The Younger Lovers

Waiting overnight in the rain with the diehards for Pliny the Younger, the world's No. 1 cult craft beer.

Ramen, pastries, day-old bagels: San Francisco knows what it means to wait voluntarily in long lines for foods and beverages that are otherwise readily available elsewhere. Granted, in some cases, like the cruffins at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, these are niche items that far outweigh the competition.

But as with any avidly chronicled phenomenon in our food-obsessed culture, the experience itself can overtake the “real” reward. Waiting in line at the post office or the DMV might be agony, but there’s nothing like sharing a planned wait with friends, nor the satisfaction of finally getting whatever you woke up at midnight for. Be it a smartphone or a bowl of tonkotsu, you do it to telegraph your obsession. And for two weeks in early February, downtown Santa Rosa may have San Francisco beat on sheer tenacity.

That’s when — in a mad enterprise that partly overlaps with S.F. Beer Week — the Russian River Brewing Company releases Pliny the Younger.

First brewed in 2005, Younger is a time-, labor-, and ingredient-intensive Triple India Pale Ale that requires a lot of malt and even more finesse. It’s available only in early-to-mid-February, on draft at the brewery and at selected brewpubs in California and elsewhere in the West; you can’t fill a growler and take it to go. A hop-heavy, high-alcohol brew that lacks the biting finish of many other IPAs, it’s a beer geek’s beer, and Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo has become an elder statesman of the craft-beer universe. Starting in 2010, anticipation hit critical mass, and on the first Friday of every February, long lines have greeted Younger’s release. The quality speaks for itself, but Younger’s rarity — plus the envy-inducing alchemy of social media — act as force multipliers, endowing it with a cult status that’s unique among American beers. Although long lines for beer are becoming common — when Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colorado, limited fans of Ten FIDY Imperial Stout to 12 cans each, 400 people endured five-degree weather one day to get some last December — it’s Pliny the Younger that brings out the diehards like almost nothing else.

Co-owner Natalie Cilurzo makes a point to walk among them every year.

“People descend on Santa Rosa once a year to drink our beer, and I always say the event is on line,” she says. “The party is outside. People make friends. They have reunions here.

“It’s very special to us,” she adds.

When I drive into Santa Rosa from Guerneville early on the morning of Friday, Feb. 3, the line already extends from the brewery along Fourth Street and around D Street. The first people on it are a trio of adults named Boots, Jeremy, and Sara — plus an 18-month-old baby in a stroller — who’d driven up from Ventura the night before and gotten in line at 11:30 p.m., the earliest time the brewery’s sidewalk sandwich board says you can. It was vital for Boots to be first.

“I was going to be first last year, and someone jumped right in front of me,” he says. “So this year, I made sure. We left at 4 o’clock yesterday, got here about 11, went inside, had a beer, and got in line.

“My first year here, we got in line in the morning on the backside of the building and waited for 10 hours in the rain,” he adds. “It was brutal. If I’m going to do it, I might as well just be in the front and wait all night.”

With an umbrella, chairs, and a “bunch of Patagonia gear,” they took shifts staying dry in the car. Sara says the baby, who might be considered Pliny the Youngest, has been cooperative, “for the most part.”

“He’s been here three times,” Boots says. “Once in the womb, once out of the womb, and now he’s here.”

The front of the line may be the toughest spot to stand — especially through a stormy night like the one that’s just ending. Beyond the searing envy directed at the back of your neck from all the second-tier superfans behind you and the energy it takes to sustain a pose of casual triumph, there’s no protection from the elements. Ten or 20 people back, you can shelter in an alcove — in front of the barbershop, say, or the glass blower’s. Tents aren’t allowed, and Russian River Brewing urges people not to block the entrances to neighboring businesses, so when it comes time to open up shop, you may be exposed to the elements again.

Two hours before opening, the line for Pliny the Younger stretched around the block. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

People get creative. Four male employees of San Diego’s Karl Strauss Brewing Company left on Thursday at 6 p.m. and arrived at 3 a.m., set up a couch, and watched TV until they fell asleep. After a so-late-it’s-early Denny’s run, they managed to stay dry — although one says, “It was a little moist when I got up.”

“Exactly one year ago, we were sitting on this very sidewalk — sans couch,” another tells me. “We learned from our mistakes. We came to this last year and had a great time bonding over the trip. And the beer is pretty phenomenal.”

Two guys from Sacramento, Jeremy Nellist and Bryan Pearson, had been waiting since 1 a.m. — for the third year in a row.

How did they pass the time?

“I slept,” Nellist says. “I’m sure I snored. I’m sure these guys with the video camera got some embarrassing footage of me with my mouth agape.”

“I did some sexy work,” Pearson adds. “I reviewed our new employee handbook for the year and made edits to pass the time. I have automotive shops in Sacramento, so we can write this off!”

The line hasn’t been too rowdy, he says, producing a flask from an inside pocket of his coat and adding, “We’re probably the drunkest ones here. We’re old dad guys, and there’s not a lot of excuses to go hang out with your buddies. It’s our one weekend a year for irresponsible behavior.”

Some groups arrived at seemingly random times during the wee hours, resigned to a long wait no matter what time they rolled up and bringing crossword puzzles and books to get through it. Others were more strategic. Brian and Taylor, who’d driven up from San Luis Obispo, figured a midmorning arrival would result in the shortest absolute wait time, even if it meant exclusion from the first group of fans who got in. Still, for others, it’s a matter of local pride tinged with the satisfaction of a check list. Two 10-year residents of Santa Rosa named Shakir and James had never had Younger before, which chafed at them, so they took the whole day off from their jobs (at an insurance company and in retail banking) to stand in line.

The brewery puts out free coffee and pastries from Peet’s. At one point, a heavily pierced Starbucks barista, clearly nonplussed over seeing so many of his rival’s cups, works the line, doling out slices of lemon cake. It rains, it stops, it rains some more. Fewer people than I’d expect leave the line to seek refuge in a cafe or a car. They roam back and forth, among a surprisingly large security presence. They’re not permitted to speak to the press, but they do confirm that this year is much like any other. The overall mood is much more jovial than the grim queue of underslept theater geeks who’d waited all night in San Francisco’s Civic Center for Hamilton tickets last December, probably because everybody knows they’re going to get some beer. But almost no one appears intoxicated: These are hopheads, not dipsos, and everybody wants to keep their palate fresh.

One group of four women named Stacey, Kim, Lisa, and Diane has made Younger a ladies’ weekend for years, often with a bigger group. They’d gone to Lagunitas the night before and were planning to hit wineries like Kendall-Jackson, Coppola, and Virginia Dare. Stacey’s a home-brewer who lives in Moscow, Idaho, while the others flew up from Southern California. (Kim, a teacher, is playing hooky, but overcomes her reluctance to speak to a reporter when she realizes she only has 88 working days until retirement.)

“I’m not an IPA fan at all,” she says, “but last year, I really liked it. Since [Stacey] started brewing beer, I’m enjoying it. I’m graduating. Pliny’s usually better. Last year, we didn’t like it as well, but in previous years it was good.”

And they’re dedicated.

“We got here at 4 a.m.,” Stacey says. “It rained, but we’re pretty prepared. I feel bad for the people at the very beginning, because there’s no awnings.”

You can find Pliny the Younger at Tornado from Feb. 10-19. (Photo by Eric Pratt)

Vinnie Cilurzo’s mother, Audrey, a retired winemaker from Temecula, is in town for her first Younger. She sensed early on that her son was more interested in grains than grapes.

“In high school, he started experimenting with beer,” she says. “Not really drinking it, but experimenting with different brews. I knew then: He’s not going to inherit this business.”

Evidently, she was supportive, and her son opened his first microbrewery, Blind Pig, in Temecula in 1994. It lasted three years, before Cilurzo relocated up north. Aud Blonde, Russian River’s American blonde ale, is named for her, even though (as Cilurzo later says in his speech) his mother is a redhead. As for why she’s never made it to Santa Rosa for the excitement before, she says she didn’t want to make a fuss.

“I didn’t want to feel like they were obligated to take care of us,” she says. “I knew what it was, from having a winery, to have a special day and take care of all the VIPs.”

“I can remember when the words ‘craft beer’ didn’t mean anything,” she adds. “But just in Southern California, every week a new craft brewery is started.”

“It was on her bucket list all these years,” Cilurzo later tells me, noting that he’d set her up at a bar near her home where she has “rock-star status.”

“She has a special table … and people come up and say, ‘I understand you’re the brewer’s son,’ ” he says.

Cilurzo has a preferred method for how to drink Younger properly. Noting that the brewery serves it at around 38 degrees (because pouring it too warm will cause it to foam), he believes that 50 is the ideal temperature.

“I always say the best Younger is halfway through the glass, because it’s warm and the hops just start jumping out of the glass. It really becomes what Younger really is: super hop-aromatic layers of hops all the way through.”

Those extra hops — in this year’s formula, eight in total — are what make Pliny the Younger so expensive and time-consuming to produce, and what lure hopheads from all over the Western U.S. Aside from what goes into the kettle, Cilurzo says, the beer gets four different dry-hop additions over the course of several weeks. When he began producing it, it was an 11 percent ABV beer, but it’s been whittled down over the years to about 10.25 percent. That fractional change makes all the difference, and the quest to minimize fusel alcohols and maximize dryness is something Cilurzo is happy to get deep into the weeds about. (Fusel alcohols, or fusel oils, are a byproduct of poorly controlled fermentation, as well as a prime contributor to the severity of one’s hangover.)

“If you get beer too high in alcohol and ferment it warm, like an ale, you’ll get super-hot flavors,” he says. “That’s something I’m always trying to suppress. There’s always been this play of ‘How cool can we ferment it to suppress those fusel-alcohol flavors while still fermenting it warm enough to where it ferments out?’ Because what we don’t want is sweet. The cornerstone of Russian River beers is that they’re dry.”

But owing to malt, which produces much of the sugar, beer tends to be sweet. And you can’t just dump in hops for bitterness and balance without an adequate bed of malt for them to sit on.

“There’s a lot of thought that goes into how much malt of a foundation there is,” Cilurzo says, “yet we’re also adding a pretty good amount of sugar to just be fermentable, so that it just ferments to alcohol and gets to dryness. Then you add a cooler fermentation — which is one of the big changes this year — and you end up with a beer that has almost no heat to it at all, yet it’s super-aromatic. I can smell your glass, and yet we’re a foot-and-a-half away. It’s amazing to me how aromatic it gets as it warms up.”

Listening to him get technical is absorbing, but he’s right: The glass of Younger I’m clutching has come up to temperature, and the nose on it is really something. Sipping it, it has almost a roiling quality. Without any swishing, the palate picks up one strain of hops after another, plus the flavors they impart: grapefruit, pine, cannabis, stone fruit, funk. Beyond using well-known varieties like Simcoe, Amarillo, and Centennial, Cilurzo finished Younger with Azaca (for a “pitted-fruit flavor”) and Comet, a dank, resinous hop that emerged in the 1970s, right after Cascade and Centennial, the two strains that serve as the backbone for the IPA renaissance and, by extension, the entire craft-beer industry.

San Francisco fans know that there’s really only one place in the city to get Pliny the Younger: Toronado in the Lower Haight. This isn’t because it won a random lottery; it’s because Toronado is Russian River’s No. 1 account, and Cilurzo likes to reward their loyalty. This year, the Lower Haight brewpub and its famously cantankerous staff will tap Younger on seven of the 10 days between Feb. 10-19. Elsewhere, kegs get distributed down the coast and as far east as Colorado.

Achieving sufficient velocity to become a cult favorite is something every marketer desperately covets for their product, and like his wife, Vinnie Cilurzo is grateful for the long lines as a totem of Younger’s success. He compares it to the success of Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple (with a caveat that “the iPhone is in the stratosphere”).

“I want them to know we really appreciate them waiting in line,” he says. “But it’s also important to run our business with a lot of caution and know that not everybody has this. ‘Don’t take it for granted,’ we tell our staff every day.”

But beneath the gratitude, you can sense a glimmer of frustration at the scale of the spectacle. Cilurzo would like the drinking public not to equate Russian River with any one beer. He takes pains to tout the brewery’s new releases, like Jake Brake (an IPA), and a blonde ale called She’s So Italian that’s made with roses, violets, black pepper, honey, and elderberry juice. It’s “a tea with a beer infusion,” he says.

Jesse Friedman of S.F.’s Almanac Beer Co. says he’s glad that it’s Russian River and Vinnie who are “cursed with the success of Pliny.”

“He’s a great spokesperson for quality in the industry,” Friedman says, noting that the hoopla is more about the experience than Younger’s excellence, per se. “It’s an amazing beer, but one where the legend outstrips anything the beer could ever be.”

Cilurzo also brews an entire range of beers with Latinate, high-church names that end in “-tion,” like Consecration (a sour aged in Cabernet barrels) or Benediction (an Abbey Double). One patron swears to me that it began with a Belgian Strong Pale Ale called Damnation, which in turn came from the Squirrel Nut Zippers song “Hell,” the bridge of which spells out that word. Whatever the provenance, Russian River puts out a lot of beers. And having been around as long as he has, Cilurzo is something of an elder statesman for craft beer in Northern California. Ken Grossman, the billionaire founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, calls him “a good friend.”

About the brouhaha surrounding Younger, Grossman says, “Vinnie’s a very deserving brewer. He takes the art and craft to one of the highest levels of ay brewers I interact with. It’s well-deserved, and it’s great to see him get a lot of success.”

Cilurzo even “got ordained and married my son and his wife five years ago,” he adds. “We’ve spent a lot of time together.”

Beginning at 10:30 a.m., the first group is let in. Upon admission, everyone gets a hot-pink wristband with the date and three numbered pull-off tabs that get you one 12-ounce pour each. There are a few TV crews, but otherwise it could be any high-end brewpub during a busy lunch shift. When everyone is comfortably ensconced in the taproom, clinking glasses and eating pizza under the vintage beer signs, the Cilurzos take the stage.

“Thank you all for coming out in the rain, standing in the cold, in your cars, doing what you do,” Natalie says. “Because you’re our friends and our fans, and we can’t thank you enough.”

She acknowledges Audrey Cilurzo’s presence. On behalf of the matriarch, the crowd erupts like the volcano that took the life of Pliny the Elder in 79 BCE. Then Vinnie takes over, telling a story about the time he brought his parents to the Great American Beer Festival and they won an award. The crowd roars again. He reiterates Natalie’s appreciation and launches into the new hops that have gone into this year’s formula.

“Someone asked earlier, ‘How do you make that decision?’ ” Cilurzo says. “It’s just by feel. I thought these two hops would work well.”

The audience, slowly getting rosier with camaraderie and drink, takes it in stride that the No. 1 cult beer in the world apparently comes from a hunch. Meanwhile, outside, the rain has begun falling yet again, drenching people who drove for hours and waited for hours in one spot for the show to start — and, having lurched forward 60 paces — are now waiting another three hours for three small glasses of beer they might very easily never taste again.

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