Brew Review

Beer Review – Russian River Pliny The Elder


On the Friday before Labor Day, one of my colleagues decided to take the bull by the horns and made a management decision: we would be closing the office at 3PM to get a jump on the holiday weekend. As luck would have it, our good friend The Alemonger was also planning to leave work early so that he could head in to Philly for a glass of Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, which just happened to be on tap at Varga Bar. After a brief texting exchange, we agreed to meet at 3PM to sample this legendary beer.

As I have mentioned on several occasions, I haven’t been following the Craft Beer world for very long, and I didn’t really know of Pliny The Elder (or Russian River for that matter) until maybe 2 years ago. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from this beer. I know that it is highly respected by many Craft Beer connoisseurs, and that it is consistently ranked in the top 3 of anyone’s list of Best Imperial IPAs. So the question is, with all of that hype, would I too be blown away by Pliny The Elder, or would I walk away underwhelmed?  Let’s find out…

I arrived at 3:10 and had a glass of Pliny The Elder in front of me by 3:15. As is usually the case when I order a beer in a bar, the pour is disappointing. I rarely get a glass of beer that looks like the one in the picture above. I know that a frothy head isn’t THAT important, but much like a dish prepared in a fine restaurant, presentation counts, especially when the beer costs $8+. Once I got past the lackluster pour, I gave this beer a sniff and picked up all of the aromas that I have come to expect from an Imperial IPA: honey, subtle grapefruit, and piney hops. Before I tasted this beer, I expected to be overwhelmed with hop bitterness, but that never happened. I first picked up that honey malt sweetness, quickly followed by citrus and mild hop bitterness. Overall, I found Pliny The Elder to be very well balanced, incredibly smooth, and fiendishly easy drinking for a beer with an 8% ABV. But did I love it? No. I didn’t.

Please don’t misunderstand me, this is a very good beer, but I wasn’t as blown away as I expected to be. Based upon all I’ve read about this beer, I was half expecting to hear a choir of angels after taking that first sip, but that never happened. Since I am one of the few that didn’t have a religious experience after drinking this beer, I think I owe it to myself to try it again. Perhaps a trip to The Foodery is in order.

But wait! There’s more…

When I mentioned to The Alemonger that I was underwhelmed by Pliny The Elder, he felt the need to proclaim my verdict to the TwitterSphere. Although I didn’t get the Craft Beer Community backlash that he was expecting, I did have an amusing exchange with @BeerCulturist who was drinking the same beer, at the same bar, later that evening. Here is that brief exchange for your reading pleasure…

16 replies »

  1. I am a former beer buyer in Northern CA, and the RR Pliny the Elder was one of our fastest selling brew. I attributed much of this to the limited amount of Pliny that we received from our distributors, which created such a crazy demand from our customers that I secretly wondered how many really like the Pliny or just wanted to be able to say that they had tried it.

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  2. In the last year, I’ve had the Elder on three or four occasions and the Younger on two. While neither rained down bunnies and unicorns or let me glimpse into my future, they were still damned fine IPAs, which is what they are hyped up to be. Do some people go overboard? Of course. But are the Plinys overrated? I don’t think so (unless we’re referring to the ‘OMG this is the best thing EVAR!’ people). As you say in the review, Elder is “very well balanced, incredibly smooth, and fiendishly easy drinking” – basically, the three things outside of taste I look for in a beer.

    While I don’t think they’re overrated (by the level-headed people), I will say this in conclusion: how dare you speak ill of anything Russian River does? The beer community will chastise and outcast you. And well they should!

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    • I’ve only had one other Russian River beer, their Consecration Ale. I think I may have heard a faint chorus of angels in the background when I tried that one.

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  3. Not sure whether to reply here or in the TwitterDome but since I’m already here, I’ll press some keys then attack again from the shadows with a few rapid fire tweets when you most expect it.

    About those angels….. scantily clad or not, they may not sing each time a Pliney is poured but they take notice. I really don’t know what that means but since today is complex, compound Tourrette’s outburst day I’m not terribly worried about it. Elder is a great IIPA. Is it the best ever brewed? No. Is it as good as it’s younger sibling? No. Is it even as good as it’s near neighbor, Ballast Point Sculpin? Well, maybe yes – maybe no. And there you have it. It’s one of the legitimate world class IIPAs/IPAs and that means that for some, the angels sing and for others, they perch themselves on the cracked wall sconce and take notice, I just sit back and wait for one (preferably the Victoria’s Secret variety) to perch on the bar stool next to me and draw Mandelbrot fractals on coasters.

    Carefully orchestrated and strategically choked supply is a factor in this beer’s mystique but if it didn’t deliver on the hype then the mystique would fade and it would simply have a reputation as a really good beer.

    And for what it’s worth, Pliney doesn’t hold a Zippo lighter to Three Floyd’s Dreadnaught Imperial IPA. Good luck finding that these days. The angels keep that one all to themselves. Selfish little vixen wenches!

    Cheers!
    @TheAlemonger

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    • That’s all you got? I was expecting one of those verbal lashings that you used to give to Limpd. He’s still twitches whenever you comment on one of his beer reviews!

      Like I said, Pliny the Elder was very good, but it didn’t bowl me over. I was going to mention the Ballast Point Sculpin, but since it’s not classified as an Imperial IPA, I thought I would tread lightly and not mention it at all. But since you mentioned it, Sculpin is a beer that knocks my socks off!

      I don’t know why one beer WOWS! me while another doesn’t. Maybe it depends on my mood. Maybe it depends on the time of day or the phases of the moon. Whatever the reason, this beer reviewing silliness is a very personal thing. No more. No less.

      And speaking of knocking my socks off… the Lost Abbey 10 Commandments and the Rodenbach Grand Cru were absolutely delicious! And don’t even get me started on the Han Dynasty Dan Dan Noodles and Three Cup Chicken that I brought home for dinner that night!

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  4. You have me at “honey malt sweetness followed by citrus…”. Enjoyed the vicarious experience, and mildly reducing our expectations may actually result in a better experience for those of us who do try it for the first time…if that makes any sense at all.

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  5. I’m with you on this one. Last year my gf and I were in SF. She wanted to go up to Sonoma to do some wine tasting. I made sure we also went to Bear Republic. She ended up liking that more than the vineyards. But anyway, so on the way back down to SF we stopped at Russian River and I tried the Pliny the Elder on tap. I also expected a religious experience. But no, didn’t love it. It was a very good IPA, like you say, but I felt the grapefruit taste was way overwhelming.

    Incidentally, my avatar on Untappd is a pic of me drinking that Pliny the Elder.

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    • I have to admit, I am intrigued by alot of their other stuff, i.e. Redemption, Consecration etc.. I’d also be curious to try Pliny the Younger too. Now that my expectations have been lowered a bit, maybe I’ll enjoy their stuff more the next time around.

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