Vinnie Cilurzo Tells Why Russian River Brewery Beers Are About To Get Even Better

With a smile that lasted for hours, Russian River Brewing Company co-owner Natalie Cilurzo made a speech; conducted interviews; greeted friends and customers; and kept an eye on her greatly expanded staff as they began their first day of work with customers at the new facility.

Four years in the making, the sprawling new $50M brewery-restaurant-tasting room-merchandise shop opened for business on Thursday, October 11. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony with representatives from the town of Windsor, California, the gathered crowd of about one hundred queued up. When the doors opened a half-hour later, there was no stampede.

“We’ve learned a little about managing lines,” Natalie Cilurzo said, referring to the annual Pliny The Younger release. Guests were admitted party by party, so as not to overwhelm the bar and kitchen with orders. Within 20 minutes, everyone in the original line was in and seated. Later arrivals filtered in and added their names to a table waiting list.

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The opening day line stretched out to the edge of the parking lot

But approaching the massive edifice from the east side, you might reasonably believe you’re arriving at a construction site. Cranes, dozers and trucks galore are still working away at that end of the building.

Construction tasks that remain include finishing the “funky brewery” wing. When work is completed, self-guided tours of the brewery, as well as guided tours, will begin.

For the next month or so, the public will have to be satisfied with access to the restaurant side of the building, featuring two long bars, plenty of small tables, large communal tables, sofas around an indoor firepit and a huge outdoor beer garden which will not see furniture until next year. There’s also a separate tasting room with growler fills and a merchandise shop.

The new 75 barrel brewhouse, along with the majority of a huge array of top-of-the-line malt processing, fermentation, packaging and cellaring equipment, is already in operation and exceeding expectations.

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As those who have followed the history of RRBC know, co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo has played an enduring, influential role in the history of American craft brewing and in a quest for beer finesse. You’d expect the production side of his new facility to have amazing bells and whistles to make the processes even more effective and the beers even more compelling. You’d be right.

On opening day, Vinnie joined us at the long communal table where we’d just enjoyed lunch. We were seated next to Mike “Tasty” McDole, Randy Griggs and friends, who chimed in while oohing and ahhing along with us. Here’s our conversation with Vinnie Cilurzo, lightly edited for clarity.  

The first brew out of your new brewhouse is a porter, as it was at the Santa Rosa pub and earlier at Russian River at Korbel. But what about earlier, at your Blind Pig Brewing Co. in Temecula?

We made a porter at Blind Pig also. Ironically, it was called Santa Rosa Plateau Porter. Serendipitously, we moved to Santa Rosa! But it was [named for] a nature preserve above Murrieta, just next to Temecula.

I’ve always been a porter fan. The Windsor Porter is a little higher in alcohol than Russian River Porter. Russian River is 5.8, this is 6.2. It’s a little bit softer on the palate. It’s a little creamier in texture, still nice chocolate quality, a little bit of a burnt quality.  

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Ryan Beach of Windsor is first one out with a sixpack of Windsor Porter Batch One to go
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Windsor Porter goldilocks lineup, on a stunning common table made from a fallen sycamore tree salvaged from Golden Gate Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What differences are you seeing as you brew on your new system?

It’s a lot more efficient, both from a malt efficiency standpoint and hop bitterness. We can use less hops to get the same amount of bitterness. The flavor profile is a lot less astringent.

And it’s a softer mouthfeel, which I like better. We’ve always made really clean beer, so this just takes it to the next level.

Is the water chemistry the same here?

It is. For the last two and a half years, or however long we’ve owned the property, every quarter I would go to DuMOL, the winery next door, where they’re longtime friends of ours and we’re longtime customers of theirs. And I’d collect a water sample. On the same day, I’d collect samples from our two Santa Rosa breweries, and we’d send them to a lab. (We wanted to do it multiple times a year to make sure that it didn’t change seasonally.) I’ve done it ten times. And we’ve matched. So we knew that the water was almost identical.  

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Mike “Tasty” McDole, Natalie Cilurzo and Randy Griggs on opening day

We heard that you’ll use open top fermenters in your process here. Will that be done in an enclosed space, like the ones at Anchor Brewing Co.?

[The open top fermentation uses] 100% HEPA filtered air. And then, before the air enters the room, it goes through a UV lamp to further sterilize it. And it’s all one-way air!

They’re different in their shape, in that they are round instead of rectangular like at Anchor. They’re made by a 4th generation family tank manufacturer in Regensburg, Germany named Gresser. And Sondra Gresser, the daughter, just took over from her father who just retired.

Her great, great grandfather started out making wooden tanks! Of course, now it’s stainless. But they specialize in open top fermenters. And they [send] them all over the world. Only three breweries in America have Gressor open top fermenters: New Glarus, Sierra Nevada Mills River and us.

We have six new open tops. They’re a one to one ratio, meaning that they are as wide as they are tall.  They still have a cone on the bottom, just no lid on them. They have a hole on the side where you can connect a slide tube, and then that goes down to a yeast collector that sits on the floor.  And as [the active fermentation] comes up to high Krausen, once we have them working right, fresh yeast will then naturally flow down the slide. It’s natural top-cropping. 

The OTF will sit at floor one and a half. You walk by on either tour [guided or self-guided], you’re actually looking down into the tanks.  We set that up on purpose.

The brewhouse is still being optimized. We’re not getting full [volume] yields yet off the brewhouse, but when we do, then we’ll optimize the open tops. We’ve made one batch that we diluted, to make [the open top yeast slide] work. The yeast that we’re getting off it has 98 to 99% viability. It’s incredible.

(There were assorted gasps of “whoa” at our table. Tasty asked whether the collected yeast has been pitched into another batch yet)

We haven’t used it yet. We’re excited! When you think about using yeast, when you pitch yeast from a CCT, a cylindrical-conical, from the cone, and it’s, say, 80% viable, that means you’re pitching 20% dead yeast. That’s 20% dead yeast off-flavor potential! So we see the open tops as a place where we’ll do a lot of top-cropping, but also that we’ll pull yeast to grow in our yeast propagation plant.

 So that part is probably the coolest part of the whole brewery!  Healthy yeast means better beer. It’ll be interesting to see how the lager yeast performs.

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Vinnie describes the value of healthy fermentation
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The brewhouse windows reflect nearby redwood trees, like the one on the Russian River Brewing logo

We’re going to start bringing cleaned malt from here to Fourth Street. It’s amazing how much crap is in malt. I’ve seen it in other breweries. We’ve already collected a handful of rocks and pebbles – an Andre-the-Giant-sized handful!

And [there are] husks left in the grain that contribute astringency. Trash cans full! I don’t know the percentage yet, but it’s a sizable amount. When you think about that, you’re buying this malt, and you’re paying for zero extract for that portion.

We have three super sacks. [Ed. note: dispenser racks for one ton plus sacks of grain.] We have two silos of 2-row [malt] now. Eventually, we’ll add two more silos for pilsner malt, for STS Pils and all the Belgians. We have Weyermann Pils [malt] in super sack. We have Simpsons Best Pale in super sack.  And Great Western C-40.

It takes 3500 or maybe 3000 lbs of pilsner malt to make a batch of STS Pils here, so mid-malt you gotta switch sacks. It’s a little bit of a pain in the ass. But it all runs through the malt cleaning equipment.  

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The funky side of the brewery, still under construction, already houses some new barrels

Shifting to your sour program, how will you handle all the beers currently in barrels at your soon-to-be-sold Santa Rosa production facility?

There’s a local company that specializes in moving wine around for wineries, either in bulk or in barrels. They have special rigs that can haul barrels. So we’ll hire them.  And they’ll move everything over whenever the funky brewery [wing] is done. It’s about a month away.

Do you have new additions to your sour beer program, besides the koelschip going into the wing you’re finishing now?

We do! We have three foudres – our first foudres. We’ve never had space for them.

We also have four puncheons, which are like double or triple wine-sized barrels. They’re actually a family. The winery I bought them from said, “you buy all or none, but they have to stay together!”  I think when they were built they came from like the same tree or something. I only wanted two. They said all or none, so I bought four.

Natalie said I have to stop buying barrels, though. [Chuckling.] It’s like telling your spouse, “you have to stop buying shoes, honey.”

(Randy asks if the four vessels had held red wines)

Yeah, they were all merlot. So we’re going to do a new beer based on barrel aged merlot grapes. We’re actually doing a test of it this weekend. We have one ton of merlot grapes I got from a local winery. We’ve already got some 60-gallon barrels merlot wine barrels. The base beer was spontaneously fermented at 4th street. It’s in those barrels now.

We’re going to crush those grapes. Conveniently, one of the new businesses on the cul-de-sac [behind the brewery] is a commercial crush service called Grand Cru, so we’ll be using them.

beergardenviewhustlingbarWe have another new beer, though we’ve already poured it at some beer dinners and special festivals. It’s called Intinction. It’s a sauvignon blanc barrel aged pilsner, with sauvignon blanc juice, sauvignon blanc barrels, and the base beer was pilsner. We have 100 beer barrels brewed. Now it’s in wood [refermenting] with 1000 gallons of sauvignon blanc juice that we got from this year’s harvest.

We’re going to brew more Propitiation, our barrel aged porter. Then, of course, more Temptation, Supplication, Consecration.

Sanctification, our 100% brett beer, will be nicely priced – basically equivalent to a kettle sour price – and we’ll make it available year-round, draft and bottles. That will be easier to make because we’ll have a centrifuge to filter it out.

And then, who knows what else?

[He smiles and answers his own question.] I have something else in my mind that I have to work out more. 


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Inside the restaurant sits a glass-enclosed space that will eventually become a mini-pilot brewery
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In the outdoor beer garden, beers are served in metal, to keep dogs and people safe from broken glass, while inside tables fill up with glassware.

Photos, interview and story by Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro.

Beer Currents, a project of Beer By BART

2 Comments

  1. We were at Santa Rosa a few weeks back, just missed the new place. We’ll get there next trip. Vinnie & Natalie are great people, and RRBC beers are killer.

    Great article, thanks!

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