When I first moved to San Francisco and the Bay Area, I was excited about a new school, sure, but I also knew that I was entering one of the most renowned craft beer regions in the world. Craft beer original gangsters Lagunitas Brewing Company, Russian River Brewing Company & Anchor Brewing Company awaited.
I was a kid in a candy store: enjoying the great IPAs of my time while also learning to homebrew. The pinnacle of it all to me was finally trying Pliny the Elder. At the time, the list of places that Pliny was distributed to wasn’t widely available (now Russian River posts its locations that serve its beer online).
So, instead of being able to look up where I could find it, I had to trek two hours north from Palo Alto to their brewpub in Santa Rosa in order to be able to finally taste what BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, & BeerGraphs consistently rate as one of the top beers in the world.
Pliny the Elder Rankings
What a great tasting paddle they serve at Russian River: you can try over a dozen beers in one flight, with great portion sizes of strong beers to boot. I have to say even non-beer drinkers in my group found favorites in Supplication, a steel-aged Sour Ale that Russian River has in regular supply.
And Pliny… Pliny certainly did not disappoint, such a great well-rounded beer -- strong, bold, piney but also bright and filled with hoppy flavors. That brew definitely sits near the top of my favorites out there. I still haven’t had the chance to try out it’s even stronger and more highly rated cousin Pliny the Younger, I’m hoping maybe this year I can.
Many have speculated on how Pliny the Elder is made and its recipe, but it’s no secret. Vinnie Cilurzo, founder and brewmaster of Russian River, posted his recommendations on Double IPA brewing technique as well as a copy of the recipe itself in Zymurgy’s 2009 July/August edition.
For those that are wondering, 12.5 oz of hops are added throughout the brewing process to just a typical five gallon batch. These hops consist of a combination of Columbus, Simcoe, and Centennial at different stages including two separate dry hopping parts.
Just how did Russian River’s Pliny the Elder rise to such stardom and popularity anyways? “It happened pretty organically over the years,” says Russian River co-owner Natalie Cilurzo, “so it was definitely not an overnight success like Pliny the Younger. This one was more gradual. We were winning awards and accolades on Elder long before social media and rating websites noticed. Regardless of how it happened, we are very grateful!”
It was definitely not an overnight success like Pliny the Younger.”
It all started when brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo (now co-owner of Russian River) was hired out of Blind Pig Brewing Company to brew beer for Sonoma County staple Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, California. Almost immediately, they were winning awards such as the Small Brewing Company Brewmaster of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival in 1999 as well as Small Brewing Company of the Year.
They were able to spin out of Korbel and become their own entity, eventually landing their brewery nearby in Santa Rosa, California where I first enjoyed that amazing tasting flight.
As the years went on in Palo Alto, I would find Pliny the Elder at some of my favorite places in Palo Alto: places like Rose & Crown and Calafia. When I moved up to San Francisco, the trend continued. I would visit famous beer bars like Toronado & The Page which would have Pliny the Elder on tap. What a great city I had just moved to; there were just some amazing bars that had some really amazing beer. A Pliny night was always a good night.
I got married and moved across the Golden Gate Bridge to the small town of Sausalito. As I visited my local market for the first time just a few blocks away from my new apartment, I’m looking at the beer selection… and there I find… and I couldn’t believe it... Pliny the Elder. Of course, guests at my housewarming party started showing up bringing gifts from the only store they could find in our neighborhood – knowing I was a beer lover, they brought me more Pliny to stockpile at home.
I must have hit the jackpot. I often accredit this luck to being redheaded and Irish, or maybe my local market is just amazing. It has all the best things, from sustainably farmed meats and they have a great deli! It was then, that something funny crossed through my head.
How is it that Pliny the Elder is in all of the best places?
It is rare for us to take on new accounts simply because we just don’t have the beer.”
What’s really happening here? Is the beer making these bars and stores better? Or are these bars and stores making the beer better? Or… is it just a match made in heaven?
I went over to ask the Russian River owners how they decide on how they decide to take on new accounts. “It is rare for us to take on new accounts simply because we just don’t have the beer,” explained Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River, “We do business with accounts who remain in good standing, are good stewards for craft beer, and operate their businesses both legally and ethically…. And those who keep their IPA’s and other hoppy beers cold.”
So that’s the secret right there! Being “good stewards for craft beer” is the vibe that I pick up when entering every location that sells Pliny. Russian River is looking for accounts that already are awesome. Looking at the distribution list for Russian River, you’ll notice that most locations that stock Pliny are four stars or more on Yelp and some of the best beer bars and stores out there.
But what would my local market have to say about this? I went down to my market to buy a Pliny and ask the owner a few questions. Robert, the owner of Golden Gate Market, was happy to chat about Pliny and was excited about the buzz that it generates.
He told me that people will often call to see if they indeed have Pliny in stock and make the trip from a ways out to pick some up. Because their supply is so limited, Robert implemented a two bottle limit per customer (although you can get up to six if you purchase $20 of groceries or more). Robert told me that they need to do this because they sell out every week.
“We used to only get three cases a week, and that would sell out within two to three days,” said Robert. “Over time we have increased to five cases and now we can last most of the week.” They get their fresh deliveries on Tuesdays, for those that are wondering.
They get their fresh deliveries on Tuesdays, for those that are wondering.”
I asked him how they ended up being able to sell Pliny, to which he answered, “We had been trying to get in with Russian River for years before they finally began allocating us one case per week,” said Robert, “they start you off small and if you stay in good standing then they’ll increase your allocation over time.”
When I asked Natalie how they achieved such success in their marketing and brand appeal she explained, “It is truly in the customer's’ hands,” she explained, “We don’t do any advertising or much marketing, other than my infrequent blog and posts on social media.”
Whatever they’re doing, they are doing right, as demand has consistently been greatly outpacing supply. So much so that Russian River is soon going to be more than doubling its capacity. Natalie said, “We currently brew 16,000 barrels between two breweries. The new Windsor brewery will take us to about 35,000 to 40,000 barrels annually.”
That expansion will that get more Pliny the Elder into the market. “There will be a bit more beer available for our existing accounts, and give us some wiggle room to take on a few new ones, too,” she agreed. “Our wholesalers will also get a little more beer -- all six of them. We plan to expand distribution in a couple of areas within California.”
The question that remains in my mind is how many “good stewards for craft beer” they can continue to find in order to maintain their brand? Will they eventually become too big and be unable to maintain their high level of quality they currently maintain?
Natalie assured me that the future looks bright. I asked her if they would follow the path of the brewery just a short drive down the 101, Lagunitas Brewing Company, who just sold 50% of the company to brewing giant Heineken, “Simply put, we have very different business models and always have. And that’s what is so great about our industry.” Natalie continued, “We can all enjoy successful businesses and go about it in a completely different way. Both of our breweries are committed to making high quality craft beer.”
All in all, it looks like Russian River will continue to find ways to get their beer out to the best places. In Sausalito, for example, Golden Gate Market is still the only store in town where you can buy Pliny even though there are ample locations that would fit the profile Russian River desires of a retailer.
In the meantime, you can still pick some up next time you are biking through Sausalito: just take a pit stop at Golden Gate Market to pick up an awesome sandwich and a cold Pliny (for your apres of course).
Start small, focus on retail sales for cash flow, and keep it local.”
And to those brewery startups out there that are looking for how to replicate Russian River’s distribution strategy? Simple. Natalie was happy to provide some insights into what can bring you success: “Start small, focus on retail sales for cash flow, and keep it local. Once your brand is established, then take on some wholesale partners. Also provide brewery support to your wholesalers. They have a dizzying array of sku’s and need help building your brands.”
Next time you see Pliny the Elder somewhere, just remember that it was very thoughtfully placed there by the masterminds over at Russian River Brewing Company. And be happy because you made the right decision and are witnessing a match made in heaven.
P.S. Pliny the Younger is coming out today! February 3rd - February 16th! Click here for more details