Beer of the Week: Russian River Pliny the Elder

By Iron Chef Leftovers

The beer is so legendary that it has taken on a life of its own making it one of the tougher beers to find. It does not help that it is only distributed in 4 states – California, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania, and only available once every six weeks or so, driving demand through the roof. It is probably the number 1 beer that was requested in beer trading that I have done. Luckily, a trip to SF a few month back involved a side trip to the Russian River brewery and the ability to pick up 6 bottles of Pliny. Most were distributed to friends, a couple were for my consumption.

The skinny from Russian River:

Pliny the Elder is brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops. It is well-balanced with malt, hops, and alcohol, slightly bitter with a fresh hop aroma of floral, citrus, and pine. Best enjoyed FRESH! That is why we make it in such limited supply. Actual bottling date is printed on each bottle!

Where did we come up with this name? Back in the year 2000, our friend, Vic Kralj, who owns the Bistro in Hayward, California, decided to have his first ever Double IPA festival. Vic invited 10 breweries, 6 of whom (including us) had to brew something special for him since we had nothing that would fall under this style category. Vinnie had made a Double IPA at Blind Pig in 1994, but was not brewing one at Russian River Brewing at the time. He had an idea for the recipe, but not a name. After much research in beer books, brainstorming, and deliberation, we came up with “Pliny the Elder”. Pliny, the man, lived in the first century- 23 to 79 A.D. According to our brewing references, he and his contemporaries either created the botanical name or at least wrote about Lupus Salictarius, or hops, currently known as Humulus Lupulus. That was a very early reference to an important part of any Double IPA! Pliny the beer has now become one of our flagship brews!Pliny the Elder was immortalized by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who wrote about his uncle succumbing to ash and smoke during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. while rescuing people. Cheers to the scholar, historian, officer, writer, and Roman Naturalist- Pliny the Elder!

Original Gravity:     1.070

Alcohol by Volume:     8.0%

Color:     Copper

Bitterness:     High

Yep. I purchased 5 bottles of Pliny the Elder. No, I won't tell you where I got them, but if you are nice, I might share them with you.

The beer pours hazy orange in color with an off-white head. Extreme amounts of citrus and peel show on the nose and they hit you from a foot away. Upon closer inspection, orange peel, pine, resin and grain dominate the nose. This beer drinks big, a blast of grain starts you out before quickly relenting to the hops and there are a lot of them. Grapefruit and tangerine dominate before slowly bringing just a small amount of bitter orange peel and resin to the party on the finish. Those notes linger for a long time before slowly fading off after a minute. This is definitely a beer to be savored and drunk slowly to truly appreciate the complexity. Pliny is balanced and fruity with no indication of its 8% alcohol and is easy to drink for such a big beer. Pliny is a truly great beer and worth finding someone to trade bottles with if you have never had it before.
Russian River Pliny the Elder lectures the crowd with 5 history lessons out of 5.

Russian River Brewing and the Washington Market

By Iron Chef Leftovers

I think I just lost all respect for Russian River Brewing. I will explain why.

They are pulling out of distribution in Washington State as of December 2012, which means no more Pliny, but more importantly, no more of their really good Belgian style beers. Russian River is not a big brewery, but Pliny created a huge cult following for them, so the demand usually far outstrips supply. Russian River distributed in 5 states – California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Pennsylvania, so they weren’t exactly widely available except on the West Coast.

Earlier this year, I found out from talking to someone in the industry that Russian River was cutting back their shipments to Washington, which I thought was rather odd since they had increased them a few months before that. It wasn’t a big deal – it just made getting Pliny a bit harder. Then they dropped the bomb on us a couple of days ago.

They wrote a letter which, in summary basically says they are at capacity at the brewery and, because of the state laws in Washington, have no control over their brand here, so they are pulling out. This to me doesn’t sound like it is the whole story – as far as I know the laws surrounding beer distribution have not changed in several years and they distribute in Pennsylvania, which has some of the most draconian laws involving alcohol in the U.S. I am not sure if we will ever know the real reason for this, but I suspect that the owners of RR aren’t particularly smart about how they are controlling their growth and it is causing problems. As a result, the 2nd biggest craft brew market in the country doesn’t get access to arguably the most in-demand beer in the country.

Whatever the reasons, I will be making a raid on a couple local shops for Damnation and Suplication before they are all gone. As for Pliny, I have 1 bottle at home that I will be cracking open soon with some friends to enjoy.