Pliny the Worshipped
I think this week was the first week that I wasn’t at the Food Co-Op nearly everyday. And guess what I learned when I went in today? I noticed the “Dear Pliny Fans, Devotees, and Addicts…” sign was gone, and I asked the beer buyer, Tom Nolte, if that meant they had some in stock. He informed me that he got his two cases in yesterday and it sold out yesterday. All gone.
I then checked out Nugget, which didn’t even have a place on the shelf for it anymore (in the past, the buyer there indicated to me he was tired of its limited shipments so may pull it), and then I went to Aggie Liquor, which had the “bottled on 5/12/10″ batch in stock. It’s a hefty $5.29, but since it’s the only place that has it, I doubt they’ll get complaints. The owner (I think he’s the owner, he’s the really nice guy there) told me he has three stores, so he gets six cases instead of two, but he sells most of it at Aggie Liquor.
But amidst all this hubub, I have to step back and wonder, why such a big deal over Pliny? It seems to have reached this status that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a beer reaching.
(1) The first time I had the Elder, I wasn’t a big fan. I ended up not finishing the bottle and giving the rest to my roommate and his girlfriend. They weren’t huge fans either. (2) The second time, I had a bottle the night before I went to the Pliny the YOUNGER release (the once a year released triple IPA from Russian River) in order to compare it with Pliny the Younger the next day. I thought it was better this time, but there was still this pungent flavor I found off putting but couldn’t quite describe. (3) The third time I had it was the next day, on tap at Russian River, after having some Pliny the Younger and Benediction (a delicious Abbey Dubbel). [Don't worry mom, these drinks were hours apart.] And fresh on tap, it still had that pungency, but I enjoyed it this time. One of the girls I went with, Judy (I had just met her and everyone I went with that day through a friend who couldn’t come) told me she thought the Elder was really best within the first two weeks after bottling.
This of course brought my attention to the very clearly marked area on Pliny The Elder labels that let consumers know when a beer was bottled. Also, the label is covered with text urging you to keep the bottle refrigerated and to drink it fresh. In interviews, Russian River brewer and founder Vinnie Cilurzo has discussed how he, in part, limits distribution of the Elder because the beer industry right now would not ensure that it stays cold and fresh in the hands of retailers and distributors–he wants to make sure people are only getting the beer in its optimal state.
Right now in Davis, each retailer only gets 2 cases, once a month. This either sells out quickly, or it sits on the shelf with a glaring “bottled on” date that many beer enthusiasts may deem to be too far in the past.
What I gather from this is that Pliny the Elder has a, MAYBE, unfair advantage over other beers. It COULD be said that people judge it unfairly, in that they will pass off any imperfections in it onto the age of it. Other IPAs aren’t so stringently labelled, so people may be judging a 2 month old Lagunitas Hop Stoopid against a 6 day old Pliny…of course Pliny will have the advantage. I wonder how much this has effected its online ratings.
Then again, it could be said that other breweries should just do the same as Russian River and clearly label when their beers were bottled. While many breweries do put a “best by” date on their beer, not many have such a clearly marked “bottled on” date. The “best by” is of course, more ambiguous (you’d have to email the brewery to find out how far the “best by” date is from bottling. I recently learned that Stone’s “enjoy by” is 3-4 months after bottling).
But most beer retailers don’t go through their supply quick enough to have a stock of hoppy beers that are all within a few weeks of bottling, so where would that leave breweries producing large quantities of craft beer, or retailers wanting to have a large stock at the ready?
Russian River is fine with staying small and having limited distribution. Vinnie has even scaled back distribution in the past months in order to focus on his local market…meaning even more local than Davis which is only 90 minutes away.
This may be genius on Vinnie’s part: He creates a good beer, ensures that it is only consumed under ideal conditions, and then limits its availability so that it’s a rare, sought-after commodity.
His business model/ethos is different from the ideas of globalization and capitalism…making everything available everywhere…regardless of how it affects quality and such…but I won’t get into that.
It all just makes me wonder if the Elder isn’t as good as its made out to be. That isn’t to say it isn’t a delicious beer. I, myself, have come to crave that pungency I once disliked. (Apparently the same thing happens with sour beers, which are usually offensive to most first timers. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Russian River is also famous for its sour ales?) But I still can’t say it’s my favorite Double IPA.
But I still find myself wanting to be “apart of it.” It’s got so much fame and acclaim that I find myself wanting to partake in its existence. Even though any day of the week I can get douple IPAs I like more, knowing that I’m in a privileged position to be able to purchase it fresh from a store (unlike most of the world, country, or state) even once a month makes me feel like I shouldn’t let that privilege go to waste.
This leads me here: when a beer creates this many confusing thoughts in a drinker, there’s gotta be something more going on with it than just its flavor. I guess it’s possible that it’s just that good, and maybe my pallet just disagrees with the pallet of many, although I know I’m not alone. I think it would be inaccurate to assume everyone is just susceptible to the hype–the reputation had to start somewhere–but I do suspect that there is something about its rarity that adds to its crazy huge acclaim. Maybe a combination of that and its weirdly addicting pungency.
I drank a bottle while writing this, and I’m finishing the article the next day, and I kind of want another. But I think I’ll stick with the Hop Henge in my frige…and if it’s horribly dissapointing, I’ll know I’ve underestimated the Elder in what I’ve written here.
ON ANOTHER NOTE: my friend is down at a wedding this weekend in San Diego. I gave her my Stone growler and they’ll be filling growlers with 2006 Imperial Russian Stout the day she’s there! Aged four years at the brewery! I’m very excited to try this. I’ve got a bottle of the 2009 IRS in my frige, and maybe I’ll compare it with the 2006. [Aggie Liquor has the 2009 avavailable, although last I went I didn't see it. They also have Stone's 2008 Vertical Epic for only $4.50]
So, what do you all think? Does this Pliny hype make the beer suspiciously special? Can someone explain to me exactly what that intense pungency is in it that I don’t get much of in other Douple IPAs? Is it unfairly compared to other beers, or could other breweries realistically take on Russian River’s freshness-assurance techniques?
And have you guys seen this video? I like it a lot.