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Go behind the scenes at Russian River Brewing to see how the Pliny is made

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A fervent beer aficionado, Mike Kraemer has taken quite a few brewery tours across the country.

Kraemer’s trips have included a visit to Miller Brewing Co.’s Milwaukee headquarters, where he heard the 160-year-old story of how Miller eventually became one of America’s biggest brands. He also has ventured through Stone Brewing Co.’s modern digs in Escondido and listened to its tale of being at the forefront of the West Coast India pale ale craze that still dominates the craft beer market.

But those experiences couldn’t compare with what he experienced Tuesday afternoon during a guided tour at Russian River Brewing Co.’s new $50 million brewery in Windsor. The establishment, including a vast restaurant and taproom plus growler-filling station, swag store and outside patio, opened on Oct. 11 but the public brewery tours didn’t start until Nov. 15.

“It’s a really good experience to see how it’s made and all the process,” Kraemer, a Phoenix resident, said of getting a close look at how the beers are made. “This is much more open and more exposed (than others).”

The crowds have been coming since Russian River started the public brewery tours, lured by the craft brewer’s reputation as one of the best small independent breweries in the world. For years, fans have waited every February for hours in line at Russian River’s downtown Santa Rosa brewpub to drink its coveted Pliny the Younger Triple IPA, a limited release regarded as one of the best beers on the planet.

Despite a deluge of requests in the past, owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo never had the space at their Fourth Street brewpub or the former production facility near the Santa Rosa Marketplace to handle brewery tours.

The expansive Windsor production area and adjoining brewpub/restaurant was designed to accommodate both a one-hour guided tour — which costs $15 per person — and more limited self-guided tours. They are offered daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Our customer is going to literally see and feel and truly understand beer,” Natalie Cilurzo said in an earlier interview regarding the guided tour.

Indeed, the initial popularity of the guided brewery tours at Russian River is quickly on the path to becoming a must-see tourist attraction in Sonoma County, rivaling the estate tours at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen and the grounds of Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, where visitors can gawk at the famed film director’s memorabilia from his movies.

In one sense, the throng taking brewery tours at Russian River is not surprising given the Santa Rosa brewpub has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

The Cilurzos wanted an immersive experience beyond a traditional brewery tour for hardcore beer geeks and novices. Visitors first enter the brewhouse where they are given a sample of Russian River Damnation Golden Ale to taste and are handed samples of barley and hops to smell. Then they are given a crash course on the elements of brewing beer.

After that, visitors are led along a catwalk-like trail past various rooms where the yeast is added to a section where the beer is processed in either closed-top or open-top fermenters. The latter fermenter is where the yeasty froth bubbles up to the top and occasionally spills over — providing the perfect visual. From there, visitors go to the brewery’s packaging hall, where the beers are bottled and kegged. They also receive a sample of Pliny the Elder Double IPA, the brewery’s flagship beer.

The final portion of the tour takes visitors through the barrel room, where certain beers are aged, before they make a stop at the wood-framed room that houses the coolship, a more shallow open-top fermentation vessel used to collect wild yeasts for spontaneously fermented beers. Visitors then can sample a sour beer variety such as Russian River’s Beatification Wild Ale.

“People have loved it,” said Taylor McKeever, a server and tour guide. “The fact that they are able to almost immerse themselves in the process and not just get told about it. You get to see, handle and smell. It’s the whole brewing process. You’re right in the middle of it.”