For two weeks every winter, thousands of people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Santa Rosa, California, to wait in line for up to nine hours. They're rewarded with a beer, or three.
If that seems crazy to you, maybe this story will sway you, or at least help you understand why.
The beer is Russian River Brewing Company’s “Pliny the Younger,” a 10.25-percent alcohol content, triple IPA with a 2,000-year-old name reference better explained here. It's released for two weeks every February, and when it's gone, the 50-week countdown to the next year's batch begins.
"Every year, we say this might be the year that no one shows up, and every year, we are pleasantly surprised that people continue to show up," said Natalie Cilurzo who co-owns Russian River Brewing with her husband, Vinnie.
The story begins in 2005 when the Cilurzo brewed their first 20-barrel batch of “Pliny the Younger” as a winter release with a simple goal.
"See how high we could get the alcohol and keep it balanced," said Cilurzo.
The turning point would not come for another five years, on a morning in February 2010. Vinnie showed up at the pub four hours before opening, surprised to find a line of people.
He asked the crowd what was going on.
"And they say, ‘Don't you know? Your beer has been rated best in the world,’” Cilurzo recalled.
Unbeknownst to the couple, the title had been awarded by two well-known online beer reviews.
"Every friend who came by got put to work," she laughs talking about how they split their tap to double the amount of beer poured, and still couldn't keep up. "We didn't know how to handle crowds. We learned a lot that morning."
At the time, the pub had a four growler limit per customer. Cilurzo said customers immediately started illegally selling the growlers online. That was the last day they ever poured growlers of Pliny the Younger, and the beginning of what has become a phenomenon among beer enthusiasts.
Now, every February, crowds by the hundreds line up at the brewery and wait hours for a taste of Pliny the Younger.
The Cilurzos will walk the line every morning greeting people and thanking them for coming. Customers are now limited to three 10-ounce glasses, and three hours in the pub to help keep the line moving. There's a world map inside where people can pin how far they've traveled for a sip of the brew.
Cilurzo said patrons have come from as far as the Philippines, Finland, Norway, Spain, El Salvador and Mexico, just for this release.
But if ever there were a year for no one to show up, the Cilurzos thought 2018 would be the one.
The previous October, Santa Rosa suffered the brunt of what would turn out to be one of California's worst wildfires in history, destroying more than 8,000 buildings and causing more than a billion dollars in damage.
The fires have decimated tourism in Santa Rosa. The fire destroyed two major hotels. Short-term vacation rentals are being used to house fire victims.
"So, that first morning when we came down and there was this giant line, we breathed a huge sigh of relief," said Cilurzo. “Over the two-week release, Natalie estimates they averaged close to 1,000 customers a day. On the second Saturday of the release, people waited nine hours to taste their beer.
"We're really proud that our event has helped bring some tourism back to Sonoma County," she said.
In their community, the brewery does more than sell beer.
For the first and only time, Russian River raffled off tickets for one customer a day to skip the line. Over two weeks, that raffle raised $114,000 for fire victims.
Pliny the Younger is as popular as ever. So, the obvious question is why don't they just make more beer?
Cilurzo said she's asked that all the time. The answer is, they do make more.
Russian River produced 160 barrels of Pliny the Younger for 2018, which is eight times the size of that first batch in 2005, but still relatively small by industry standards.
“Why don't we flood the market with it? Because that's not our style. That's not what we're in business for," said Cilurzo. "It's also a very difficult beer to make. It pretty much takes twice as long and costs twice as much to make."
Triple IPAs typically contain about triple the amount of hops as a single IPA, and hops are one of the most expensive ingredients in beer.
Russian River is also very picky about who gets their beer. They won't sell to accounts who won't cold store the IPA and will only use distributors with refrigerated trucks. They want their beer served fresh.
"The farther away from your brewery you beer gets, the less control you have over it," said Cilurzo.
The majority of Pliny the Younger stays in California along with a few select locations in Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Only 58 customers around Southern California were fortunate enough to get a keg or two in 2018. And because of its rarity, Pliny the Younger has become an event for anywhere that has it. Pubs will sell tickets in advance. Some put the word out on social media right before a release, and the crowds immediately show up and stand in line.
The line outside Hamilton's Tavern in San Diego this year started forming hours before the bar opened. Before opening to the public, Blair held a ticketed triple IPA tasting to raise money for fire victims. Owner Scot Blair calls it the Holy Grail of beer.
"It just goes to show you that even after all these years, there are still companies that do it right and can still be relevant," said Blair.
But is any beer really worth waiting hours in line? It's not just about the beer, Cilurzo said.
"You get to meet all these nice, like-minded people, who are passionate about beer as well. It wouldn't be as special anymore if we made it year round," she said. "We have a couple that met in line and they got married."
Now, don't you want to at least try it?