Sud Savant: Review Russian River – Pliny the Elder

I knew this day would come. Tolstoy once wrote, “The two strongest warriors are patience and time.” I have been as patient as a statued saint and have watched years pass before this day would come. Today, I get to sample one of those most revered, sought after, and highly touted beers in America – Pliny the Elder. While our friends on the West Coast don’t have as much trouble as the rest of us acquiring this elixir, it remains a “whale” to the population at large. Well, today call me Captain Ahab because this is one whale I intend to slay.

However, as excited as I am to finally taste Pliny in all its glory, I am also somewhat apprehensive. I mean, Pliny is every definition of a whale. It has limited production, acclaimed flavor, is highly sought, and is far from being distributed on a national scale (as far as I know). I’ve heard about ol’ Pliny since the early days of my craft beer drinking experience. Can it possibly measure up to the hype? Can all the searches and all the trades that happen around the country be worth it? I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t feel the suspense a little bit. Time to go whaling. Let’s pour!

Aroma 11/12 – A snifter is not required to draw the strong and complex hop aromas from this pint. Straight from the bottle is a rush of pine, grapefruit, and sweet, sweet malts fighting a dissonant resin. No tropical fruits are detectable as in many of the more recent contenders vying for “King of the IIPAs,” but a more traditional IIPA aroma is not a hindrance in the least. Warming slightly, the sweet malts come more into play and their sweetness mingles in harmony with the citrusy cloud of hops.

Appearance 3/3 – For how “big” the beer smells, its 8.0% ABV, and its reputation, I was quite surprised to see how light in color Pliny was. Bright as a sunny day and nearly as golden, Pliny’s high clarity added to its brilliance in the glass. An ivory colored head fades to pure white head as the beer seeps down and through. It enjoys a moderate retention, but rests mostly as a ring on the beer’s surface.

Flavor 20/20 – Do I have to stop smelling it? All right. The big moment. Here we go. Things start out much less sweet than I had anticipated based on the aroma. First notes are grassy, peppery, earth, and already the hop bitter is present in a nicely understated role. Other sips yielded similar earthy notes, but the beer comes alive when you take a big ol’ mouthful. My timidity in the effort to savor the beer would have ruined it, had I drank the whole glass in the same fashion. A healthy swig brings those sugary, honey-rich malts out to play as a fine balancing ingredient to the bitter hop flavors. These larger gulps also let the sweetness of grapefruit and malt become factors much earlier (and likely as my tongue further acclimates to the hops). Good heavens, for a hop heavy style, the balance is spectacular and easily one of this beer’s strengths. Lots of woody hop flavor in the backbone with plenty of sweet grapefruit and classic IPA malts. The finish, of course, emphasizes the bitter as the beer washes over those rearmost “bitter” taste buds, but despite this biological disadvantage, the sweetness from both hops and malts remains remarkably persistent. There’s even a freshness there that I can’t quite explain. The aftertaste is resinous, pleasantly sticky, and finally betrays a slight warmth on the exhale.

Mouthfeel 5/5 – Tremendous in every aspect. The brew is wonderfully smooth, with a perfect carbonation that makes it presence known, yet refuses to interfere. A quick swish in the mouth turns things even more creamy. It has a hearty body that carries the flavor well without being cumbersome or sluggish, and as mentioned in the “flavor” section, the ABV is all but hidden for nearly the entire experience.

Overall Impression 9/10 – Well, I don’t know how anything could measure up to the reputation this beer has. However, if I were to be ranking a beer of any other name, its superior qualities would still stand out. Not only is this beer to style, but it does so in excellent fashion. Beautiful aroma, well balanced, and a perfect mouthfeel make it easy to see why people clamor over it. So why the score only of 9 in this category? I just didn’t get as excited about it as I do some other beers. It’s an outstanding beer, no question. I just didn’t fall in love.

Total 48/50 – While far from a bad score, the 48 points may be a bit lower than most folks would rank it given the hubbub surrounding this brew. Technically superior and certainly savory, I enjoyed my first bottle of Pliny quite a great deal. That said, after sipping I did not pull it away from my lips and in wide-eyed enthusiasm exclaim, “Wow!” There are beers that will do that do me, many of which are stouts, that absolutely floor me with their strength, flavor, creativity, and complexity. Pliny, impressive as it is, did not earn that high honor. It’s still an honor roll, ‘A’ student, just not A+, valedictorian student that also attends space camp. I love the balance, I love the mouthfeel, and I very much look forward to the next opportunity I get to taste this elusive treat from Russian River.

Note: For those wondering, this particular bottle was bottled on 11.21.2014 and consumed on 1.03.2015. That’s 52 days for you counting at home. Not its absolute, most fresh, but still within the guidelines for IPA freshness.

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!