Sunday, April 22, 2012

Beer vs. the Beer Geek: In Defense of Pliny

I was browsing through my Google + feed today and ran across about the umpteenth person complaining about how over-hyped Pliny the Elder is compared to this or that beer.  Yesterday, I read a list of 7 beers everyone should try; Pliny wasn't on it.   I even saw someone arguing that Pliny is just a regular IPA.

Frankly, I think that's a bit unfair.  Vinnie Cilurzo started as the brewmaster for Korbel's Russian River Brewing  back in the nineties.  He quickly made a name for himself with such beers as Blind Pig, the precursor to Pliny.  In 2003, he opened up Russian River and began turning out big, hop heavy, well balanced beers.  Pliny was a mindblower at the time.  It was a high alcohol, super-hoppy beer - with amazing balance and aroma.  At the time, there was no such thing as a double (or imperial if you prefer) IPA. Vinnie created Pliny, and then people began scrambling for a way to describe it.  Other people made similar beers, and with the popularity and demand for Pliny taking off, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and you had an emergent style.  You can see the same thing happening now with the Black/Cascadian Dark IPA category.  Someone comes up with something new, and then everyone takes a crack at it.

Vinnie also started up a barrel program pretty early on with Russian River.  You know that whole thing going on now where everyone and their brother ages wood in wine barrels and such?  I'll give you 3 guesses who had a big influence on that getting started.

Sour beers?  See above.

Simcoe hops?  Guess who.

Vinnie C is a great guy.  If you're into brewing at all, I highly recommend any of the shows he has done for The Brewing Network.  His comments on hop balance, big beers, hop blending, barrel conditioning, and pretty much anything - are all excellent.  And he gives that knowledge away for free.  He answers emails himself.  That, "Contact Us," email on the web-site?  Guess who answers every one of those messages.

What I am getting at is:  Pliny is the measuring stick you use to compare everything else to.  

Like many other people, I did not have the opportunity to try Pliny until recently thanks to the generosity of a good friend and a cross-country beer trade.  I had been hearing about it since 2004 or so, and for a lot of good reasons had never gotten around to getting a bottle.  It's something of a white whale at this point for us East Coasters.  You hear about it, and build it up in your head, and when you finally get it...

Personally, I loved it.  The aroma hits you right out of the bottle, the flavor profile is smooth and balanced.  It gets better as you go.  Damn fine beer.

Is it the best thing in the category now?  Maybe not.  There are a lot of big (and quite excellent) beers out there in the category now and some of them are a lot easier to get ahold of these days than Pliny.  Big beers get rated better on the major ratings sites and in a lot of cases the older beers get neglected or down-rated in comparison to the newer contenders.  People spend a lot of time looking at beer ratings and reviews and the end result is a somewhat ludicrous increase in expectation levels.  Recently a bottle from Midnight Sun sold for $1600+ on ebay.  I love beer, but frankly I think that's insane.  Your mileage may vary.

Does that mean Pliny is a letdown if you've had other double ipa's?  Only if you let it be.

The whole comparison (and yes, this dates me) strikes me the same way the debate over who plays the best James Bond does.  I grew up watching Bond movies, and frankly, love most of them.  This whole debate for me comes down to arguing if Daniel Craig or Sean Connery did it better.

Everyone and everything starts somewhere.  Remember whose shoulders the new kids are standing on.

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