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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Russian River's Elusive Pliny the Younger

I have long wondered about Russian River's legendary Pliny the Younger, a ghost beer of such surpassing rarity that it appears only via single, tiny kegs in lucky pubs immediately thronged with beer geeks no less ecstatic than 14-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

Or maybe, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the whole thing is a hoax perpetuated by those who don't want to admit such a beer doesn't exist, to cop to the fact that they didn't actually score a pour. Of course, what with my slow reflexes and advanced hermitism, I was never able to verify one way or another whether the beer exists and, if it does, whether it's worth a damn.

Until last night.

Fortunately, the good folks at Roscoe's were the winners in this year's PtY lottery. Located at 81st and Stark, with the beer tapping at five sharp: the stars aligned for me to do a stealth strike--in and out before the throngs could descend after work. (Congrats to Roscoe's and thanks for the head's up.) And indeed, on a day suffused with the first real light of spring, I finally managed to taste this beer, to test the hypothesis that it granted omniscience, youth, and bliss.

Russian River is justly famous for brewer Vinnie Cilurzo's funky forays into wild ales. It is likewise famous for Pliny the Elder, its imperial IPA. I have many times extolled that beer and would place it in the top five hoppy beers brewed on American soil. The beer is named, aptly, for the Roman naturalist purported to have first identified hops (disputes exist). The beer is a hop lyric, a hoppy bacchanal in a bottle. Whether or not the history is accurate, the evocation is appropriate: to even smell the intensely piny aroma is enough to provoke a hophead to shiver--never mind actually tasting the stuff.

But Pliny the Younger? He was not a naturalist and had nothing to do with hops. A man of moderation and reserve, he is famous for his letters which include passages like this, extolling the virtues of illness to tamp down passions:
Where is the sick man who is either solicited by avarice or inflamed with lust? At such a season he is neither a slave of love nor the fool of ambition; wealth he utterly disregards, and is content with ever so small a portion of it, as being upon the point of leaving even that little.... These are the supreme objects of his cares and wishes, while he resolves, if he should recover, to pass the remainder of his days in ease and tranquillity, that is, to live innocently and happily.
The beer is bigger and hoppier than Pliny the Elder, an 11% "triple IPA" that is "hopped three times more than our standard IPA, and is dry hopped four different times." Look elsewhere for moderation.

Tasting Notes
Let's just say right up front: I'm not a big fan of imperial IPAs. Whenever I taste them, I have the sense of a kind of molecular density, like they're comprised of dark matter. The flavors are so compressed you can't actually taste them individually: it's a wall of force that blasts you back in your seat. (I suppose this is exactly the quality that makes them so popular.) I actively enjoy Deschutes Hop Henge, but few other massive hop bombs.

Nevertheless, I carried to the experience an open mind: perhaps the Younger was just like the Elder, but more so. Indeed, the first impressions were good. As you can see, it's a gorgeous beer, and the aroma definitely has the Pliny family character--a bouquet of pine and juniper, woody and resinous. Ah, but then we encounter the dark matter. One can detect, under the rather violent alcoholic pop, a candy-orange sweetness and those smooth, velvety hops. Yet everything is cramped and compressed. I wondered if it might not do to be diluted a bit--which would of course turn it into Pliny the Elder.

You can only go north so far. Once you hit the pole, you're heading south again. Pliny the Elder is a perfect beer--there's no "more so" to be found. In amping everything up, Russian River heads south. (Obviously, this is a minority view, but that makes it no less correct.) Save yourself the bother and have the Elder: there, friends, lies bliss.


  1. This is basically the same opinion I have of the beer, so I can avoid the madness of PtY every year.

  2. I came, I saw, I drank. After two years of trying to get a taste of PtY, I finally got a glass this year. I'm glad that I tried it but you won't find me waiting for it again. It was good but not great and far from earth-shattering. Though, I have to admit that it was a more balanced beer than I expected.

  3. Living in Cincinnati I have never seen the beer and I think of it like a unicorn - it may exist but i will never see it. Have read your reviews I feel better that I am not missing out on the "fountain of youth" or some magical elixir. - Greg from the 'Nati

  4. I find your description of the compressed wall of flavor of extreme beers apt.

    I recently had that experience [but not the eloqent words] when I sampled Cigar City's - Jai Alai IPA. Two lagers later I was still tasting the earthy, herbal, tobaccy essence of the Jai Alai IPA.

    In his 29 January 2011 Zythophile blog, titled 'Why extremophiles are a danger to us all', Martyn Cornell, a Brit, opines about the distortive effect of the popularity of extreme beers among beer enthusiasts. Cornell's blog was inspired by Ratebeer's 'The Best 100 Beers 2011' of which 70% are imperial stout; others are double IPAs. The blog and some of the 185 comments are worth reading.

    On RateBeer's 'The Best 100 Beers 2011 [in the world as rated by tens of thousands of our worldwide tasters]':
    - Pliny The Elder rates 08
    - Pliny The Younger, 03

  5. im pretty sure pliny is 10.something% not 11.. fyfi

  6. Thanks for that link Jack R. I agree. Extreme beers are the opposite of creativity and craftsmanship to me.

    "Umm, what should we do now? I guess we could throw in four times the hops. Or make it really really strong!"

    Your discription of Pliny the Younger sounds terrible to me. I've had PtE a few times. Always enjoy the first half of the pint a lot more than the second half.

  7. I should say, I don't fault Russian River in any way for this beer. It's exactly what they intended, and exactly what scads of customers want. As evidenced by Vinnie's extensive line of great beer, he knows what he's doing.

    Ohio, it's 1.098 and 11%--verified by the company website.

  8. I disagree that all extreme beers are the opposite of creativity and craftsmanship. Those absolutes are always an issue to me. There are many, many great extreme beers out there. But, as with anything, too much of a good thing tends to make it bad. And I think that is where we are with many of these extreme beers. At the same time, I would love to try PtY sometime. I am not a hop-head but it would be something to try. Maybe one day I will get to try some, but unlikely anytime in the future being that I live in Rhode Island.

  9. My local craft taproom rotates 8 of 10 taps. One rotating tap is dedicated to extreme beer and each sequencial beer is different.

    I notice extreme beers [100+IBU/8+% ABV: IPA, barleywines, and wheatwines] sell much, much slower than [say] mellow IPAs. It is as if the customers are one-and-done with the extreme beer; they linger.

    btw, I regard Vinnie of R2 as genuis; Pliny The Elder is one of the best beers I have ever had; PtE and Tricerahops seem uniquely mellow / balanced among extreme beers.