Here’s a Dirty Little Secret About Russian River Pliny the Elder

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Wanna know a secret?

Pliny the Elder isn’t as good as you think it is.

[Pause for audible gasps of shock and horror]

OK. Well, it is good. In fact, it’s kind of amazing. But it’s not for the reasons you might think.

And it’s not necessarily the best IPA or double IPA out there.

[Pause for screams of terror]

So here’s the thing: I was able to procure a bottle of Pliny from Friend of the Program Allen, of Active Brewer, after he recently made a trip to California. I was ecstatic. Pliny, with a perfect 100 score on Beer Advocate and RateBeer, is one of the White Whales of the beer drinking world. My Pliny was bottled on Dec. 2 and in my glass on Dec. 14.

From a sensory perspective, Pliny is fantastic. It’s smell is ridiculously dank, like plopping yourself down in the middle of a tropical forest and being overcome by aromas of pineapple, peach, mango or papaya. Even some tangerine. There’s a certain amount of stickiness to the smell, as if you’re opening up a bag of freshly-plucked hops and just shoving your face into it.

There’s a little cattiness (i.e. cat liter-ish smell) on the nose from Simcoe hops, but that gets pushed aside from a lingering smell of something akin to a tart grapefruit or unripe orange.

Yes, Pliny tastes great, too. While it starts out a little more piney than I expected, citrus fruit took over the taste with a dash of pineapple. You could transfer the aroma description to taste and it would mostly be true.

But you know what? I’d rather have a Humulo Nimbus. Or maybe even a HopSlam. Hell, a Jade IPA might stack up well against this.

Before you break out the virtual torches and pitchforks and release the Internet trolls from under their bridges, let me explain.

Pliny is a fantastic beer and most certainly deserves all the accolades it’s received. But it’s also one of the most hyped beers out there, perhaps aided by its very limited distribution range. Despite being available in only a few states, Pliny has been named the Homebrewers Association “Best Beer in America” five years in a row. How can that be, with thousands of voting drinkers spread all across the country and Pliny only available in such a limited geographical space?

You can have beer mules like me or you can find trade partners so you can try the beer for yourself. You you can simply buy into the hype and believe it’s the best beer out there.

The tastes and smells of Pliny could be put up against any IPA and definitely win people over, but the most impressive part of Pliny, to me, was how it was made.

For a beer with 100 IBUs, there was little to no bitterness with any aspect of this beer. The volume of hops that must go into Pliny is intimidating, yet all I could think of was the fruit and pine that overtook my senses. That’s a hell of a job.

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This is a pretty beer.

The clarity of Pliny is unlike any other IPA I’ve seen. It’s translucent to the point of a pilsner.

Perhaps because of it’s phenomenal hop usage, it was never dry on my tongue. In fact, the mouthfeel was almost a little chewy, a la Sound Brewery’s Humulo Nimbus. I did not expect that from an IPA.

As much as the smell and taste are good, the secondary aspects we so often overlook are what make Pliny truly great.

And to me, that’s why Pliny is something to behold and seek out … and judge for yourself.

Pliny the Elder stats:

  • Malt: N/A, but 2-Row must be involved … Carapils?
  • Hops: Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ and Simcoe
  • Additives/Adjuncts: N/A
  • ABV: 8 percent
  • Brewery: Russian River Brewing of Santa Rosa, California

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


33 thoughts on “Here’s a Dirty Little Secret About Russian River Pliny the Elder

  1. I thought these same dirty thoughts about Heady Topper. I think we get to a point where we’ve had enough great beer that no one beer will ever magically rise above the rest to be the singular, objective best.

    Really good, sure. But best? Subjectivity at its finest.

    1. I have a bottle of Blind Pig that I think may end up being more enjoyable. Anxious to see how it plays out. That beer gets lost in the fray because of Pliny, but people forget that’s kind of what started it all for RR.

      1. Yea, I think that’s a good point.

        I also like think that Pliny is an excellent example of using geography and marketing to create hype. I’d rather see a break down of their PR/marketing plan than the beer itself!

    2. I’m sure I forget at times, but I always try to say “my favorite” instead of “the best” because of issues like this. I don’t know what “the best” tastes like. I’ll end my comment here with only 3 uses of quotation marks.

      1. Ah, yes. But what good would arbitrary rating sites be without the idea of “The Best?”

        For something as subjective as a person’s personal taste, it’s hard to slap that title on anything, even if we have lots of “experts” telling us what’s what.

    3. I thought Pliny was a bit over hyped but truly loved Heady Topper and think it’s worth the hysteria.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I made sweet sweet face love to Heady and would do so again without hesitation. It’s a great beer and I want to buy many cases of it. I also think the hype and anticipation adds to the enjoyment.

      2. Sweet, sweet face love? Watch out for jagged edges! Cans can be sharp!

    4. Personally, I prefer paying $4 at Trader Joe’s for a bomber (or six) of Lagunitas’ fine double IPA Hop Stoopid. It compares nicely to Pliny, and is actually available all over California (at least throughout the Bay Area).

  2. I was lucky enough to visit RR brewpub this summer and I bought quite a few bottles to take with me. Like you I though Pliny the Elder was very good, but not the best IPA or double IPA out there. There is a beer available in Columbus, OH called Bodhi (by Columbus Brewing Co) that is very comparable. Unfortunately it’s not bottled and perhaps harder to get than Pliny (unless you live around Columbus).

    On the other hand, I thought Blind Pig was pretty amazing and better than Pliny. Those are just my personal tastes of course because they are slightly different styles (and it is not easy to make a beer with the profile of Pliny even drinkable, let alone delicious), but I’ll be interested to hear what you think about Blind Pig.

    1. Bodhi is far better than Pliny or Heady and I never leave Columbus with less than 1 full growler of it.

      1. I would agree, but I was trying to give Pliny the benefit of the doubt. It would be interesting to do a blind side by side taste test of those three beers.

      2. I can’t specifically cite them, but I know I’ve seen/read several blind taste tests where Pliny hasn’t come out on top. However, it seems the consensus for those tests were similar to mine: it may not be The Best, but it’s really, really good.

    2. I plan to give Blind Pig a shot tomorrow and I’m very excited. Both of these beers are high on the “must try” list!

      1. Here is one online blind taste test where both Pliny and Heady Topper were involved but did not come out on top

        No argument from me though that Pliny is a very good beer. It would be boring if one beer was everyone’s favorite.

  3. The arc of a Pliny/Heady review = I finally got this white whale; It’s great; It’s over hyped; (Insert local ipa here) is way better/bestest.

    1. I think this is a pretty accurate assessment. Double so if you spite it in wroonerisms.

    2. I’m such a cliche!

      I’m happy my bestest choice is from the greater Seattle area, at least. PNW FTW.

  4. Thats a pretty bold statement… but I agree. I live in an area where seasonally, Pliny is available everywhere. They get snatched up very quick still, but I usually get them when I shop for them. You are right though. It is good, it’s borderline unique for an IPA(something increasingly hard to find with how many IPA’s are made now), but its not the best thing ever. In fact, Just like Westy-12, the legend, the journey, the search for it is better than the actual product. Not to say they aren’t great in their own rite, but Pliny is also one of those beers that is great but doenst quite live up to the hype as a result of its over-hyped-ness.

    Great article and happy beering!

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I certainly don’t mean to disparage Pliny at all – it’s a damn fine beer – it’s just that there are so many options now and brewers have to work hard to stand out in a crowded field of IPAs. That means lots of niche tweaks and adjustments … and lots of other IPAs I’m certain to like.

      That being said, the sheer fact Pliny has been around as long as it has and is still among the top IPAs/DIPAs out there is amazing. The volume of quantity for the style increases every day, but the quality of this beer (and its following) is a testament to how good it is.

      … it may just not be The Best. For me, at least.

  5. RE: Pliny’s recipe, it’s mostly 2-row with a dash of Crystal ~40 and Carapils. You can see a version (albeit a few years old) of the recipe that’s straight from Vinnie here:

    1. Wonderful! I did a quick search this morning, but only glanced at a few clone attempts. Thanks a bunch for sharing this!

  6. “Best” will always be a subjective statement. I prefer Heady Topper to Pliny the Elder. I also believe Heady Topper is the best IPA/DIPA I’ve ever had, but 1. that’s my personal palate and preference and 2. that doesn’t stop me from trying every other one I can get my hands on. Heady and Pliny don’t ruin Hop Stoopid, or Hoptimum, or Perpetual (very underrated) or any other IPAs/DIPAs for me. And though I’ve had over 1400 (according to Untappd) different beers, I haven’t come close to trying them all. These Top Beer lists are foolishness curated by snobs.

    It’s also not fair to the beer. If you drink a beer expecting it to taste like Blake Lively looks, you’re bound to be disappointed. I try to keep in mind – when someone tells me XYZ is the “best beer” – that there are millions of people who believe, unequivocally and irreproachably, that Bud Light is the “best.”

    1. If you’re looking for a beer that tastes like Blake Lively looks, I believe this one may be up your alley.

      1. Well played, sir. In truth I’m partial to redheads.

  7. I think an even more blasphemous statement would be for me to say that Pliny the Younger is good but not that special and certainly not worth waiting in line for over an hour to get a taste. I did wait in line to try the younger last year when it showed up and it was quite delicious. However, I also have a local San Diego Triple IPA available (Green Bullet from Green Flash) that is even better and much more available. While I have to wait in line for Pliny the Younger, I can just go to the store and pick up a 4pack of Green Bullet in bottles to enjoy whenever. Green Bullet shows me that the excuses for low production of Pliny the Younger are just excuses and it is totally possible to do a bigger production of something that amazing.

    1. I feel this way about Old Rasputin, which is a criminally underrated beer that gets lost among all the barrel-aged, high-ABV stouts on the market. It’s simply wonderful and consistently available.

  8. Here’s why Pliny is not the best beer…..

  9. I think this post is now dated. Unfortunately the quality of Hopslam has really gone down in recent releases. I think a fresh Pliny can’t be beaten. I wanted to think it was hype but after having gone to the source I have to say it is the best. The beer can not age and should remain cold. I had a bottle brought back to me once I didn’t understand the hype, but after having it fresh my mind was totally changed.

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