• Rick Burkhardt

Supporting Sonoma County with Russian River Brewing

Horrible tragedy heralds an opportunity to help. That was the case recently for Scarlet Lane Brewing when they collaborated with Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing to help those affected by deadly wildfires in Sonoma County, California. A veritable rock star, Cilurzo is co-owner of Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing (with wife Natalie), and brewer of world-renowned Pliny The Elder. He also is universally credited with creating the Double IPA beer style while at Blind Pig Brewing.

Collaboration brewing comes about for various reasons, usually in happy, joyous circumstances, like a beer week, an anniversary, or just wanting to get together with friends of a like-minded brewery. For Mitch Roelecke, Lead Brewer at Scarlet Lane, it was something completely different. “It started on a tragic note.”

On his way to work last October 9th, a Monday, Mitch was contacted by his mother in

Santa Rosa, who said that she and his father were awakened by their dogs in the middle of night. Falling ash was not a good sign; uncontained wildfires were wreaking havoc in Sonoma and Napa counties. Gas, electricity and water were shut off to their home and soon they were evacuated by authorities. Information wasn’t available to them, so Mitch hung onto his laptop to provide his parents with much needed updates.

By Thursday, disaster was avoided as the fires were contained just 1 ½ miles from their home. Not the only beer lover in the family, Mitch’s parents dusted off, took their first shower in several days at a local shelter and went to Russian River, where they are regulars. Vinnie Cilurzo even greeted them and asked how they were doing.

“…It was just kind of like, ‘Heyyyy…I’m a brewer… and my parents live there. I’d really like to get in touch with Natalie because she’s doing the coronation on this.’ Like, how many requests do they get looking for Natalie?!”

Still closely monitoring the situation back in Indiana, Mitch learned that Russian River was working with the King Rich Foundation (started by former professional cyclist and US champion, Levi Leipheimer) to brew a fire-relief charity beer called Sonoma Pride. “I saw that other breweries were getting involved and they were kind of making it this open project,” Mitch said. And since he’d actually lived in Santa Rosa for a year and visited Russian River, he continued, “I really wanted to get involved with it.”

After receiving total support from Scarlet Lane owners Eilise Lane and Nick Servies, Mitch reached out to Russian River. “It’s funny, because I didn’t really know anyone at Russian River so I emailed their general information. It was just kind of like, ‘Heyyyy…I’m a brewer…and my parents live there. I’d really like to get in touch with Natalie because she’s doing the coronation on this.’ Like, how many requests do they get looking for Natalie?!”

To his surprise, Roelecke was quickly connected with Natalie Cilurzo and she thanked him for his interest in becoming part of the project. “They were overwhelmed because I was not the only one that reached out.” Power breweries like Ballast Point, Bear Republic, Sierra Nevada, Creature Comforts, Crux, Cigar City, as well international breweries were on board. Russian River permitted participating breweries to use the Sonoma Pride name and artwork.

Russian River and most other breweries were creating a hoppy blonde for the benefit beer, though stouts and Northwest IPA’s are mostly in Scarlet Lane’s wheelhouse. But, Mitch said, “As time went on we were like, ‘You know, we really want to honor the spirit of the collaboration effort. We should probably just do a hoppy blonde ale.’” He worked up the grain bill and teamed with Eilise to develop the hop schedule, and with the help of brewery friends, they filled in the rest of the ingredients they didn’t have on hand. Brewing began the following week.

At work, Mitch joked that he almost fainted when he received an email from Vinnie, saying, “It was a geeky moment for me because they (Russian River) are kind of like my favorite brewery of all time, if I had to pick one.” Timing even worked out well for Roelecke since he had already planned to visit his parents for Thanksgiving, so he was able to drop off bottles of his Sonoma Pride version to Russian River.

Though Vinnie was ill and not at the brewery when he visited, Mitch said, “At the end of the day, it wasn’t that important to hear from him about the beer, necessarily. I know that we feel good about the beer we made and more importantly, about the effort that we’re supporting.”

In Indiana, we have our own disasters but we are insulated and mostly unaffected by the events that hit our nation’s coasts, so it’s important to understand the breadth of this devastation. In the Santa Rosa area, more than 40 lives were lost and over 8,400 structures valued at $1 billion were destroyed, in what has been called the “worst natural disaster in Northern California history.”

Staring down an unpredictable enemy and fortunately coming away safe, this literally hit too close to home for Mitch and his folks. Clearly, it doesn’t matter whether a collaboration is done in person or by email 2,200 miles apart, it is the spirit of the brew that matters.

“I joke that it was only slightly self-serving because of the name that Russian River carries, and I never wanted to be like, ‘Oh, we’re collaborating with Russian River.’ It’s not really a collaboration,” Mitch said. “I prefer to use the term ‘partnership.’”

For Mitch Roelecke, he is grateful that Scarlet Lane recognized how important this project was to him, and that they were willing to commit valuable resources (goods, time and space) for something so meaningful. “It’s great that we’re able to, even as a small brewery in Indianapolis, get out and be involved in national projects like this. It’s pretty cool.”



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