Wandering through my neighborhood grocery store on a Saturday afternoon, I came across a wine tasting. “What the heck!” I said to myself and sauntered up to the guy with the wine glasses. I was chatting pleasantly with a couple sipping next to me when the male part of the party stopped a young man in an apron walking by and asked if they had any Pliny the Elder in the back. The young man scowled, but said he would bring one. My fellow taster boldly asked for a second bottle for his wife and received another black look.
“I’ll see how much we have.”
Noticing my perplexed look, this generous fellow explained to me that Pliny the Elder is a legendary beer from the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, and if stores put it out, someone would invariably come along and buy the entire lot, which produced a lot of unhappy customers.
The scowling employee returned with two bottles, and as he turned away, not bothering to acknowledge the hearty “Thank you!” from my companions, I steeled myself and said, “I’d like one of those, too.” What a glare! But I got my Pliny.
I decided to take it along on a trip to Florida to taste with a family friend. Captain Dale is a confirmed beer hound, a long time member of the infamous international Hash House Harriers, and a career mariner to boot. I’m still learning to like India Pale Ales, so, given their nautical history and the fact that Pliny the Elder is a Double IPA brewed by a pioneer of the form, Captain Dale seemed the perfect person with whom to share this beer.
Dale got the glasses and I opened the bottle and poured. It formed a beautiful head, the color of blanched almonds resting atop clear golden amber beer. We sniffed and smiled. Its aroma was distinctly citrus, like orange and honey.
The first sip washed over my palate with a wave of sweetness which almost immediately transmogrified into a strong, grapefruity hoppiness. The taste isn’t particularly complex, and other than this initial evolution, it doesn’t change much over the duration it takes residence in your mouth. From the beginning to the aftertaste is a smooth progression, and a pleasant bitterness lingers for a good while afterwards, prompting more mouthfuls.
The head dissipates quickly as you drink, leaving, as Dale put it, “A lovely froth on the glass.” He suggested the frothy lacing resembled a Rorschach test – I said waves crashing on rocks, he said dragon.
The numbers on this beer are pretty impressive. At 8% ABV you might want to drink it slowly, even if “the pleasure of the flavor didn’t prompt you to anyway.” Dale and I were surprised that the website claims it has 100 BUs, indicating a very highly hopped beer. We concluded that Pliny the Elder must be a masterpiece of hop and malt balance because, while definitely very hoppy, it didn’t seem that near the top of the scale.
Considering I generally dislike the hoppy bitterness of IPA’s, I’m astonished I enjoyed Pliny the Elder. I shouldn’t be, as the only other hoppy beer I’ve actually liked was another Russian River Brewery IPA, Blind Pig, which displays the same grapefruity character. I’ll certainly order this again, probably on a crisp autumn afternoon.
And Dale’s summation?