The Hop Brief: Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder
Enjoyed on 9/15/2010
Brewery: Russian River Brewing Co.
Location: Santa Rosa, CA
Beer: Pliny the Elder
Presentation: 16.9 oz. – Brown Glass Bottle – Capped
Style: American Style Imperial India Pale Ale
Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist, scholar, historian, traveler, officer, and writer. Although not considered his most important work, Pliny and his contemporaries created the botanical name for hops, “lupus Salictarius”, meaning wolf among scrubs.” Hops at that time grew wild among willows, much like a wolf in the forest. Later the current botanical name, Humulus Lupulus, was adopted. Pliny died in 79 AD while observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He was immortalized by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who continued his uncle’s legacy by documenting much of what he observed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder, the beer, is brewed with 40% more malt and over twice the amount of hops as compared to our already hoppy IPA.
Beer Advocate: A+ (4.55)
Rate Beer: 100 (4.24)
beeradvocate.com recently posted their 2010 “Top Beers on Planet Earth”. At the time of that list’s release Beer Blotter felt obliged to lend their opinion on the extremely interesting phenomena surrounding it, but alas, time did not allow. Seeing that the beer to be reviewed here is the controversial number 1 on said list, we will take this opportunity to toss out a few thoughts.
First, the background. I believe that this list comes out every year and is essentially beeradvocate.com‘s version on ratebeer.com‘s The Best Beers in the World (overall), or possibly The Top Widely Distributed Beers. These lists are always created exclusively with the use of the reviews of the website’s users. That being said, no matter what you may think of the results, they are the will of the people.
I personally prefer ratebeer’s Best in the World list over BA’s Top Beers list because I feel it gives credit to beers that, yes, may be very rare, but most likely taste the best, or are the most complex. BA’s list seems to have been compiled only with beers that have been reviewed by roughly 1,000 users, or have roughly 1,000 total reviews. This, however, makes the list much more accessible to the masses. A decent majority of the beers on the list have a sizable distribution.
For us Seattleites, the only breweries represented in the list that don’t distribute to our state are Founder’s, Bell’s, Three Floyds, Troegs, Great Lakes, Brooklyn, and Smuttynose. That’s really not that bad. 7 out of 44 breweries. Of course, none of those 44 breweries are from WA, but we kinda already knew that would happen. Tell me what WA beer deserves to be on the list, but before you answer, ask yourself what that beer’s distribution looks like. When you weigh quality with the number of mouths that get to taste it, you will begin to realize why our state is never represented.
Now, to number 1 on the list. Pliny. This is insane! Don’t get me wrong, Pliny is an amazing double IPA. I’d drink it everyday for the rest of my life if I had to and I’d be quite happy. Vinnie Cilurzo is truly a hero of mine, but…there should never, ever be an IPA in the number one spot on a list like this. IPAs lack depth and complexity. The number 1 spot should be reserved for a beer that has so many layers and nuances that you struggle to describe it. Even my beloved imperial stout, though unarguably complex, doesn’t have the depth of some of the greatest Belgian ales. This is why I will never argue with the ratebeer perennial champion Westy 12. Now that is a worthy beer for number 1 on planet Earth. But, Westy 12 is very rare and therefore has no place on this list. Rochefort 10 on the other hand, found in the number 3 position on the list, should be on top in my opinion. Anyone who has ever had this beer knows a little something about speechless.
But, I deeply digress. This article is about hops and Pliny has plenty of it. Wherever Pliny should end up on this list, or any other list for that matter, is up for debate; but what surely is not up for debate is if it should be on the list, or any other list for that matter. There is absolutely no doubt that this is one of the world’s best hoppy beers and I’m ecstatic to be drinking it tonight.
The filling of my pint glass is no easy task. A huge, rocky head arises of a just off-white, nearly yellow hue. It takes a while to fizzle down into beer, so you can imagine the pains it took to hold patiently. In fact, I failed. Refusing to wait, I slurped up a big, prickly mouthful of foam that seemed a microcosm of the taste experience soon to come. Immediately evaporating like a pinch of cotton candy between my lips, waves of citrus and pine span past me in fractions of a second before a stern slap of bitterness stung my senses.
Before even one liquid sip made it to my mouth, I felt as though I had climbed just slightly too far up a pine tree, became fearfully stuck, then became the target of a potato gun loaded with citrus. I’m taking it square in the jaw with propelled fruit and hanging on to the sharp, sappy branches of my captor with all that I have. It sounds like a nightmare, and to the bitter bewildered, it just may be, but to The Hop Brief, it’s an extreme sport. We do it for the love of the thrill.
The head eventually settles to a white wisp and ring. Surprisingly, the lacing is a bit subdued. After such a thick head on the pour and the sweetness expected from such a big brew, I presumed there would be much more stickage. The color is also a bit unexpected, a pale, cloudy amber. Pale enough that I would have projected a lighter brew before me. The most striking attribute of all, gathered with the eye, is the level of cloudiness. Actually, I hesitate to even use the word cloudy, though it seems an appropriate adjective for beers with suspended yeast. Here we have some serious floaters! My mind tells me that it’s hop shrapnel, and I like the thought of that. Maybe I can chew some hop as I drink some hop.
The nose is very pleasant to this IPA lover. There is a slight sting in the nostrils from the multi-tiered potency. Many facets of potent lupulin resins (pine and citrus, as mentioned earlier), backed with a potent booze factor. The biscuity malts that break through add a complexity and balance that is an invaluable sidekick. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a dash of wheat in the grain bill. That may also be a factor in the color and cloudiness. Fruitcake… and no, I’m not talking about you… in the nose. There is a slight but noticeable sweetness in the scent that brings me relief.
The mouthfeel is spot on for the style. Fairly low but present carbonation, smooth and slick with sweetness… I’m not rushing to swallow.
The flavor is pretty fantastic. No shit, right? The taste experience begins with an onslaught of bitterness, which I generally am opposed to, but after the bitter sensing portions of the tongue relax (or are desensitized, I’m not sure which), it’s all so right. An exhale through the nose stirs up all of the crucial hop flavors that were prefaced in the nose. BIG earthy pine (trapped in a tree), grapefruit, pumello, bitter orange (potato gun shooting citrus); it’s all there and wiping about the mouth like a swirl-and-spin of hop-flavored paint, coating every corner of the mouth with aromatic arts.
The malts are like the cool, smooth looking guy that just strolls through the bonkers house party with no worry in the world. He puts it all into perspective, making all the hopped-up party animals look like riotous ne’er-do-wells who will never grow up to do anything with their lives. In this particular case, we all know that those hopped-up animals turn out to forever change American brewing, but don’t tell that to the malty fellow, he is still cool as ice. You may have picked up on my IPA desires by now, but if not, I NEED BALANCE! Get a little heavy on the malt bill, leave behind some unfermentable sugars, arrest fermentation, do whatever you have to do to massage my sweet tooth. This brew gives it a little stroke, and I’m near bliss.
For me, the aftertaste is the peak of excellence as far as PTE is concerned. All the flavors coalesce into a sweet song in the key of sturm und drang. Extremes in emotion mingle. Stabbing, pungent bitterness leads into soothing, relaxing sacchariferousness. There is very little dryness at all and, though I so badly want another sip, I really don’t need it. The flavors just keep going and going. All is right in the world.
With PTE, the sweetness is desperately close to perfect for me, but falls just short. I can actually feel the tension within me. I want so badly for it to be perfect, but no. Lest we not forget though, it’s a rare occasion when I even discuss the possibility of perfection in a beer, of any style, and that is why Pliny the Elder is a legend in both history and beer.
Color/Head/Retention [maximum of 1.00 point possible]: 0.79
Odor [maximum of 2.00 points possible]: 1.86
Carbonation/Mouthfeel [maximum of 1.00 point possible]: 0.99
Hop Flavor [maximum of 3.00 points possible]: 2.94
Malt Flavor/Balance [maximum of 2.00 points possible]: 1.88
Finish/Aftertaste [maximum of 1.00 point possible]: 0.99