Interview with Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing
We recently caught up with Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Sonoma, CA. Russian River is extremely famous for Pliny The Elder, which is a highly hopped, easy drinking strong IPA. The fame doesn’t end there, as Russian River makes probably the best Sour Ale in the US, and has built crazy off the charts level of buzz with Pliny The Younger. We find out his thoughts on San Francisco Beer Week, what’s the deal with the craze surrounding the beer he makes, as well as what they are doing to get the good stuff in more people’s hands.
The Full Pint – What are your thoughts on San Francisco Beer Week?
Vinnie – Craft Beer started in Northern California with Fritz Maytag and then with Jack McAuliffe at New Albion Brewery in Sonoma so it is great to spotlight craft beer like SF Beer Week does. But in all truth, we are very fortunate in the area as consumers are drinking craft beer year round and they embrace everything all the breweries in the area make.
TFP – For all of the folks who are just getting to try Pliny The Elder in bottles, could you take us on the journey that led to the popularity and subsequent bottled production of one of the best beers in the World? If you had a magic wand, would you make it available in every store that sells beer? Would it be as highly regarded if it was?
Vinnie – Those are kind words, thank you! Regarding Pliny the Elder, everything about it happened organically, we never pushed it down the mouth of consumers, retail accounts, or distributors. The popularity of it just happened on its own and over time the beer improved in flavor profile as well. I said above the whole process was very organic. It is not really our style to have our beer everywhere. I’m confident we could make it in larger quantities and still keep the quality, but, one thing we really try to stress if having it kept cold. This is the case for any hoppy beer, when a hoppy beer, no matter who made it is not kept cold the beer will deteriorate quickly or at least quicker than if it was kept cold. Keeping hoppy beers cold is imperative and that is a point we have really stressed. Because the US beer market is not really based around this concept I don’t think you’d ever see us distribute the Elder in any large fashion.
TFP – Pliny The Younger is a huge topic of discussion online with beer lovers. What is your thoughts on the popularity of the beer, and whether it will be made more available in the future?
Vinnie – Just like the Pliny the Elder, the growth and popularity of Pliny the Younger has happened organically, we did not start with the intentions of building a beer that in time would have this HUGE buzz around it, it was just something fun to brew and over the years we have made a little more each year. We are at our maximum limit though now on how much we can brew. In truth it is a very difficult beer for us to brew as it takes 6 weeks to make, a batch of something else usually takes 21 to 24 days so as you can see if you do the math we lose a lot of tank space when we make Younger, in fact, we lose an entire fermentation cycle on two tanks when we make Younger. We may try to make a small amount more in the future but because of the production issues it causes us it will never be produced in any quantity.
TFP – Many were introduced to Consecration this past year. It seemed to be much more available than any of your previous retail sour ales. Can we expect more availability for your other beers? Any new retail relationships besides Whole Foods Market in the pipeline?
Vinnie – Consecration represents a conscious decision to create a barrel beer that would be a shorter cycle time which would lead to us being able to offer it year round here in the North Bay and the Bay Area and East Bay. Although we continue to add barrels I think you’ll see similar quantities of other barrel beers released each year as they take much longer to make. Temptation is in the barrels for 9 to 12 months, Supplication is in the barrels for 12 to 15 months, but, Consecration is only in the barrels for 4 to 8 months so we can turn it quicker and as I said above that was our intention from the get go. We designed the beer around a shorter barrel time.
TFP – Some say they can tastes noticeable differences between batches of Consecration and such? For those aspiring to have a super palate, what differences would one be able to taste between say Batch 1 of Consecration and Batch 2?
Vinnie – The differences between batches of any of our sour barrel aged beers are sometimes out of my hands, sometimes the Brettanomyces and bacteria’s do their own thing. Other times the differences are related to the exact barrel time or the wine flavor that is coming from the barrel. In regards to your question about Consecration, we have put three batches out so far and are in the middle of bottling the 4th batch right now. I think the 3rd batch (and soon 4th batch) are slightly better beers because we now have more experience with this beer. Also, when we made batches 1 and 2 we were still in construction at our production brewery and I was doing all the brewing, I only had one other brewer working for me and he was doing all the cellar work while I brewed. So we didn’t have as much time to work with the barrels. Now that we are on our feet at the production brewery and I have more of a crew to help brew I can concentrate more on the barrel beers and this makes them better beers. I also think I’m getting a better handle on what I want the beer to taste like, for example, batch 3 is not as carbonated as batch 1 and 2, this has made the flavor profile much nicer in my mind.
TFP – With all the bugs you brew with, how do you keep half of your production buggy and half of it bug free? Has anyone reported of a sour batch of Blind Big IPA?
Vinnie – Thankfully so far no sour batches of Pig or Pliny… To keep things separate we have two sets of everything, one for our non-funky beers and another set of equipment for our funky beers. We’ve gone so far at our production brewery to have a designated brite beer tank for funky beers, this is a 100 bbl tank. We’ve got separate pumps, valves, gaskets, tubing, buckets, door gaskets, etc… Basically if it is porous we have extra of whatever that part is to keep the funk out of our non-funky beers.
TFP – How is business going for Russian River?
Vinnie – Our business is doing ok, we are maxed out at 100% capacity at both breweries and our pub is staying busy. We are very fortunate to have a strong business model and a very very loyal following.
TFP – While folks hoot and howl over the prices of Lost Abbey Beer, folks seem to gladly fork over the same amount of cash for your products? Do you see your prices rising, falling, or staying the same?
Vinnie – For now our pricing will stay the same, our cost for ingredients and supplies has stabilized thankfully.
TFP – There are many curious as to why Russian River uses the running ‘TION theme for the barrel aged sours, could you give us the back story on that?
Vinnie – The TION concept started with Damnation as the first Belgian style beer we made. From there I thought to myself that if we have a beer named Damnation we also must have a beer called Redemption. The rest just followed.
TFP – What is your favorite non-Russian River beer?
Vinnie – Orval and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.