Opening a brewpub is no small undertaking. As a new brewing business owner, getting the production brewery off the ground is enough of a challenge. Many breweries often grow into the brewpub model. That’s the case with our second subject in the Brewpub Files — a series of brewpub case studies that investigates the strategies and philosophies behind some of the most successful brewpubs in the country.
Subject: Russian River Brewing Co.
Established: 1997 (brewery), 2004 (brewpub)
Brewery size: 14,000 barrel (bbl) capacity
Brewpub representative: Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Co. owner and brewer
The story of Russian River Brewing Co. begins in 1997, when Korbel Champagne Cellars, based in Sonoma County, Cali., started the brewery with Cilurzo as its brewer. Fast forward to 2003. Korbel wanted out of the beer industry. Instead of closing the beer business, Korbel gave Cilurzo and his wife Natalie the opportunity to purchase the brewery. They did just that and reopened Russian River Brewing Co. a year later in downtown Santa Rosa as a brewpub.
In those early days, the brewpub used a 20-bbl brewhouse. Four years later, in May 2008, Russian River opened a production brewery also in Santa Rosa. Combined with the brewpub, Russian River can brew 14,000 bbls, and it brews at 100-percent capacity year-round at both locations. But the addition of a production brewery doesn’t mean that the brewpub is any less important.
“One can never take their eye off the brewpub,” Cilurzo said. “Being that our brewpub almost never slows down, it is a constant moving target. Quality of product — both beer and food — customer service, employee training and interaction and employee law are just a handful of the things that come to mind when looking at the brewpub.”
In the way of brews, Russian River is no stranger to the craft beer industry and drinker. In fact, the brewery’s popular Pliny the Elder was voted the “Best Commercial Beer in America” by the American Homebrewers Association’s (AHA) members for the fifth year running. Not to mention that both Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder are staples on Beer Advocate’s list of “Top 250 beers,” coming in at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
When it comes to food, Russian River’s brewpub is primarily focused on pizza, salads and similar fare.
“Our kitchen does not have a fryer so, as we like to say, ‘If we can’t bake it, we won’t make it,’” Cilurzo explained. “We don’t go overboard on food and beer pairings at the brewpub. We’ve always put a heavy emphasis on beer and food quality and customer service. Certainly, we can always continue to do these three things better, but we do a pretty good job considering how busy our brewpub is. Our focus is more on our customers having a great experience at Russian River.”
The Russian River experience is served up in several varieties. While the brewery doesn’t invest too heavily in traditional marketing, the brewpub has played host to beer festivals, fundraisers and community events. For example, every October, Russian River puts on a breast cancer awareness fundraiser. Each year, the brewery raises more than $50,000 for the local breast care center. “This is more about helping out our community and less about being a promotion,” Cilurzo said.
Business-wise, the brewpub affords a great opportunity to educate customers on the brewery’s big focus — the beer.
“Education happens every day at our brewpub,” Cilurzo said. “Our staff is really into beer, so it is easy for them to pass along this knowledge to the customers. We have a unique opportunity to educate consumers on sour and barrel-aged beers being that we usually have at least three on tap at all times. This is very unique compared to other brewpubs so our staff can really teach the consumers the ins and outs on funky beer. I think the best place to educate consumers on funky beer is simply with a 2-ounce sample of the beer. This way, the consumer does not have to spend $5 or $6 for glass and possibly not like it.”
Like tasting rooms, brewpub sales often mean big business for breweries who can sell their own beers at their own bar. Cilurzo said more than 50 percent of the brewery’s beer sales are generated by the brewpub.
Advice for a start-up brewpub?
“That is almost too big to answer,” Cilurzo said. “At the start, having enough money to get your doors open would be a start, understanding what your company focus will be and having a 100-percent focus on quality are a few things. In the brewery, I would put a huge focus on the flooring — once this goes in it is very hard to change it. I’ve made this mistake more than once. One of the biggest challenges now is hops and hop contracts — figuring out how much and when to put in your first hop contract might be the difference in having the hops you want to use or not.”