Name: Pliny The Elder
Style: Double India Pale Ale
Numbers: 8% ABV, IBUs unknown (high)
My wife and I were planning Thanksgiving. We were thinking about a trip with another couple; staying in Napa was floated. “I’d love to,” I said. “So long as we can go to Santa Rosa and have lunch at Russian River.”
The immediate suggestion of a brewery visit no longer so much as raises my wife’s eyebrow. “What are they known for?” was her response. (Which has, to my gratitude, supplanted, “Must we?”.)
My wife is no beer fanatic, but she has graciously accompanied me to many breweries and bars, and has developed a taste for hoppy beers. (She’s still a way off with sours unfortunately.) So I replied with some satisfaction, “Some of the world’s best IPAs.”
Russian River Brewing Company is located near the wine appelation of the same name in Sonoma County. Russian River is 55 miles north of San Francisco but about 30 miles west of Napa, so the area – a mere 10 miles inland – is famous for coastal Pinot Noir as opposed to the Napa Valley’s hearty Cabernet Sauvignons.
Unsurprisingly, the brewery’s story begins with wine.
The company was started by Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1997. It was originally sited on Korbel’s property, among the vineyards. But in 2003 Korbel divested itself of beer production, and offered to sell the brand to brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife Natalie. They bravely opened a brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa with minimal financing.
Despite Vinnie Cilurzo’s deep roots in the wine industry (his parents started a winery, planting the first vineyards in Temecula, and his sister – named Chenin – runs a fantastic place in Oregon called Twist Wine), he has proved pretty adept at this beer lark, racking up an astonishing 29 GABF medals and giving birth to the phenomenon of beer wait lines.
Yes, you have the Cilurzos to thank for the bizarre practice of queuing up to drink and/or buy beer. In 2005 Russian River debuted Pliny The Younger, heralded as the first “triple” IPA, as an annual draft-only release. It was loaded with hops and malt, and clocked in at just over 10% ABV – a new beer style somewhere between American IPA and barleywine.
For five years the beer sold relatively inconspicuously to people in the know, until rating sites labelled it the best beer in the world. Ever since it has been consumed only by those prepared to wait hours in line outside the brewpub, or the handful of accounts on the west coast that receive one or more of the 250 or so kegs released every February.
Pliny The Younger has an older, less scarce brother, a double IPA named Pliny The Elder. (Pliny The Elder was a noted Roman naturalist and polymath who is supposedly the first person to mention the hop plant in writing. Pliny The Younger was his nephew, who wrote fawningly of his uncle following the Elder’s death from – ahem – an exploding volcano.)
With its distinctive red badge and pine-green label, Pliny The Elder is the west coast’s Heady Topper. (Well, given “Pliny” predates “Heady” by three years, I guess it’s the other way round.) The Cilurzos have followed a conservative growth plan over the past 15 years so demand for Pliny dramatically outweighs supply. Bottles never stay on shelves for long, and pubs that receive kegs will publicise it as a beacon for beer geeks
So, fittingly, as we sauntered up to the brewpub in the middle of a cold, drizzly Saturday afternoon we encountered a line of fellow pilgrims waiting for the simple privilege of entry to the premises. Not to collect packaged beer – there was another equally long line for that – just to get in and buy a drink. And maybe order a pizza.
Despite the frustrating wait in the rain, I must heap praise on the attitude of the Cilurzos and their staff. They know you’re there for the beer, they run a tight ship and they are endlessly friendly and welcoming. And they maintain laughably competitive prices: a 16oz pour of four-times GABF medal-winning (2 x Gold, 2 x Bronze) Pliny costs just $5. A 16oz bottle to go is the same.
And the pub itself, while firmly dated in the late ’90s, is a fun place to hang out. They serve well-made American bar food (we crushed some pizzas and some excellent hot wings) and – in total contradiction to the craft bar stereotype recently lambasted by Anthony Bourdain – have plenty of big, loud TVs showing sport(s). It reminded me of San Diego’s Pizza Port chain, which is, of course, a close peer of Russian River in age and brewing accolades.
So, the beer.
First up, it is sometimes overlooked that Russian River is a brewing powerhouse, with depth far beyond its flagship IPAs Pliny The Elder and less robust cousin, Blind Pig. It has won medals for its stout, pilsner, porter, ESB and American wheat. Vinnie Cilurzo – one of 2006’s Brett Pack – is also considered one of the godfathers of the American barrel-aging and sour beer tradition; his Belgian-inspired ales such as Supplication and Consecration are seated at the nation’s top table.
But my companions and I naturally dived straight into pints of Pliny. And that’s where things got mildly amusing.
You see, until recently we all lived in New York where, like most of the east coast, the definition of an IPA has been evolving. We used to hang out in hipster Upper East Side beer haunts such as The Jeffrey and Pony Bar, which sell mainly northeastern beers. We all think of Burlington, Vermont as a beer mecca. The breweries my wife and I have visited recently are of the ilk of Bissell Brothers, Foundation and Hill Farmstead.
For my companions, the liquid in the glasses we had been handed didn’t match up to their idea of an IPA.
“Why’s it so clear?” was the first question. As a proto-typical West Coast IPA, Pliny The Elder pours out a vibrant, light copper – and it’s crystal clear. We east coasters are used to IPAs that look like cloudy grapefruit juice with a frothy head.
I took a few sniffs and enjoyed the elegant blend of west coast aromas you’d expect from the use of the classic Simcoe-Amarillo hop partnership, complemented by Centennial and CTZ. Plenty of pine, sharp grapefruit and gentler tangerine peel, some pineapple and some mossy grassiness. A little cat pee in the background too, for good measure. It was fantastically structured, but muted compared to the unfiltered and monstrously dry-hopped IPAs we New Yorkers had become accustomed to.
The taste was malty, balanced and slightly sweet, the hoppiness retaining its clarity and cut. And, as is the west coast way, its bitterness was prominent. The texture was mouth-filling but not heavy, and it had a long, clean, smooth finish.
A classic, I thought to myself, as I turned to my wife for her reaction.
“Well, it’s definitely good,” she said. “But it’s no Heady Topper or Sip Of Sunshine. Actually, I far prefer Bissell Brothers’ IPAs.”
What my wife has come to appreciate, and what Pliny somewhat lacks, is juiciness, perhaps the most over-used beer descriptor of modern times. Nor, on reflection, would I apply the second most popular IPA adjective: dank.
But dank, cloudy and juicy are the three tenets of the North East(/New England) IPA beers that are flooding the market. Brewed with minimal bitterness and, increasingly, newer tropical-fruit-forward varietals of hop, these hazy, boozy brews are steamrolling right through the very definition of India pale ale.
This is perhaps reflected in last year’s epic Paste Magazine blind tasting of 115 double IPAs, in which Pliny The Elder ranked only 18th. (To be fair, the daddy of the North East style, Heady Topper, came in 16th.) At the top of the heap was Lambo Door, an uber-fruity, densely turbid beer by Grimm Artisanal Ales, based in Brooklyn.
Vinnie Cilurzo has commented that he doesn’t brew to win awards, and that he doesn’t really change his recipes beyond the occasional tiny tweak, presumably to account for ingredient fluctuations. Pliny The Elder was first brewed in the days when Britney was just another girl’s name, Blink 182 made cutting edge rock music, and American Pie was fresh out of the oven.
Pliny remains a standard – a water mark in the evolution of American beer – but we now drink in a world where most brewers are a decade or two younger than its creator. While I highly recommend a visit to the pub in Santa Rosa, I left feeling almost like I’d spent time in a beer museum. Russian River’s brewpub proudly wears the hallmarks of its 1990s California heritage, as easily identifiable as an Irish pub or a German beer hall.
But just try telling the people lining up outside that that’s a bad thing.