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Welcome to Amazing Tap Handles - The Tap Handle Museum. Here you will find photos of the Museum's collection of beer taps, along with brewery info. Have a look around the Museum, and use the contact form in sidebar to leave me feedback about the site, talk about taps, or if you have a rare tap handle you'd like to sell to the Museum. I'd love to hear from you! Please, no inquires about buying taps - they're not for sale.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tap Handle #549: Blind Pig - English Style Ale

Tap size:  10.5"
Rarity:  Scarce
Mounting:  internal 3/8" nut

When I first had the opportunity to acquire this tap, I hesitated, as I was unwilling to pay a lot of money for a "pig head on a stick". However, after researching the brewery history behind the tap, and discovering that the brewery has been closed for many years, when I got a second chance at the tap for a very reasonable price I pulled the trigger. Although it is somewhat crude in its sculpting and painting, and truly being a "pig head on a stick", there is still something quite satisfying about owning it. It probably has something to do with its place in brewing history - Blind Pig is recognized for creating the first Double (Imperial) American IPA - or perhaps it's the scarcity...either way, it is a welcome addition to the collection. Russian River, which revived the brand in 2006, used graphics on the label and taps that are very similar to the original Blind Pig's graphics, with the main difference being the gold medal award listed on the original graphics, and Russian River appearing as the brewery name on the newer graphics. Russian River's tap features a cane instead of a pig head (see photo to upper right). Since the Blind Pig Brewery has been gone since 1997, this tap is incredibly scarce - I believe I have only ever seen 3-4 others.

Click through to read more about Blind Pig Brewing, their English Style Ale, and to see more photos of this unsightly tap...

Blind Pig Brewing Company was founded in Temecula, California in 1994 by Vinnie Cilurzo and Dave Stovall. Cilurzo worked for his parents’ Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery at an early age. By the time he was 18 years old, he had taught himself to homebrew in the basement of the winery. He traveled to Europe for a couple of months, trying beers in many different countries, ultimately connecting with Belgian and English style ales. Upon returning home, he attended three short brewing courses at UC Davis. In the process he met Stovall, who was interested in opening a microbrewery. Stovall had a background in international resort management and had good marketing and sales skills. The two became partners and then found a local investor who was willing to put up most of the finances for the little brewery. They also obtained two loans, including a local redevelopment loan.

The pair started on a very small scale. With an initial investment of only $160,000, they were able to install a seven-barrel brewing and kegging system. Cilurzo and Stovall had to cut many corners with the equipment, purchasing some from Electric Dave Brewing, which had just closed, and the rest from local wineries and dairies. The bright beer tanks were all second-hand Grundies from England. Once they went into production and began to generate income, they started trading for better equipment. The Blind Pig name originated from the Prohibition era, when “pig” was the slang term for a mason jar and “blind pig” was an unmarked mason jar. The term eventually shifted to describe the establishment that served these "blind pigs" containing bootleg alcohol. During that period in Temecula, Joe Winkels ran the local blind pig. Fronted by the Ramona Inn, the tavern housed a motel, boxing ring, and a brothel. Winkels’ blind pig was so successful, even some Hollywood celebrities ventured out to Temecula to partake in its many pleasures. By the 1950s, the Blind Pig Saloon had closed and it became part of Temecula’s history. Cilurzo and Stovall, decided to name their brewery after the infamous saloon to make a connection with Temecula’s colorful past.

The 2,000 square foot brewery was located in an industrial park. Very little retrofitting was needed, with the biggest tasks being the installation of floor drains and the construction of a cold box. However, with plastic fermenters, Cilurzo was worried about the quality of the beer. His first release was supposed to be an IPA, but he doubled the hops and increased the malt by 30% to make it higher in alcohol and to cover up any weird flavors. After dry-hopping for a year using oak chips, the result was the Blind Pig Inaugural Ale. The craft beer market was not ready for a hoppy and "unbalanced" beer, so it was only brewed once per year after the initial release, but Cilurzo is credited with creating the first Double (also known as Imperial) American IPA. The brewery went back to the original IPA recipe, and also continued the local historical connection with their other brands, which included Winkels Winter Warmer (their Christmas beer), McNeill’s Last Stout, Santa Rosa Plateau Porter, and Old Blue Granite, a barleywine.

Their original plan called for adding a bottling line after two years. However, two things happened soon after opening. First, there was a great influx of microbrewed beers in Southern California, saturating the tap market. Second, customers were clamoring for Blind Pig beers in bottles so they could have them at home. The partners decided to jump into the bottle market ahead of schedule. They purchased a second-hand Meheen bottler from Whistler Brewing in British Columbia. Because they couldn’t keep up with the demand for their draft beers, in order to bottle they had to continue to increase production for both draft beer and bottled beer. This required more fermenters and bright beer tanks, not to mention more hours brewing, bottling, and labeling the beer bottles. The bottled beers took off in popularity and accounted for 70 percent of their production. Cilurzo's wife Natalie, who had supported his brewing dreams after they had met during their winery days, helped out by printing labels at Kinko’s and glued them onto the bottles herself.

In just two years Blind Pig reached the 2,000-barrel-a-year mark and was distributed throughout the Los Angeles-San Diego area. The Blind Pig tasting room was also extremely popular, with more than 200 visitors weekly. Greg Koch, who later founded Stone Brewing Company, was an early fan, stopping in regularly to fill his growlers. The brewery hit a high point when they won multiple medals at the 1996 Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. However, even though the brewery was popular with "beer nerds", the general public had not yet embraced craft beer. After three years of working 80-100 hours a week, Cilurzo saw the writing on the wall: Blind Pig would not  be profitable for many years. He decided to sell his share of the company in 1997, and he and Natalie moved north to Sonoma County. Wine giant Korbel Champagne Cellars decided to venture into the brewing industry, and hired Cilurzo as a consultant to help them open Russian River Brewing Company. Six weeks later he was hired as the brewmaster.

Blind Pig suffered after Cilurzo's departure, closing its doors for good in 1997, but Cilurzo's success continued at Russian River; in 1999 it was named the Small Brewing Company of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. In 2002, Korbel's financial advisor convinced them to get out of the beer business, so they closed the brewery and laid off Cilurzo. However, instead of a severance check, Silurzo convinced Korbel to sell him the Russian River brand. By 2004, the Silurzos had raised enough money from friends and family to equip a new Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa. Cilurzo also acquired the rights to his former Blind Pig brand, which now lives on as Russian River Blind Pig IPA, and it won a gold medal at the 2006 World Cup, as well as a silver medal at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival.

Blind Pig English Style Ale was an English Extra Special Bitter (ESB) that won a gold medal at the 1996 Great American Beer Festival. No entries exist on Ratebeer or Beer Advocate, although Russian River's Pliny the Elder, a double IPA, and Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA, are the "descendants" of Blind Pig's Inaugural Ale, and are ranked #17 and #4, respectively, on Ratebeer's top 50 beers.

Since Blind Pig Brewing is defunct, no address or website is provided. It should not be confused with the Blind Pig Brewery that currently exists in Champaign, Illinois.

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