An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit. —Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113), author; imperial magistrate to Roman emperor Trajan; nephew and adopted son of the famed naturalist (among other titles) Pliny the Elder.
Almost two millennia later, a man named Vinnie Cilurzo began brewing what came to be considered the first double IPA, in nearby Temecula at his small brewery called Blind Pig. Cilurzo’s name for this beer was Pliny the Elder and was based on a wives’ tale of sorts that the historical Pliny had discovered and named wild hops (lupus salictarius, which were not actually hops, it turns out). The beer itself was undeniable: Despite being brightly dank, catty, citrusy and piney from the generous amount of hops added both during the boil and after, and being 8 percent alcohol by volume, it was all well-balanced with the beer’s malt foundation. “Deadly quaffable” would be how I remember it being when I first tried it.
Cilurzo eventually moved his operation up north to Santa Rosa and renamed his brewery Russian River Brewing Company. His beers, Pliny the Elder especially, have retained a hype that is impressive and mostly deserved since Elder was first brewed in 2000.
Imagine the hype, then, that developed for a triple IPA version of the beer, which Cilurzo dubbed Pliny the Younger: It was 10.25 percent ABV, copper in color, with even bigger hop flavors and a more-substantial malt backbone to match. This beer became legend for the very small amount brewed and allotted to select locations, mostly throughout California, in February.
I experienced the fervor some years back when I went with a group of my Coachella Valley Homebrew Club friends to the now-sadly defunct Barley and Hops Olde World Family Tavern in Temecula. After waiting in line for 30-60 minutes and drinking one of Russian River’s many gorgeous wine-barrel-aged sour ales, I finally got my allotted 10-ounce pour. This was about six years ago, but I remember it being very intense, with citrus and pine aromas and flavors, properly balanced out by the malt. It was hard to distinguish from a hoppy American barleywine—but it was a very nice beer. However, I have a weird habit of bringing much of the overall experience, including the hassle of obtaining the beer itself, to my opinion of a beer. So … was all the hoopla worth the chance to taste this beer?
I chose the word “chance” not incautiously: In many instances, you can find yourself arriving early at such events to find that many people arrived far earlier—with the beer running out before your turn. I experienced this at The Salted Pig gastropub in downtown Riverside a few years ago, and it drove home the point that I ought to figure the time and effort spent to obtain an experience into the overall equation. This is not to denigrate anyone involved, be it Russian River, the venues that serve Pliny the Younger, or the people for whom the equation “four hours waiting in line + one pour of Younger (and often other RR beers) = worthwhile.” I just want to make a case for the overall overrated nature of the beer.
In many beer circles, that previous statement is blasphemy. Truly. Pliny the Elder is far more available today, and it is still treated with the utmost reverence, to the point that when it’s available in the Coachella Valley, there are certain people who will hoard it. In the not-so-recent past, Elder was the Holy Grail as far as beer traders were concerned. You could get many prized beers for the right amount of it. However, between Russian River Brewing’s upgrade to a more-expansive brewhouse in Windsor, and the sheer proliferation of amazing double IPAs, Pliny the Elder’s trade value has declined. Might we see a similar decline in the general circus surrounding Pliny the Younger? Well, I have tasted three imperial/triple IPAs that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone that are just as good (if not better) as Younger—all made in Southern California.
Let’s start in Long Beach with Beachwood Brewing’s Hops of Fury, and then move south to San Diego with Societe Brewing’s The Roustabout. Traveling east down Interstate 8 from there puts us at Alpine Beer Company, where their Exponential Hoppiness, while once brewed in much smaller amounts and less easily obtained (but easier than Younger—and in bottles!), has been made for more than a decade.
A perfect illustration of this point is the speed at which Pliny the Younger sold out at the legendary Toronado San Diego. All three of these other beers were also on tap—and still are as I type this, two days after Younger went on. I would be the guy that skips the nuttiness and happily gets pours of the other beauties relatively hassle-free. (Also worth a mention on the “alternative to Younger” front are Melvin Brewing’s 2X4 and Revision Brewing’s Dr. Lupulin, both of which are big, beautiful, hoppy beers that can be found at the right times of year at our local Total Wine and More.)
The reason I chose this topic now is the fact that for the first time, the Coachella Valley has seen not one, but two tappings of this iconic beer. A tapping of Younger at La Quinta Brewing’s Old Town Taproom has already happened (alongside a plethora of other RR beers I’m more excited about, frankly), and another might have also happened at Eureka! Indian Wells. I went to the former tapping at La Quinta (in the name of science, of course). I got there an hour early, having been conditioned by these events that this was already late. I was third in line, and I needn’t have really worried. That’s the charm of our desert beer scene, I guess. I will say that when I finally got my glass, it was brightly citrus and tropical (hints of guava and papaya), with some pine—a shockingly drinkable triple IPA. Yeah, it was worth waiting a little bit for, but had it been more than that, I could have been at peace with missing out.
Those who view me as a “Debbie Downer” will be ecstatic to know that I think this these tappings are a very good sign for our local beer scene—as are the first local sightings of Beachwood Brewing and Beachwood Blendery beers. I’m personally more excited about the beers that will come from the latter breweries, but from what I’m told about Russian River’s new brewing facility, I’m definitely looking forward to what they do next.
Life is short, and it’s important to put a value on the time and effort that goes into any endeavor. Does everything balance toward the positive? Did the object of your desire retain the charm that it had in its pursuit? I sincerely hope so.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at email@example.com.