Face-to-face with Vinnie Cilurzo, owner and brewer at the Russian River Brewing Company.
Vinnie Cilurzo is someone I’ve never imagined I would be able to talk with. I was wrong. He has been very kind coming back to me when I asked him for an interview. He is the deus-ex-machina at the Russian River Brewing Company – the same one that brews the world famous Pliny The Elder, to be clear. He is not “just” a brewer. He ha been a pioneer of the craft beer revolution. And above all one of the very first – if not the first – who wondered about merging wine and craft beer worlds. How? Simple and clean: by barrel-ageing beers in wine barrels. It is not over yet.
Because it is almost impossibile to stop experimenting and innovating after starting something new. It is like opening the Pandora’s box. Indeed he started following new ways to brew, without ever forgetting to think of craft beer like something that needs time, passion and loving care. Here it is what he said to me, answering my questions. Are you curious?
Take a long breath: this will be a dive like you’ve never done before!
Vinnie Cilurzo, welcome to Birramoriamoci! It is an absolute pleasure for me having you on my blog. We have no time for pleasantries. We have to talk about beer. Russian River’s beer to be precisely. So let’s start with the first question.
At the beginning of your professional career there has been a travel in Europe. Looking at your current beer range I bet the destination was Belgium. I’ve been there as well. Could you explain us what did make you decide to go Belgiophile?
At the time there wasn’t much of a beer movement here in the United States. I was drinking Sierra Nevada beers, Anchor Brewing beers, and Sam Adams. On occasion I could find other micro-brews but there wasn’t much so traveling to Europe was a natural fit. I discovered Belgium and have now been back there over a dozen times. I think it was the creative nature of their beers and the lack of interest in following any style guidelines.
Craft beer and food matching. After being a brewery ‘The River’ is also a brewpub. Which is the common feeling about beer and food matching in there? do you think it is a good marriage? how do you celebrate it in the pub?
We actually don’t put much of a focus on beer and food pairing. Our primary food is thin crust pizza and it is quite good! The flavors in our pizza go well with our beer but we don’t force any food pairings down our customer’s throat, we let them chose what they want to drink. On occasion we do beer dinners at accounts and here we will make pairings with the chef in regards to our beers and the food he or she has created.
It is said that behind a great man is a great woman. Natalie, your wife, has always been with you from the beginning of this adventure. How much is it important for a successful business being supported from the family?
Early on when I had my first brewery Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, CA we literally lived off her income. I was hardly paying myself at Blind Pig at the time so her help was critical for us to make ends meet. Natalie has always been by my side but in 2004 when we took over Russian River Brewing Company from Korbel, my former employer she came on full time. Over time her role grew into what it is today. Russian River wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for Natalie, she truly is the backbone of our company.
For the Italian craft beer scene, the US and especially the West Coast movement is nothing less than iconic. Which is the real climate in there? is everything bright and shiny like we imagine? Describe it with Vinnie Cilurzo’s eyes.
It is very innovative, that goes for all over California. Consumers are very open minded and thus the brewers are as well. At the end of the day, if the consumers don’t buy our beer or our friends beer, there is no point to brew it. Of course that is what makes homebrewing so great, you can brew whatever you want as you are the only one to drink it. I’ve been very lucky to have for the most part been able to sell all the beer I make with much of it being pretty progressive. Again, this all starts with customers that are very adventurous when it comes to drinking beer. Now days in California and many other places in the United States IPA is so common place, this can even go for Double IPA as well. Because of this it certainly makes us step up our game to ensure even higher quality, tasty beer.
There’s no doubt that Pliny the Elder is Russian River’s flagship – more than 50 percent of Company’s total revenue. And Pliny the Younger (Triple IPA) has been literally drank in few hours a couple of weeks ago. It seems you have hops in your DNA. Indeed, you’ve been the one who created the Double IPA style, brewing it for first at the Blind Pig Brewing Company. Could we call you ‘hophead’? is it just a matter of bitterness, tannins or what?
I’ve always tried to push the limit with our hoppy beers while still retaining a fine balance. Early on in my brewing career and even back to when I was homebrewing before going professional I definitely made IPA’s with more straight up bitterness and probably not as much flavor and aroma. Over the years, I’ve learned that you can create a very refined bitterness through middle and late kettle hop additions during the brew. Even from dry hopping you can pick up a lot of poly phenols (tannins) to create a dryness in the beer. This doesn’t just go for IPA, it can work for other styles as well. But, there is a point where you can go too far and have too much harsh characteristic.
Not only powerful and steroids filled IPAs but also barrel-aged, sour and spontaneous fermentation beers. Vinnie Cilurzo started to brew this styles long time ago (1999) when almost none knew them except Belgian people. Why did you decide to go depth into this world?
On the trip to Belgium I visited Cantillon, that visit always stuck in my head. At my first brewery Blind Pig we fermented in plastic tanks and so we only used one yeast to avoid cross contamination, we also had a very small building. When I got to Russian River at our original location at Korbel I had more space and in time was able to procure a couple of barrels and this started my love of barrel beers. I wanted to take my favorite component from Lambic beer, which is the Brettanomyces and incorporate it into a barrel aged beer. That first beer was Temptation. Since that time we’ve incorporated bacteria into Temptation but the early batches were just Brett and a couple old Chardonnay barrels. When I was young my parents had a vineyard and winery, I grew up with fermentation in my blood. I started brewing beer because I liked the quick turnaround for an ale, 18 to 21 days. It is ironic that I am back making a fermented product that takes 9 to 12 months, and sometimes longer for our spontaneous beer.
Vinnie Cilurzo’s parents were winemakers and you inherited the passion for wine, which you brought to Russian River as barrel-ageing and grapes-based beers (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petit Syrah grapes). How is it going?
I’ve used grapes in beer as a homebrewer back in 1990, they were Petite Sirah grapes my family grew. Later I used Muscat grapes, like Cantillon does. Presently we just kegged a new barrel beer we’ll call Intinction. It is a pilsner beer aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels with Sauvignon Blanc juice from the same winery. It is just another example of being innovative and pushing the limits. But it isn’t just here in the US, this is going on all over the world now and of course in Italy as well.
What is currently brewing?
Presently I’m working on a new beer called Scratching Post, so far I’ve done three 56 liter test batches on our small pilot system. It is a low gravity 4.5% ABV hoppy ale using a Belgian yeast strain fermented pretty quickly. It’s a beautiful delicate small beer that still is pretty dry. A couple years ago we started working a hoppy unfiltered Pilsner call STS Pils, it’s my favorite beer we are making now and has roots back to Tipo Pils from Birrificio Italiano, Agostino visited us back in 2006 and I think that was my first time tasting his amazing Pilsner. I’ve always been a closet Pilsner fan and finally I was able to make one full time.
Jolly question: which is your favorite hop and why?
I can’t say I have a favorite hop as certain hops work better in certain styles. Hops I use in an IPA I would never use in a Pilsner, I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to hops…
Bonus question: which is your favorite yeast strain and why?
I’m still very fond of Brett Bux, it has a “classic” Brett character and is actually pretty consistent.
I had the chance to interview Vinnie Cilurzo and I’ve done it. It confirms what I’ve always been certain: there is no better way to enjoy craft beer but drinking it while talking with its brewer. Words make a difference, definitely.
Did you know about the Russian River Brewing Company? What do you think about Vinnie Cilurzo and his beers?