Vinnie Cilurzo Gets Funky
The daring beers of Russian River Brewing Company
Vinnie Cilurzo is regarded as one of the most innovative microbrewers in the country. He’s often credited with inventing the Double IPA, an ultrahoppy style that’s become extremely popular among craft-beer drinkers. More recently, Cilurzo has joined a handful of maverick American brewers in making Belgian-style ales fermented with an aggressive yeast called Brettanomyces. He’s also aging beer in old wine barrels, and adding strains of bacteria that impart sour flavors. He calls the results “funky beers,” and judging by the awards they’re racking up, they may just prove to be the future of American brewing.
How did you get into brewing, and how did you come up with the Double IPA?
I went into it after working in my parents’ wine business. I guess you could say I’ve been around yeasts all my life. I kind of invented the Double IPA at the [now-defunct] Blind Pig in San Diego, where I worked prior to Russian River [Brewing Company]. I did it mainly because the equipment we had there was so rustic that if there were off flavors, the hops would cover them up.
What’s the story behind the names of your Belgian beers: Damnation, Salvation, Redemption, etc.?
The classic strong golden Belgian ale is Duvel [Flemish for “devil”]. A lot of beers of this style pay homage to it by having a devilish Satan/hell-type [name], like Delirium Tremens, PranQster, Judas, Lucifer. You know how people always talk about where they were when John Lennon died? I’ll always remember where I was when I came up with the name for Damnation. I had been home-brewing that beer for about three years, and I was on my way home when this Squirrel Nut Zippers song came on the radio in my car called “Hell.” In the song, they spell out the word damnation, and I knew that was going to be the name. By the time I got home I figured I had to also make a beer called Redemption, and then my buddy suggested Salvation and Temptation as well.
What’s up with the labels? Are those drawings all of pitchforks?
No, they’re antique gardening tools. Damnation has a trident. Supplication has a grass aerator. Temptation has a scythe. I like to garden.
You’re known in the brewing world for being adept at using this challenging type of yeast, Brettanomyces, that’s used in many Belgian ales. What’s the appeal?
Brett creates a rustic, unique flavor, like leather or barnyard. It’s really distinctive. But it’s extremely aggressive. Some winemakers won’t even come in here because they’re afraid to get it on them. I’ve had brewery owners call me and say, “My brewer wants to start brewing with this yeast; what do you think?” Then I tell them all the risks—the wild yeasts, bacteria floating around your brewery, and it’s dangerous from a brewing standpoint [because it can infect other beers]. Then usually the brewer calls me up all mad, because I’ve talked the owner out of it.
But you use it successfully.
But it’s like a dog: It’ll bite you if you show you’re afraid of it. You have to understand the science and art of it. We have to be very careful that it doesn’t get into the other beers we make here. We had a couple batches of Damnation, early on, where we accidentally got a little Brett in them, and they were ruined. Well, they didn’t taste like Damnation anymore.
This brewery is not that large. How do you keep the yeast from spreading into the other beers?
We keep two of everything, if not more. And what I mean by that is, we have a separate pump just for the funky beers. Different hoses, different valves, different gaskets for hoses and doors, and even the rubber gloves we use for cleaning and handling. And we keep the barrels of aged beer in a separate room.
How did you first decide to start experimenting with aging beers like wine, in barrels?
The first beer we made with Brett, Temptation, was also our first aged beer. It was made in 1999 and released in 2000. It’s a blond ale aged in Chardonnay barrels. You don’t have to ferment in barrels if you use Brett; you can do it in stainless steel. In fact, my very, very favorite beer, [the Belgian] Orval, is made that way. But I wanted to put Temptation in wood, because Brett is a yeast that’s so strong, it just wants to keep on eating. If it runs out of sugars in the beer to keep eating, it won’t die. It’s almost impossible to kill. But if you give it a place to live in the porousness of the barrel, it can keep eating the sugars in the wood, and keep kicking out all these interesting flavors while it’s doing it.
How long do you age your beers?
Consecration is aged 6 to 9 months, Temptation 9 to 15 months, Supplication 12 to 18 months. The average brewery is on a 24- to 25-day cycle. It’s a pretty big financial hardship for us to make beer this way. Our biggest-selling beer, accounting for over 50 percent of our sales, is the [unaged Double IPA] Pliny the Elder. We could make a lot more [unaged] beer in here if we didn’t commit this much space to funky beers, but that’s my passion.
And you’ve recently been getting even more funky by adding bacteria to some of your aged beers that are typically used in sour Belgian styles like lambics and gueuzes.
Yes. Back then, Temptation wasn’t as acidic and sour as it is now, because it wasn’t until recently that we introduced lactobacillus and pediococcus into the beer.
Right now your beers are mainly available on the West Coast. How important is it to you to go national?
Not at all. We expanded three months ago into this new brewery space, so now we’re brewing in both our brewpub and in this brewery. And we started bottling Pliny the Elder, which until six weeks ago we had never done before. It had only been available on draft. We could be [widely available] like Stone or Lagunitas, and I get calls from distributors all the time from all over the country. But we do this more for the lifestyle, my wife and I, and same with our employees. I can ride my bike to work. I live one to two miles from either brewery. I fill my gas tank once a week. I think you can get caught up way too much in growth. We don’t have any growth goals.
So what’s next for you?
A new beer called Consecration. We did a test batch at the pub, but it hasn’t been released yet. It’s aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, with currants thrown in.