The Pursuit of Perfection: Russian River Pliny the Elder

Photo Mar 04, 7 32 14 PMOne of the blessings of being a beer aficionado over, say, a lover of fine Scottish whiskey or rare French wine, is that even the best beer is fairly cheap and accessible compared to other fine potent potables. That’s not to the same as saying Westvleteren and Dark Lord are cheap and easy to get, but they aren’t this. I spend a fair amount of discretionary income on good beer, but even with modest incomes my wife and I can afford the very best beer as often as we want it, which would be impossible if we were connoisseurs of wine or spirits.

While most craft breweries have rare beers they brew only seasonally or in small batches, certain names have risen above the clamor of the craft beer scene to become holy grails for beer lovers. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is in the pantheon of great American beers, enjoying a reverential adoration few others enjoy (except its paradoxically named big brother Pliny the Younger, which is an even harder beer to find).

Confession: Until this month I had never had Pliny the Elder. I feel no shame in this. There are so many good beers, and something in me thus far has protested against doing online beer swaps, so I’ve been biding my time, wondering if I would ever make it to California or find a generous friend who acquired a bottle and was willing to share. Last week, I found the latter. A friend who manages a bar whispered he had a bottle he’d be willing to trade for something brought back from my upcoming Michigan beer trip. I could hardly believe my luck.

Photo Mar 04, 7 29 57 PMMy wife and I cracked open our very first Pliny the Elder a couple weeks ago and took our first sips. The bottle was only a couple weeks old, and the beer was what you’ve heard or already know. The aroma leaps out of the glass. The flavor is full and smooth. I won’t bother with tasting notes: it’s fucking Pliny the Elder. You’ve already  read about it.

The beer was a nearly perfect DIPA, full of flavor and aroma but never overpowering or sharp. But more than the perfection in the glass, I can’t pretend there wasn’t as much or more satisfaction in just having finally had it. That probably sounds insincere, or postured, or whatever. We’re supposed to love the beer and forget the image and the prestige. Bullshit. Craft beer needs Russian River, and Heady Topper, and Sexual Chocolate, and Dark Lord, and all the other white whales whose names fill ISO:FT message boards across the country and the world (a barkeeper in Belgium when I was there this fall had an empty can of Heady Topper on top of his bar). These are the tentpole beers that raise the circus roof so we can see all the other amazing things in the room. We need these destination beers to light our imaginations as beer geeks (and to lend legitimacy to our still too often maligned hobby). I had a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA yesterday at lunch. It’s a damn good beer, the powerful malts smoothly wrestling with the hop punch to nearly give it the profile of a barleywine, albeit gentler. As I drank it thought, “I wonder what 120 Minute is like then?” We need these beers.

We lost our Pliny the Elder virginity. It was excellent. But it was also a gift of satisfaction, scratching the itch of curiosity. The mystery whispered out of the bottle when we popped the cap, tickling our noses and teasing our minds, and it was with gratitude we lifted our glasses.

Now if we can only find get some Pliny the Younger.

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