"We never set out to have our beers become cult favorites among beer enthusiasts—it's just something that sort of happened."
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The beers from Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California are celebrated and coveted among beer lovers around the country. His brews frequently appear at the very top of beer lovers' lists. From gloriously fresh-tasting IPAs such as Pliny the Elder to fascinating concoctions aged in local wine barrels, Vinnie Cilurzo is a master of great beer. We're honored to include him in our interview series.
Name: Vinnie Cilurzo
Location: Santa Rosa, California
Occupation: Brewer and Owner, Russian River Brewing Company
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you learn to brew? I started out homebrewing back in 1988/1989. After continuing to homebrew and a trip to Europe, my hobby got out of control and eventually I started a brewery in Temecula, California, called Blind Pig Brewing Company. I sort of did it opposite of normal—instead of going to work for someone else I found a couple of business partners and dove straight into brewing commercially.
How would you describe Russian River's beers to someone who has never tasted them? For the most part the beers are RRBC are unique, full-flavored, but, very very clean in character. I really pride myself in making very clean-tasting beers that are typically rich and full-bodied. When I say "clean" a part of that is that the beers are dry. Dry beers, that is, beers that finish with a small amount of residual sugar are more digestible, they finish cleaner on your palate, and they are more food-friendly. Although we are known for our Double IPA Pliny the Elder and our line of barrel-aged beers at our brewpub we have a whole line-up of session beers that are lower in alcohol.
You and your wife own the brewery together. Has she always been a beer person? What is her role in the business? Natalie has always been into beer. She use to work in the wine business like me but when we opened the pub in Santa Rosa in 2004, she came on full-time to the brewery and neither of us have looked back. Back when I was homebrewing I would homebrew in the cellar of my folks' winery in Temecula, California, I still remember she would often bring me dinner and we'd hang out, this was when I was developing an IPA recipe which eventually became the Blind Pig IPA recipe, a beer we still brew today at Russian River Brewing.
Natalie oversees the business side of the brewery and our very busy brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa. I handle the brewing side of the business and distribution allocations.
What was the first beer you made? And which one has been the most exciting to make? The first commercial beer I brewed was at Blind Pig Brewing and it was a Double IPA—this was in 1994. As for the most exciting beer, it's hard to say, along the way we've done so many innovative things such as 100% "wet" hop beers where we used all freshly picked hops from our hopyard, several different barrel-aged beers, a collaboration with an Italian brewer friend where we brewed with pepper, honey, roses, and violets, as well as some super hoppy IPAs. If you had to pin me down to one brew, I'd say HopTime Harvest Ale.
You often use wine barrels for aging your beers—Temptation in Chardonnay barrels, Supplication in Pinot Noir barrels—are you a wine drinker? I am a wine drinker, both Natalie and I are. I tend to drink Pinot Noir, by far my favorite style of wine. I don't think there are any greater Pinot Noirs than what is being made here in Sonoma County and particularly the Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellations. We just absolutely love these Pinots.
Besides access to local wine barrels, how has being in Sonoma affected your brewery? Our brewery has been shaped by Sonoma County because of the support we get from locals. Your average Sonoma County person is a strong proponent to shop local and buy local products, we are very fortunate because of this.
Your beers have become cult favorites all around the country—did you expect this kind of success? Was there any point at which you doubted the venture? We never set out to have our beers become "cult favorites" among beer enthusiasts—it's just something that sort of happened. If you plan or strive for that, my guess is it won't happen because you'll be trying too hard.
There are always doubts with small businesses. Even up until the opening of our production brewery two years ago, I had doubts—not in the beers but whether we were making proper expansion decisions. In the end, it has all worked out but there are always doubts, particularly when you are the owner.
What are you brewing now? Right now we're not brewing many new beers—we've just been sticking to our main beers. Over the past year we've been focusing on the quality of our beers from the production brewery, wanting them to taste even better and trying to get them to taste even closer to the beers we make at our brewpub. We've bought some new lab equipment and, most importantly, installed a state-of-the-art bottling line which has not only improved the shelf life of our hoppy beers but made the overall aroma and flavor better. If you are distributing the brewing business is a very cash-intensive business.
Fans are clamoring for your beers—more Pliny the Younger, more Russian River beers in bottles. How do you plan to face the demand? Will you increase your production? Any chance you'll increase your distribution area? Allocations is a big part of my job now. Natalie and I are very focused on not growing too fast. Instead we focus on improving the quality of our beer and the brewery's efficiency.
We are adding an automated corker and wire hooder to our bottling line to cut three days off bottling when we do a sour/barrel aged bottle run and cut our bottling days in half when filling Belgian styles such as Damnation. We are also going 100% solar at our production brewery, which will save us a lot of money in the long run, plus it's right thing to do.
I spend a lot of time allocating for both local distribution and our distributors. We do the best we can to supply all the markets we sell into. The bottom line: to not let our brewpub run out of beer—at the end of the day the brewpub is still the foundation of our business. That said, we hope to add another fermenter to our production brewery this year to help increase the production of Pliny the Elder and but allow us to use some of our current tanks for more Blind Pig IPA, Belgian style beers, and sour beers.
We are all about slow growth and not just growing and growing and growing just for sake of growth or money—that really is not our style. There will always be a few pissed-off consumers out there who don't understand why they can't get our beer. They can't understand why we just don't keep growing. But it's why our beer quality has stayed high, particularly with hoppy beers which don't sit on a shelf too long at the store. This keeps the hoppy beers tasting fresh.
How do you get inspired to make new beers? Getting away from the brewery so I can think away from the day-to-day issues. As for making new beers, I usually get inspired when I'm in Belgium, not necessarily from what I taste but just from being around the great brewing culture Belgium.
Do you have a Top Five list of Belgian beers? Hands down my favorite beer in the world is Orval, I love how it starts out fresh and hoppy when it's young but, over time the Brettanomyces takes over and changes. Brett adds a more funky edge to the beer. The sour Lambic beers at Cantillon and Drie Fountain are great. I still love Duvel and a very hoppy beer called XXX Bitter from De Rank Brewery. There's a new upstart brewery called Brewery De La Senne building a new brewery in Brussels right now.
Can you give us suggestions for pairing Russian River beers with food? I still think one of my favorite pairings is Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese from Cyprus Grove Creamery with our barrel aged Temptation. The funkiness from the Brettanomyces yeast in the Temptation goes really well with the rich, earthy flavors of the goat cheese.
What are your hopes for the brewery for 2010? An initial small expansion by purchasing more kegs and serving tanks for our pub as well as a new fermenter. My hopes with the new fermenter is to fill in the supply gap we have with our current distributor.
I don't want any new accounts, I just want our current accounts—whether we distribute directly to them or to one of our beer distributors—to be able to have a more steady supply of RRBC beer. I'm also hoping to get an R&D 10 or 20 gallon brew system so I can experiment with new brews to eventually make commercially.
Author's note New Yorkers will soon have the chance to sample Vinnie's handiwork at the new Eataly Birreria, where he will be collaborating with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo, and Teo Musso of Birrificio Le Baladin.