The cult of Pliny the Elder
In search of Northern California’s most elusive beer
Your average double IPA is a high-alcohol, rampantly bitter beer that ranks as the favorite draft pour at many a brewpub, but Pliny the Elder is almost a deity. Perhaps no other beer generates such excitement and reverence among fans as this double, or Imperial, IPA from Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa.
Pliny the Elder first appeared in 1999, and year by year it gained a following. How exactly it became the sensation it is baffles those who love it, those who sell it and even the man who makes it. Though production is year-round, the beer remains in endlessly limited supply, often more dreamed of than drunk. Three years ago, Taylor’s Market on Freeport Boulevard began supplying it to the delight of local Pliny enthusiasts. Store manager Dave Hunter, in his 21 years in the beer-buying business, has never seen anything comparable to the cultish following that hails Pliny as king.
“It is insane,” said Hunter, who recently set limits on how many bottles customers can buy. “We first started carrying it about three years ago, and people who heard about it would come in and buy a whole case of 24.”
Scott Miller, a local beer enthusiast and musician, ranks Pliny the Elder as one of the best beers he knows, yet wonders why Pliny has stolen the spotlight in the craft-beer arena. “There’s something about Pliny that’s hard to put your finger on,” Miller said. “There are so many great beers that nobody cares about, but somehow Pliny resonates with everyone.”
Even the beer’s own maker, brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, is dazzled by the craze for Pliny. “We had no idea it would take on a following like this,” said Cilurzo, who owns Russian River Brewing Company. “It happened very organically, on its own without any advertising.”
The beer’s mighty name has almost certainly helped create the sensation. Pliny the Elder was named after the great Roman naturalist who first described, among many elements of the natural world, the wild European ancestor of hops, the plant so essential to beer making.
“[Cilurzo] is certainly using the mystique of Pliny the Elder as the man who discovered hops,” said James Anderson, the evening bartender at Pangaea Two Brews Cafe on Franklin Boulevard. Anderson, a beer fanatic, can sometimes be found behind the bar wearing a Pliny the Elder T-shirt. “His strategy of only making a little at a time and withholding it from the Sacramento area has created an urban legend of this beer.”
Or maybe Pliny simply is that good. The beer has received stellar scores on online beer-rating venues. Members of the website RateBeer, for example, have reviewed Pliny the Elder 1,362 times for an overall score of 100 on a 100-point scale; BeerAdvocate members have reviewed the beer 1,833 times for a cumulative score of A-plus (though at least one nonbeliever dashed Pliny to pieces with a D-plus). More than just a bitter acid bomb, Pliny, its fans say, boasts balance and body where some other double IPAs just burn. The 8 percent alcohol beer is made of crystal malts and five hop varieties, according to Cilurzo. In the glass, it glows a godly gold, smells notably of pine sap and needles, and carries a reassuring and delicious backbone of caramel.
Cilurzo recalls a turning point in Pliny the Elder’s growth as a pagan idol. “We made it a year-round beer in 2004, and in 2006 was when it began taking on the persona,” he said. “That’s when we started seeing production shortages.”
At Taylor’s Market, Hunter said “demand has totally overtaken the supply.” He receives just several dozen bottles every five weeks, and people have come from thousands of miles away to get them. Hunter once received a visit from five men who had come from the state of Georgia for a Reno wedding and saw the occasion as a prime chance to stock up on a beer unavailable yet legendary in Georgia. They bought three bottles each and snapped photos of each other, each man bearing his treasures.
To Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma and a neighbor to Russian River, Pliny’s cult of followers represents what is probably an unprecedented paradigm in brewing and beer drinking. “It’s like a tribe,” he said. “This is something that didn’t exist before [craft beer]. Tell me that Budweiser ever had people camping out for the release of Michelob Golden [Draft].”
Though Lagunitas releases anticipated seasonals every year with high levels of alcohol and names as charismatic and irreverent as any beer might hope for—Lagunitas’ own Imperial IPA, brewed since 1996, is called Maximus—none of them has captivated beer drinkers the way Pliny the Elder has. “I don’t know how it’s happened [with Pliny the Elder],” Magee said. “If I knew, I’d bottle it.”
If Pliny is the elder, there must be a younger. On February 4, he arrived: Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Younger. This beer is an annual release, an 11 percent alcohol “triple IPA” that BeerAdvocate rated the best beer in the world one year ago. Last February, fans flocked to the brewpub prior to release day to stake their place in line. The Younger sold out in a few frantic hours. Some fans bought growlers and sold them on eBay at more than $100 each, while pilgrims who arrived too late went home as bitter as the beer.
This February, Anderson at Pangaea planned a Pliny the Younger pilgrimage of his own to Santa Rosa. Here, at the very source of the magic, if he missed the Younger, there’s always the Elder.