("Where Simcoe is grapefruit, pine, pungent, Mosaic, back then, was blueberry -- now it's more tropical fruits," he says.) Following on the heels of New Belgium Brewing Company's La Folie, Russian River released some of the first barrel-aged sours in America. In 2008, Cilurzo was the recipient of the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing from the Brewers Association.

Over the course of Russian River Brewing Company's 20-plus years (it was started by Korbel Champagne Cellars, before ownership of the brand was transferred to Vinnie and his wife, Natalie, who opened their Santa Rosa pub in 2004), the brewery has won 30 medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Ask yourself this: How many breweries have been able to impress judges with not only hoppy IPAs and Belgian-style beers (including barrel-aged sour ales), but with its pilsner, as well?

There's the popular Pliny the Elder, Russian River's Double IPA. Cilurzo's tasting notes: "pine, grapefruit, slightly pungent with a dry, hoppy finish."

Beatification is a beer blended from different barrelings of the brewery's spontaneously fermented base beer, Sonambic (a contraction of "Sonoma" and "lambic"). Cilurzo calls it "definitely funky. It's got some nice Brettanomyces notes of leather and earthiness, but also some fruity notes that the Brett contributes. It's got a clean acidity with a tart, sour finish. I love how it changes, as [we've been] making it over the years; I also like how I feel like I haven't mastered that beer, and that it's going to take at least another decade -- if not longer -- to master it, because it's spontaneously fermented."

And there's the florid, dry-hopped STS Pils: "It's crisp, it's dry, it's nice and bitter. It's got a beautiful kind of grassy aroma to it from the Aramis hops that we use; Aramis is a French hop." Cilurzo adds, "I've always said that a pilsner can be every bit as hoppy and complex as an IPA can, but just in a different way. It's more delicate, it's more finesse. It's my true love right now of all of our beers."

And, in the near future, Cilurzo says his pils, as well as his other beers, will only get better. "There's a lot of cool toys that we've installed in the new brewery, and one of [those] is our open-top fermenters," says Cilurzo. Russian River has begun using those six open-top fermenters -- which are built to the same height and width, rather than fabricated tall and skinny -- to make clean Belgian-style beers and its STS Pils. Cilurzo explains, "By not having a lid, there's no pressure on top of the beer [during] its fermentation, which means the yeast is a lot happier and it makes better flavors. You can get different flavors also from tank geometry."

Although the new Windsor facility appears to be one building, Cilurzo says it's really three separate structures sandwiched together: there's a dedicated sour ("funky") brewery, complete with a koelschip for creating spontaneously fermented beer; a concrete, tilt-up space to make clean ("non-funky") beers like its pils; and the visitor center where guests can, say, drink a Damnation golden ale or Blind Pig IPA and eat a chopped salad, a pork schnitzel sandwich, or king salmon.

According to the Santa Rosa newspaper, The Press Democrat, Russian River's pub in Santa Rosa sees 350,000 visitors a year and its "annual Pliny the Younger specialty craft beer release in February contributed $3.3 million alone in economic benefits to Sonoma County."

Still, the calamitous Tubbs Fire in October 2017 "affected us pretty dramatically," says Cilurzo. Employees lost homes, tourism dropped off, hundreds of hotel rooms were incinerated, and some residents sold their charred, now-barren lots and moved away. After local sales initially dropped off almost completely for the Santa Rosa brewery (which gave away meals to first responders and displaced residents), its income has increased again; but "we've still never recovered back to our pre-fire numbers," says Cilurzo.

So, if you happen to find yourself in Northern California, Cilurzo is extending an invitation.

"We built this brewery to operate really easily from a production-operations standpoint, and also to give our guests a really cool customer experience," says Cilurzo. "And that's probably our biggest opportunity now: just to get the word out that here we are, and next time you're in Sonoma County visiting wineries or the Charles [M.] Schulz Museum or whatnot -- whatever brings you to Sonoma County -- we've got this facility."

Favorite beers: Cilurzo credits Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company for inspiration as well as advice over the years -- and for providing Cilurzo with a longtime favorite: "I always have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in my fridge. It's still one of my go-to, everyday beers. . . . I still love drinking it."

Challenges: Hands on the deck, says Cilurzo. "It's hard, both on the hospitality and the brewing [sides], to find enough labor, these days. The unemployment rate here is next to nothing."

And there's the challenge of continuing to stand out in a crowded field: "There [are] a lot of breweries in America. So, although we are considered -- I wouldn't say pioneers, but early adopters -- of what is craft beer now, there [are] a lot of breweries making great beer."

Opportunities: Educating and satisfying guests. "We've always been a brewery that [tries] to get our guests to come to us, and we have this amazing brewery now to show off . . . and educate, teach people how beer's made -- whether it's our specific process or just making beer in general," says Cilurzo.

Needs: Working out all the kinks of a new brewery, Cilurzo says. "Really, we just need time to work through all the things, the challenges, that come with a new building, new equipment. You can't really learn that except by doing, getting some months under our belt. . . . We were pretty comfortable with how to predict the beer that's being sold at the pub [in Santa Rosa], but this is a brand-new facility. It's a different part of the county. It's just a new experience all the way around."

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