Interview with Russian River Brewing

How long does it take to settle on a recipe for commercial production?

Depending on what yeast it is will determine the length of time it takes to dial the recipe in. For our non-Belgian style brews, I can normally hit the target with-in the second or third brew, that is because I’ve been using the yeast so long. For the Belgian style beers it is not so much the recipe that gets changed from batch to batch but more so, the fermentation temperature profile we use. Ultimately, I will make a change on any recipe if I find a better ingredient or process that might make the beer better.

How much trial and error went into the recipe?

Not so much trial and error on non-Belgian’s but, lots on the Belgian style brews. Early on I would jump around from base malt to base malt trying to find the right flavor. Ironically, I’m now using the same base malt for most of the Belgian style brews as I do for our non-Belgian’s. I’m feeling now that most of the Belgian style beers are dialed in, that took three years for most.

As for the Barrel Aged beers, these are a constant experiment; they change from year to year on their own. In some cases I don’t have any control over what they are going to do.

How did you decide on the beer styles you make?

We don’t do any market research or anything; it pretty much just comes down to beers we like to drink. I can say with great confidence that there isn’t a beer we make that I wouldn’t drink myself. I stand behind everything we make.

How far removed from the initial idea is the final product we all now commonly drink?

When I start out with a concept for a new beer I have an idea of what I want the beer to look like, smell like, and taste like. Although I have a spreadsheet that I log all my brews in and it can calculate things, I tend to approach new brews from an artistic standpoint. I don’t say, I want X number of BU’s, things like BU’s just seem to happen naturally based on what the concept is of the brew. I know that is a vague answer but, that is how I make new beers.

I often mull over in my head a concept for a new beer for a long time before it happens. Presently, I’ve got all kinds of ideas for new barrel beers and Belgian style brews, I just don’t have the time or tank space to brew them.

What settings do you use for crushing grain?

I don’t know the exact setting for our mill, I know what I like my crushed malt to look like and I stick with that. Luckily our malt is pretty consistent so I don’t have to change the mill much. I tend to mill a little more course than other brewers. This tends to make us use more malt to get more extract, but, I think it lends towards a cleaner flavor.

Do you perform the legendary “20 minute” mashes? If not, how long do you mash?

I didn’t know it was legendary, but, yes I do only mash for 20 minutes. I’ve gone as short as 15 minutes, but, I’ve got 20 minutes of work to do between the last malt going into the mash tun and the next step in the brew process so 20 minutes works great. We couldn’t see a difference in flavor with beers done with a longer mash.

What kind of efficiency do you normally get? How much fluctuation do you get from batch to batch?

Our efficiency is probably considered moderate, not poor, but, not great. On occasion we have fluctuation; I think it is more from variances in how much malt is actually in a bag than anything else. I’ve seen bags of 2-Row that are short a pound or two and others that are over by a pound. Adding an extra 25-50 pounds of 2-Row to any brew will significantly change the OG.

We see more of a problem with our whirlpool; it just isn’t that efficient in removing hops from the wort. And as you can imagine with a brew like Blind Pig IPA, Pliny the Elder, or Pliny the Younger with all the hops that go into these brews, there can be a big loose.

How long does a typical brew session take? What is a typical brew day like?

We typically are not just brewing, but, to look at a day when we are brewing I arrive at 6am and transfer the beer out of the tank that we are going to brew into, this is normally a double batch tank- two brews into one tank. While I’m transferring the brew I start the mash in. By the time I am mashed in the brew is transferred from the fermenter to the brite tank. From here I’ll clean the fermenter and get it ready for wort. While this is happen we start transferring the wort to the kettle. By the time I need to water from the hot liquor tank to sparge the fermenter is cleaned, sanitized and ready for yeast. By 10 or 11 am I am mashing in the second brew and about this time Travis shows up and takes over for me. All told, we can transfer a double brew and brew a double brew in 12 hours. You can really cut a lot of time by double or triple brewing because you are laying two brews on top of each other and it cuts a lot of time.

I’m a big fan of multitasking!

How often do you brew? What days do you brew?

It varies, but, usually three to four batches per week.

At what temperature do you do your mashes?

We tend to mash in at 148-152.

What type of mashes do you do?

Single temperature infusion, on occasion a barrel beer brew will get a step mash.

How long does your boil commonly last?

90 minutes for most beers, but, I’m thinking about changing that due to the fact that 90 minutes is the name of a Dogfish beer… Just kidding, 90 minutes for almost everything. We’ve got a couple of Belgian styles that get a longer boil to add color.

Do you adjust the water (use water modifiers) for the different styles or just go with the local water source? What is your water profile like?

We pretty much just use local water with the chlorine removed. I add gypsum to some of the hoppy beers.

What type of yeast do you use and how do you maintain your culture?

The Non-Belgians we use California Ale Yeast from White Labs. The Belgian’s we have a couple of strains that we use most of the time. They are Trappist and Abbey yeast from White Labs as well. I get Brettanomyces and bacteria’s from Wyeast. We also now have a house wild yeast culture that we use on some of the barrel beers.

We just pull yeast from one tank and add it to another. We won’t hold onto a yeast for more than 1 week once it is removed from the fermenting vessel. We typically go 10 generations on the Belgian yeast and 20 generation on the California Ale Yeast. I keep the Brett and bacteria’s going for a long time in the barrel room.

What about hops… do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?

We go with pellets because that is what our brew system can easier accept. Although we use a lot of hops, we could use hop flowers fast enough to keep them fresh. Pellets work just fine.

What are your thoughts on the “hop revolution” – the ever increasing number of hoppy beers and the quantity of hops used?

I love hoppy beers so I think it is great, the blend of hops a brewer can use is almost endless. That is what is so great about the American Craft Brewing and Homebrewing scene is that there are no rules to follow thus, you end up with a lot of unique and innovative brews. I hope the company growers continue to put out new varieties such as Summit, hops like this will give the brewer more chances to experiment in the future.

Do you use a Whirlpool or Filter method? If neither, which do you use?

Post boil we whirlpool.

What finings or clarifiers do you use if any?

We use koopclear from Brewers Supply Group in the kettle and gelatin post fermentation.

What temps are most ales fermented at on this level?

Our non-Belgians beers ferment at 68F; the Belgian’s are a wide range from 62F – 80F.

Do you pasteurize or add preservatives?

No pasteurization or preservatives.

Which award are you most proud of and why?

It is not so much an award, but, recently I gave the Keynote Speech at the 2007 Craft Brewers Conference in Austin, Texas. It was a real honor to be asked to give the keynote; I was honored, flattered, and humbled to be on the stage giving the Keynote address to so many of my industry colleagues.

Do you have any techniques or processes that are unique to your brewing/brewery? Can you tell us about it/them?

On our Belgian style beers we tend to start at a lower temperature and ramp up to a warmer temperature. At this time we do not filter many of our beers and we gelatin to fine those brews. I’ve taught a lot of brewers how to use gelatin so it is not so unique to RRBC any more.

All and all, I don’t have many secret techniques or processes.

Hops… for those of us who grow our own hops, but aren’t really sure what to do with them… do you have any pointers? Info on doing a wet hop beer/harvest ale would be great. (info like how to use them, when to pick them, when to add them to the boil – things like that)

Growing hops is a lot of fun. Homebrewers can easily make a “wet” hop brew with them. That is, to pick the hops and use them un-dried. You have to use 5 to 8 times the normal amount of hops to make up for the moister content in the hops. You get a real big charge of hop oil though because you’ve added 5 to 8 times the amount of hops. A version of the recipe for our wet hop beer is online and I think has been published in Zymurgy.

One way to tell if hops are ready to pick is to look at their color, if the pedals are transparent they are not ready to pick, you shouldn’t be able to see through them. Also, the Lupulin gland inside the hop should be about the size of the end of a ball point pen. Before that, they are much smaller. And the best way to tell the ripeness of a hop is to pull a cone off the vine, hold it by the pointy end and start pulling the pedals back; with in the second pull if the pedals start falling off, the hops are ready to be picked. If it takes five or six times (or even more times) to get the pedals to fall off, the hops are not ready yet.

How did you get into doing the Belgian beers?

I went to Belgium when I was 19 or 20 years old, I planned on spending one day in Belgium, in the end I stayed for a week. Now I try to go every year, it is very inspirational. Also, there was a homebrewer who was a customer of ours when I had Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, CA. He would bring me his homebrewed Belgian style beers and they were awesome! At the time though I couldn’t brew Belgian style beers because our fermenters at Blind Pig were plastic and I didn’t dare bring a different yeast into the fermenters. So, I waited until I left and started at Russian River.

What can you tell us about the wine barrel aged Belgians?

Well, I don’t actually consider them Belgian style beers. They were most certainly influenced to an extent by some Belgian beers, but, there are a lot of things we are doing that isn’t even being done in Belgium. It has been a lot of fun to travel in Belgium though and take inspiration from some AMAZING Belgian brewers. I am grateful for the friendships I have developed with many Belgian brewers.

The Barrel Aged beers we make are a concepts that I came up with and have run with them. The idea of using local barrels that contribute some wine flavor as well as a little oak character was how I got started with the barrel beers. The first was Temptation. Than came Supplication, and after that many more.

You do additional fermentation in the bottle, correct? Do you use the same yeast as you did during primary or is it something different? If it is different, what kind of yeast is it? Do you add it to each bottle or to the batch just before bottling? If to each bottle, how do you determine how much to add?

We bottle condition all of our Belgian style beers and Barrel Aged brews. We use a house wine strain that started out as a wild yeast in a local vineyard. I like to say that there is a little Sonoma County in every bottle of bottle conditioned beer. The volume of yeast is added to a tank along with a specific volume of sugar and it is mixed just before bottling.

If there is something you could do (beer / brewery wise) but haven’t, regardless of the reason, what is it?

We don’t have a lab yet, but, plan to install one at our next brewery. I didn’t expect to grow as fast as we did; now we don’t have any space. I was lucky enough to be able to use the lab at Korbel when our brewery was out there so I got a lot of things figured out back than.

What do you see in the future for you and your company?

That is a good question; we are working on a production brewery right now and hope to have it open in late 2007 or early 2008. This will increase our production to allow us to distribute more beer.

Brewery info:

Russian River was founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1997 and I was their brewer/manager for the entire 6 or 7 years they owned it. Korbel gave Natalie and I the opportunity to purchase the brewery, we moved it to Santa Rosa and reopened it as a brewpub in 2003. It has been very successful, but, we are out of room. We serve 10+ beers along with very tasty thin crust pizza. Web site:

Location: 725 4th St. Santa Rosa, CA 95404

How long has the brewery been around: 10 years total but, only 3 year as a brewpub at our Santa Rosa location.

What is the yearly production? 3,000 barrels

How many different beers are made and how many are bottled? Where do the rest go?

I don’t know the exact number because we make so many one-off beers for the pub.

What is the current distribution?

Mostly Northern California and Southern California (Stone Brewing is our distributor in SoCal). We also ship a small amount to Pennsylvania.

Brewer Profile:

Name: Vinnie Cilurzo

Date Of Birth: July 25, 1970

Current Brewery: Russian River Brewing Company

What kind of education do you have? Not Much

Did you attend a Brewing School? No

How long have you been brewing? I started homebrewing in 1989 and began brewing professionally in 1993

How long have you been at your current job? 10 years with Russian River Brewing Company

What did you do previous to this job? Brewing, winemaking when I was younger

Every brewer has high and low points… what are yours?

High point, giving the Keynote Speech at the 2007 Craft Brewers Conference. Low point, dumping an entire mash at Blind Pig (on accident of course…)

What is your favorite beer style and why?

I don’t have a favorite beer style.

What is your Favorite beer?

That is like asking a parent which is their favorite kid, of course, the answer to that is, “which ever kid is in the least trouble right now…”

Which beer do you enjoy brewing the most? Why?

Barrel aged beers, there is so much give and take with the aging and most of it is in the control of the barrel and the “bugs” and “critters” that we added.

Do you still brew at home? What do you like to brew if you do?

I stopped homebrewing last year, I just don’t have time and more to the point, I feel very comfortable with the Belgian yeast we use. When I was homebrewing a few years back it was because I need to experiment more with the Belgian yeast.

What advice/words of wisdom do you have for those who may want to go pro?

I’d say first and foremost approach a local brewery and see about doing an apprenticeship which will mean working for free for sometime. In most cases the homebrewer will start out cleaning kegs and doing general cleaning around the brewery, he or she most certainly wouldn’t start out brewing right from the get go or start out transferring beer. There is a big difference between homebrewing and brewing professionally when it comes to process control. Things like getting all or most of the Co2 evacuated out of a fermenter before CIPing it, or making sure the tank is vented so you don’t run the risk of imploding it. Most homebrewers aren’t working with heavy cleaners like caustic soda, so, there is a major safety issue with that along with the fact that we use lots of hot water which can be dangerous if not handled properly.

Overall, the homebrewer wanting to go pro who finds a brewery that will take he or she in needs to have patience’s. During the early period of cleaning kegs and general brewery cleaning the apprentice will learn about general practices regarding transferring beer and cleaning, than over time, they could get into more of the day to day stuff.

Personal notes/outside interests:

Gardening and making ice cream. Other things of interest, first and foremost would be my wife and business partner Natalie. Without Natalie I don’t think Russian River would be in business. I get to brew and Natalie deals with all the other shit- particularly when it comes to the pub.

Interview date – May 2, 20207