Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Firestone Walker was brewing Pliny the Younger. Firestone Walker is brewing Pliny the Elder.
If recent lawsuits tainted your view of camaraderie in craft beer, just think back to last year’s announcement from Russian River Brewing Company that it would be brewing its famous Pliny the Elder double IPA at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles while its new brewing system is installed.
Well, Russian River founder and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo have made the trek down to Paso Robles from Santa Rosa to brew his signature beer. Santa Barbara Beer caught up with Cilurzo and Firestone-Walker co-proprietor David Walker recently to discuss the venture. Below is a Q and A with Cilurzo and a response from Walker to the same questions. For those not interested in reading through it all, some of the main takeaways are that there are no immediate plans for a collaboration between Russian River and Firestone Walker, although neither said they were opposed to such an idea. Cilurzo also said that although Pliny is being brewed in Paso Robles, there are no immediate plans to distribute the highly sought-after beer to the area — although he did acknowledge that he would like to expand distribution to the 805.
SB Beer: I’ve seen the press release about why you need to brew outside of your own facility, but what I wonder is: Why Firestone Walker? What do they provide that you chose them as a site to brew your beer?
Vinnie Cilurzo: When it became apparent to Natalie and I that we needed to replace our old, tired brewhouse we also knew that we couldn’t go without brewing during the shutdown and knew we’d have to find someone to temporarily brew for us. Only a couple of brewer friends came to mind and Firestone Walker was the best fit as our brewing style is similar. We are also extremely good friends with (brewmaster)Matt Brynildson and David Walker. When we asked them if they could help us out we couldn’t even finish the question before they said yes. It is humbling and gratifying to have such good friends in the business.
SBB: Is it just Pliny the Elder being brewed there, or are other beers like Blind Pig being brewed as well?
VC: It is just Pliny the Elder they are brewing for us and it is just draft Pliny. When go into the shut down we’ll have all our fermenters full and all the Pliny coming from our tanks will be bottled.
SBB: How many batches will be brewed at Firestone Walker and how long will Russian River be brewing there?
VC: It is just a temporary thing, it is something like 10 or 12 batches which sounds like a lot, but in the big picture a pretty small amount of beer for Firestone to brew.
SBB: How do you compensate Firestone Walker for allowing Russian River to brew there — is it just a simple financial arrangement, or are there other concessions and agreements made?
VC: That is an interesting question, Adam (Firestone), David, and Matt are now members of the Russian River “beer for life” club. We supply the hops from our hop supply and all other ingredients come from Firestone, when the beer is ready they fill our kegs. It is actually a pretty simple arrangement.
(Note: Santa Barbara Beer would love to be a member of that club as well. Lucky.)
SBB: I know it’s been stated that there are no plans for a collaboration between RR and FW, but both breweries have a lot in common in terms of barrel-aging prowess and making beautiful hoppy beers. Is there any chance that a FW-RR collaboration could be in the near future?
VC: Honestly, this isn’t something that Matt and I have talked about. Most important to both parties is to get an exact match on flavor profile.
SBB: Did brewing at Firestone’s facility impact the way you approach beer — be it business or brewing — in any way?
VC: We are very close to the shut down so we’ve already brewed some beer. Aside from some collaborations we’ve done at Sierra Nevada this is the only time I’ve brewed on a more automated system. So it is a great experience for me. Our new brewhouse won’t be quite this automated, so it gave me a chance to learn. Working with Matt and his team of brewers has been great, it’s been a great challenge to match flavors.
SBB: I know a lot of beer geeks in the Central Coast would love to see Pliny the Elder on shelves here. Is there any chance any of the batches brewed at Firestone Walker find their way to the 805?
VC: Unfortunately at this time the answer is no. Someday we’ll have distribution down in the 805 but for now this beer will cover our current accounts and distributors.
Below is David Walker’s response to a similar set of questions. Both Walker’s and Cilurzo’s responses have been edited for clarity.
David Walker: The press release kicked out by Vinnie and Natalie last year sums up the relationship pretty well, so not sure I can add much.
Our brewhouse is nicely sized for Vinnie’s needs but we don’t expect those to hinder our brewing calendar for the few months while he is need of a brewhouse. Although it’s a big deal to brew Pliny and these guys are mates, it’s not unusual for craft brewers to help each other out; in fact Vinnie lent us a compact portable bottling line for our Wild Ales at the Barrelworks to help us get that program off the ground. I think if you dig around you’ll find a ton of similar stories in the craft community.
(Note: I’ve done that digging in the past for research for We Make Beer — and I agree that this kind of helping and assistance is pretty commonplace among smaller brewers. What makes it unique here is the scale of Firestone Walker and Russian River)
Collab! Hell yes! I just need to broach the subject with Matt and Vinnie….they are proud brewers, no guarantees.
In terms of distribution, I am sure there is no change to their existing plans, we are merely helping them brew beer over a small window of time, I can’t see that altering their plans for the future. Pliny will remain fresh and in demand.