Local SF Brewpubs and Bars See Business Surge with Cult Beer Releases

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

February in Santa Rosa California, while more temperate than the February in most parts of the country, is still chilly, dreary, and not altogether pleasant. And yet each February, thousands of people happily wait for up to 12 hours in the cold, grey Northern California weather for the chance to spend money on a relatively small glass of beer. The beer in question is Pliny the Younger, brewed by Russian River Brewing Company and released for only two weeks per year. Since it was first brewed and released in 2005, Pliny the Younger has gained a cult status unmatched in the world of craft beer. Customers line up en masse wherever the beer is released, and operators lucky enough to secure a keg can count on big business whenever and however they choose to release it. Let's explore how this renowned beer's history has paralleled the rise of craft beer as an industry, and what rare beer means to the operators who sell it.

Historical Context

When Vinnie Cilurzo, the owner and head brewer of Russian River Brewing Company, began his foray into the beer world, the idea of craft beer as the mega industry that it is today would have seemed quite far-fetched (Cilurzo himself grew up in a winemaking family). Cilurzo founded the now-defunct Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula in 1994, and in 1997 he moved to Sonoma County to brew for Russian River, a company initially founded as a subsidiary of Korbel Champagne Cellars. Eventually Cilurzo began experimenting with the India Pale Ale, a style that a small group of American brewers had begun to use to showcase the vibrant complexity of American hops. Cilurzo first released the current iteration of Pliny the Elder, the brewery's year-round double IPA and first of its kind, at an IPA competition in the year 2000. The brewery won rave reviews for the beer, which became an instant classic and helped to allow Cilurzo to buy the Russian River brand from Korbel in 2003.

By this time, the American craft beer movement had established itself as much more than a passing fad, and the IPA had become entrenched as the style most emblematic of the movement. Having already invented the double IPA, Cilurzo took the beer up a notch by releasing a triple version, Pliny the Younger, at the Russian River brewpub in 2005. Like its predecessor, Pliny the Younger was an instant hit. The scarcity of the beer, released in extremely limited quantities due to the time and money needed to brew it, only furthered consumer's desire to get a taste. Today, Pliny the Younger is consistently ranked among the best beers in the world, and desire for the beer is as high as ever.

Maximizing Exposure 

As previously stated, the time, labor, and cost that go into making Pliny the Younger lead to extremely small batches being made each year. Most of the beer produced is sold at Russian River's brewpub, but a small number of bars throughout California will receive a keg or two each year. Determining the best way to sell the beer is an important step in the process, as consumers are guaranteed to come out in droves wherever and whenever the beer is available.

So how are operators maximizing their precious kegs? First, there's the no frills approach. Bars like Hamilton's Tavern in San Diego and Toronado in San Francisco simply put the beer on tap when they feel like it, with little besides a single tweet to let people know that Pliny has arrived. This creates a frenzy of activity at the pubs, and has the added benefit of increasing the social media presence for the bar itself.

Most operators take a more organized approach, announcing weeks in advance the date they will be tapping their Pliny the Younger kegs. This generates lots of interest in the bar, and can cause sales on the day of the release to sky rocket, as consumers happily spend money on food (or other beers) while waiting for their glass of Pliny. Some bars have even gone as far as implementing a lottery system, allowing them to gather consumer contact data while giving people less enthused about waiting in long lines a fair chance at the beer.

Other systems have popped up as well. Los Angeles bar Blue Palms Brewhouse has taken a magnanimous approach, using the beer's popularity as a way to generate money for local charities. Though the cost of the beer is much higher than it is at most places ($20 for a ten ounce pour), drinkers still arrive in droves, happy to support a worthy cause while enjoying a delicious beer.

Starting a Rare Beer Program

As we've seen, giving customers access to a rare beer is an easy way to generate interest in your business and build customer loyalty. Beers like Pliny the Younger may be nearly impossible for an operator to obtain, but there are plenty of fantastic beers out there that are worth seeking out. Having a productive, friendly relationship with distributors is always a key, as many rare beers are on allocation systems, and are therefore only available to a few accounts.

Bars and bottle shops with sufficient space should also consider investing in a beer-cellar program. Beers that come into your shop or restaurant do not always have to be sold immediately, and their value can increase with time. While obviously not an option for hop-forward beers that deteriorate with age, stouts, barleywines, and other high-gravity brews can improve wonderfully with age. The barrel-aged stout that might have earned only a casual glance during the year that it was released can generate much more interest two to three years down the line, and having a vertical of several vintages available can provide consumers with an opportunity to see how the beer has evolved over time.

Last but not least, stay invested and interested in your local brewing scene. Beers like Pliny the Younger have been established for years, but there's always a chance that the new brewery opening in your city may be producing fantastic, highly sought-after beers in the future. It's another great reason to support the beer and breweries around you, and one that could pay off big time if your local brewery starts producing the Pliny the Younger of the future.