Pliny the Elder

  Posted on November 23rd, 2010

This is my first article in nearly four months, and being my first article in nearly four months, it would be remiss of me to attempt to jumpstart this blog with any ordinary ale. So, in order to kick things off with a bang, I sat down at my trusty laptop and cracked open a bottle of Pliny the Elder.

The obvious followup question is, of course, what makes Pliny the Elder worth of such an article? Well, for starters, there’s this list. Pliny, along with probably a half-dozen other beers, has become one of the alcohol ‘Holy Grails.’ Near universally positive ratings combined with relative rarity has given Pliny a solid ‘Nectar of the Gods’ reputation. Does the beer’s obscurity have anything to do with its exalted reputation? Probably. Of the Top 10 on BeerAdvocate, only one is available year-round (and only three are easily found in retail). But does that make it overrated? Let’s let the tasting decide.

But first…

The History
This is a history in three parts…

Part 1: The Man
Pliny the Elder, also known as Gaius Plinius Secundus, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire. He was born sometime around 23AD, and died on August 25, 79, allegedly while rescuing a friend from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Personally, I’d put that in the top 5 badass ways to die (#1 of course is blowing up a meteor). He also wrote a book on the use of missiles thrown from horseback in battle. Bad, ass.
However, it was not Pliny’s heroic exit, nor his De jaculatione equestri that led Russian River to name their brew after him, although I’m sure it didn’t hurt. It was his work as a naturalist, where he lent the name ‘lupus Salictarius’ - meaning ‘wolf among scrubs’ - to the hop plant, which at the time grew mostly among willows. The current botanical name for hops is humulus Lupulus, and the resin found in hops which gives beer its distinctive bitterness is known as Lupulin. It’s wolves all the way down, all thanks to Pliny’s metaphor.

Part 2: The brewery
Russian River is a small Californian brewery / pub. It was founded in 1997 when some folks at Korbel decided to try brewing beer. They hired Vinnie Cilurzo as brewmaster, who went on to buy the brewery in 2002 when Korbel backed out of the brewing industry. Currently, Russian River (merged with Blind Pig, Cilurzo’s old brewery) is located in downtown Santa Rosa, CA. Although in seriously high demand, Russian River has a very limited distribution. Several of their more popular brews (most notably Pliny the Younger, a bigger, hoppier version of the Elder) are only available in the brewpub and for a few days each year. The few beers that see commercial release are found primarily in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and for some odd reason, Philadelphia.

Part 3: The beer
Pliny the Elder is a Double or Imperial IPA, a style which Vinnie Cilurzo is actually credited with inventing, although a few others make a similar claim. Cilurzo claims he “accidentally” created the style by adding 50% too much malt, a mistake he then “corrected” by adding 100% more hops. Also eager to claim the honor of DIPA Inventor are San Diego’s Port Brewing, and Rogue Ales, out of Oregon. Origin disputes aside, IIPAs are a relatively young, definitely American, mostly Californian style. Characterized by high alcohol and a hugely dominant hop profile (Pliny fits in nicely at 8%ABV and 100IBU), IIPA is one of the fastest growing styles in craft beer. At present, imperial IPA is become almost a standard for any American small brewery, especially any brewery on the west coast.

So know we know who Pliny was, what Pliny is, and why he’s in such high demand. But, with all beers, what really matters is how it tastes.

The Tasting
Decantered into a tulip glass, the beer pours a honey amber with some translucence. A white soapy head floats around and sicks around.
Smells like grapefruit… Lots and lots of grapefruit. Some pineapple maybe? A few other citrusy notes around the periphery.
Flavor has the same grapefruity tinge as the aroma, but a bit sharper… some notes of pine and a dry, almost chalky antacid bitter just into the finish. Ending is brighter, but still a dry acidic citrus. It’s all hops - hops up front, hops across the middle, hops long into the aftertaste. What little malt character there is is light and cereal, existing only to provide enough backing for the hops to ride in on.
Some additional fruit awakens as the beer warms. Tangerine, peach, some apple perhaps. It’s light, but rounds out the bitterness well.
Mouthfeel is perfect. There’s enough body to carry the flavor well, but Pliny is surprisingly not syrupy. given its enormous hop oil presence and high alcohol, one expects a certain stickiness, yet this finishes clean on the palate.
Alcohol is nicely masked, even during the room-temperature last sips. The effect, however, is quite noticeable by the end of a .5L bottle.

The Verdict
First, a brief digression: I’ll admit this bottle was nearing the end of its usable life. Hop oils deteriorate over time, and IPA’s are best enjoyed fresh. The text on Pliny’s label reads: “Respect your elder: Keep cold, drink fresh, DO NOT AGE! Pliny the Elder is a historical figure, don’t make the beer inside this bottle one!” Of course, the fresher the better, but realistically anything inside of 2-3 months is acceptable. If I’d opened this a month ago, I would have found the aroma much bigger, the hops in full force, and almost no sweetness. In another month, I would have lost the freshness in that grapefruit-pineapple aroma, and in its place found an amplified presence of sweet sugary bread-malts. Some big IPAs are ageable. Dogfish Head’s 90-minute, for example, yields a nice barleywine raisin sweetness and some kind of tobacco leaf earthy quality after about a year. For fresh-hop beers, however, please drink them young.

Anyway, my thoughts… This is an amazing beer. I was lucky enough to try it super-fresh when I was in Colorado, and again a week later at the brewpub in Santa Rosa. While not the biggest, the hoppiest, or the most bitter, or even the most balanced, Pliny still stands at the head of the style. Yes, it’s preceded by its reputation. And yes, perhaps Pliny’s perennial position atop the ‘Greatest Beers on Planet Earth’ list may influence some - myself included - to treat the brew as something more than just a beer. But I think this brew - and Russian River in general - is easily deserving of such a rank.