Russian River Pliny The Younger Beer 2018

Russian River Brewing Company owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo returned from a visit to Germany last Thursday night, got dinner to go and went to bed at 8:30 p.m. After all, they had an early day awaiting them on Friday, when more than 1,200 beer enthusiasts greeted them at their brewery in Santa Rosa, California, to taste their coveted release of Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA that's available for just two weeks every year. "There were people already camping out when we got here and had been here for about five hours," Natalie says. "It wasn't too bad, actually—we've had years where it was closer to 10 hours—in the rain."

The brewery's first Pliny the Younger release happened in 2005, but it wasn't until 2010, when social media approvals kicked in, that the beer began to acquire the massive cult following it has today. "That morning back in 2010, we arrived at the brewery, and there were all of these people in line," Natalie recalls. When she and Vinnie learned it was because the beer had been rated as the best in the world by RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, it all started to make a little more sense—though they ended up being too busy that day to even let the accolade sink in. "I barbacked the entire day, and Vinnie spent every moment in the back filling growlers," Natalie says, who remembers selling out of the beer in just eight hours. "It was insanity."

Though the brewery does distribute some of the Younger to accounts in other areas (from the Bay Area and Southern California to Oregon and Pennsylvania), it's hard to say who will get it and when, and how long it'll last. It's why so many beer lovers head straight to the source and why the brewery still has a busy week to go. But despite the long hours and early mornings that lie ahead, Natalie couldn't be happier. 

"We're not a marketing-driven company—we just make the best beer that we can, and these people are deciding for themselves to make the trek to Russian River no matter where they hail from," she notes, recalling encounters on Friday with guests from a variety of international destinations, including Norway, Spain, China and the Philippines. As a result of the demand, a handful of local hotels have worked in partnership with the brewery to offer promotional deals for out-of-towners this year—a reassuring detail in light of last fall's devastating wildfires.

"We've had a tough time with tourism because of the fires, so we're incredibly grateful to see people here," Natalie concludes. "I'm really proud that we're able to offer these guests not just a great beer, but a good enough experience for them to want to come back."

Nicole Schnitzler is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers travel, food and drink. Follow her on Twitter at @write_to_eat.