Russian River Brewing Company’s annual release of Pliny the Younger triple IPA drew visitors from 47 states and 14 countries and generated $5.1 million in economic impact to the local economy, an increase of 22.6% over the 2019 release, according to a study conducted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
“We are very fortunate that the coronavirus had not reached pandemic until a few weeks after the release,” Russian River co-founder Natalie Cilurzo wrote in an email to Brewbound. “At least we had one last economic boost to the community before everything came to a screeching halt.”
2020 marked the first time the Santa Rosa and Windsor, California-based craft brewery offered its famed Pliny the Younger in bottles. Russian River has released the beer traditionally only on draft on the first Friday of February annually for 16 years.
“It’s very humbling to us that people come from all over the world to drink this one beer,” Cilurzo said in a Brewbound Podcast episode recorded before the 2019 release of Pliny the Younger. “We really make sure that they get the full Russian River experience, that it’s not just about Younger — it’s about coming to the brewery, it’s about enjoying other beers and eating food and having nice conversation and getting great customer service.”
In what now feels like a different universe, the 2020 release drew 23,525 people to Russian River’s two breweries. There was an average of 2.7 people per group and an average of $194 spent per group. Visitors to the Sonoma County area spent an average of $445 on lodging and $580 on flights to Sonoma County Airport.
The 2019 release generated $4.16 million in economic impact, a 24% increase over 2018, which was affected by wildfires that ravaged the region the preceding fall and later hampered tourism to the area.
All 40,000 bottles of Pliny the Younger sold out during the two-week period. The company limited guests to three draft pours and two 550 mL bottles per day. Although Russian River sold bottles for $10 at its breweries, some consumers posted their bottles for sale on secondary market sites for upwards of $150 in the days following the release, according to Eater San Francisco.
Cilurzo said that the team isn’t sure how next year’s Pliny the Younger release will take shape.
“It’s so hard to plan for next week let alone next year. I honestly have no idea what Younger 2021 looks like,” she wrote in an email to Brewbound. “There is a strong possibility that we will do bottles since they were such a hit, but not sure how they would get into customers’ hands if we are still unable to safely have large gatherings of people. Just shipping beer direct to consumer loses the whole spirit of the release, but nothing is off the table.”
Since California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in mid-March requesting Californians to stay home, Russian River has been operating in limited capacities at both breweries. Although both have been open for to-go beer sales, only Santa Rosa has been offering takeout food. The Windsor location will reopen its kitchen for takeout on Friday, May 22, for Memorial Day weekend, Cilurzo wrote on Russian River’s blog.
“Food can be preordered and picked up in a safe and friendly environment,” she wrote. “We placed 6-foot social distance markers on the floors, installed plexiglass barriers for safe closer interactions, and are sanitizing all surfaces frequently throughout the day. And our staff always wears facial coverings.”
When Russian River is permitted to open for on-premise service, tables will be placed six feet apart, which reduces the capacity at both breweries by at least half. Employees will continue wearing masks and customers will be required by the state to order meals in addition to beer.
“This last one is a bummer, but if we all follow the rules, we will be able to reopen again for ‘normal’ service soon,” Cilurzo wrote.
In their guidance to dine-in restaurants and other on-premise establishments, California’s Department of Public Health and Department of Industrial Relations wrote that breweries, brewpubs, wineries and distilleries are to remain closed unless they are offering sit-down meals and noted that “alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal.”
Cilurzo explained that the state government enacted this rule under the theory “that customers who are eating are less likely to get up and move around.”
“That could just as easily have been accomplished by not allowing standing room,” she wrote. “Our employees’ and customers’ safety is our top priority, but this one is a head scratcher.”
Recognizing that not every establishment has a full kitchen, the departments have allowed for outsourcing of food service.
“Brewpubs, breweries, bars, pubs, craft distilleries, and wineries that do not provide sit-down meals themselves, but can contract with another vendor to do so, can serve dine-in meals provided both businesses follow the guidance below and alcohol is only sold in the same transaction as a meal,” the departments wrote.
These establishments should “continue to encourage takeout and delivery service whenever possible.”
Since the on-premise channel shut down nearly nationwide in March, Russian River shifted its focus to the off-premise channel and shipping beer directly to consumers in California.
“We also started shipping beer through our online store to customers throughout California in an effort to help move some beer and pay the bills while our pubs are mostly shut down,” Cilurzo wrote. “Thankfully, this was a tremendous success and something we have continued to do nearly every week since the shelter in place order began two months ago.”
Shipping to the three other markets in Russian River’s footprint — Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — isn’t off the table but is not in the immediate future.
“I imagine we will eventually take on a few other states, but not without hiring someone to take care of the compliance,” Cilurzo wrote.
Direct-to-consumer shipping has “pleasantly surprised” Cilurzo, she said.
“This is something we have not done in 15 years and really had no idea the demand for our beer [direct-to-consumer],” Cilurzo wrote. “It’s not a cheap way to get beer, but the price did not deter. In the past two months, we have shipped a few thousand cases throughout California.”
This story was updated on May 19 to include additional comments from Natalie Cilurzo.