If you have even a passing connection to the American craft brewing culture, at any time in the past decade, you know the name “Pliny”. “Pliny The Elder”…”Pliny The Younger”…two ales brewed by Santa Rosa, California’s Russian River Brewing Company and its gifted brewmaster/owner, Vinnie Cilurzo. They are – with only one or two other beers even entering the argument – the most recognizable, sought-after, coveted, fought-over, pursued, fixated upon, and (at least in my opinion) wildly over-rated ales in the history of world craft beer. Elder is sold in bottles and on draft and its production run has never – since the beer was first produced, in 1997, while RRBC was still owned by its originator, Korbel Wine Company – kept up with demand. Today, it’s beyond argument that Russian River could easily sell ten to twenty times what they produce of Pliny but Vinnie, to his credit, has always cared more about the quality of the beer than amassing huge piles of money, which he’s pretty much done, anyway. Younger is a more recent addition, a massive triple IPA that is still, because Vinnie Cilurzo is genuinely one of American craft brewing’s incumbent geniuses, surprisingly drinkable, for a beer that’s miles more bitter than a Green Bay Packers fan after last year’s Seahawks loss.
As with most things, events, ideas, and situations that eventually go awry, Pliny was and is a great idea and a great ale – arguably the first universally-recognized classic American ale of the Craft Brewing Era – built around a great concept: push the hops profile to its logical limit, and maybe even a bit beyond, while erecting a rock-solid backbone of caramel malts to anchor the bitterness. It became a virtual template for what would eventually become an outright universal IPA tap take-over, and started a de facto “arms race” of brewers who pushed the IBU (the scale for measuring a beer’s bitterness: “International Bittering Units”) totals to 100 and waaaay beyond, culminating in beers whose creators claim are over 2,000 IBUs and higher. The current champion of this lunacy is the Canadian brewery, Flying Monkeys, which makes a straight-faced claim for its “Alph-fornication” of a mind-bending 2500 IBUs! (Bear in mind that the average IBU rating for a regular Pale Ale is around 35 – 50 IBUs) The resulting beers, of course, dispensed with any inconvenient concepts like “balance” and “drinkability” and became a sort of “test of manhood” phenomenon, not unlike daring your frat brother to chug a bottle of Tabasco sauce or eat a tarantula. A certain cool factor evolved around the acquisition and consumption of these beers and, naturally, there were other pretenders: Moylan’s “Hopsickle” and “Moylander Double IPA”, Boundary Bay IPA, Port Brewing’s “Hop 15”, and the two Mikkeller ales that are called “1000 IBU”, available in both tanked and barrel aged versions.
But, to this day, 16 years later, not one ale brewed anywhere in the world, with the sole and lesser exception of the Westvleteren ales produced by the St. Sixtus Abbey in Belgium, has developed the public profile and frenzy that surrounds every release of either Pliny.
So, why do I seem to infer that this mania, this feeding frenzy that makes a shark attack look like a group hug, is a bad thing?
In seven different blind tastings, held over a period of the past eight years, I’ve invited groups of beer-trade professionals and avid craft beer fans, in groups ranging in size from 6 to 11, and poured Pilny in a line-up of beers that included either 5 or 7 different IPAs. Many of these folks I invited were admitted Pliny freaks. One guy, a Seattle resident, drives down to Santa Rosa for each year’s release party at RRBC. None of these were apples ‘n’ oranges tastings. All were Double/Imperial IPAs, of at least the 100 IBU of Pliny or greater, and most all celebrated ales in their own right. In every tasting, there was a ringer; some IPA from a new or obscure brewery that even beer geeks would likely have missed.
In NOT ONE of these tastings did Pliny take first place when the final rankings were tallied. In three, in fact, Pliny finished dead last. Most telling was the tasting that involved only seven 20-something beer geeks, all of whom admitted that Pliny was their favorite beer. In that tasting, Pliny finished no higher than third…on ONE ballot. It finished last with four of the guys.
Now, was this scientific? (And I have to admit that I have no idea what “scientific” would mean in a context like this. I suppose it would loosely mean “not conducted by some yahoo like me”.) NO. Was it anecdotal? Well…no, again, because it wasn’t info gathered by word of mouth and second-hand evidence. It was conclusive enough for my purposes, which are to sell beer to people at retail. It told me that, if the primary goal is to sell great beers, Pliny is just another great beer and not something for which to barter off any little markers I might have with my distributors. And it’s emphatically NOT a beer that’s worth disappointing several hundred people over, while pleasing the exact dozen who would get the single bottle I’d have to allot out of my ONE case that I could get. So, for the past eight years, my distributor and I had a standing arrangement: I don’t sell Pliny. More for the rest of the Seattle retail community? Yeah, with my blessings.
So, at least based on the available evidence, Pliny is really just another good, solid Double IPA. So, what is this mass hysteria about the Plinys? I think the answer is rather obvious and composed of a couple of sorta “spare parts” characteristics of the American psyche:
We want what we can’t have. Vinnie Cilurzo, (right) from the beginning, has resisted the idea of making more Pliny. It’s a very wise move on his part, in pushing not only our universal craftmanship button – which triggers our comm0n respect for people who work on a small scale, making artisan products – but also appealing strongly to our deep-rooted mistrust of anything produced in mass quantities. Don’t forget, this Pliny “fad” has been going on for over a decade. In Fad Universe, that’s roughly…uh…forever. Pliny could easily become the Coca-Cola of the craft beer culture, if Vinnie wanted to cash in, and you have to embrace a guy who values love of his craft over immediate financial gain. But what his virtuous stance has done is to create a demand for the stuff that borders on universal insanity. In the two-month run-up to each release date, I and every other retailer and all of RRBC’s distributors, are besieged – and that is not hyperbole – with demands (not “requests”) for Elder. Pliny has become the ultimate beer status symbol. In general, the mass of those seeking it, currently, are NOT the hard-core beer freaks who have helped build the American craft phenomenon. Those folks know that there are a ton of great American Double/Imperial IPAs out there and seek those out. (Many people, of course, just really love Pliny, like a certain winemaker friend of mine whose palate is unimpeachable and who swoons at the very sight of the name on a page.) Most afflicted with this fervor are relative newbies; people who learned quickly that saying the word “Pliny” confers immediate craft beer cachet upon the user. It is supposed to show that you know craft beer and breeds instant heavyweight cred if you can manage to score a bottle. It’s really the same bunch who crapped up the wine industry for decades; who simply “had to have” Chateau St. Jean “Cinq Cepages” in 1999, after it was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of The Year, or had to have first Marquis Phillips and later Mollydooker wines, after those Aussie gems became the critical darlings of Wine Advocate and Spectator and Steven Tanzer, et al. They are the same people who wouldn’t dream of drinking any Champagne but Cristal or Moet, no Scotch but Laphroaig 25, no Bourbon but Whistle Pig, and drive no car but a Cadillac Escalade or a Porsche 911 or a BMW. It’s Cred, cachet, status, buzz, Cool Factor – whatever you want to call it, it’s about the sizzle, not the steak.
Five, eight years ago, there were about a fifth as many true craft beer fans and those tended to be more studious and knowledgeable. There was a far more reasonable possibility of getting Pliny. The mass influx of trendies ended all that and now the bottles pop up on eBay for $200. Last year, the owners of Kupros Bistro, in Sacramento, held an event at which those willing to pony up $45 got a 12 oz. pour of Elder, with a burger and one buck off any other beer. Vinne Cilurzo raised holy hell, emailing the RRBC fan who told him about the event, saying, “Anyway, I really appreciate you emailing us, and please know that we are pissed off beyond belief and I can say for sure that Kupros will never get RRBC beer again.” But you can bet the event sold out and would anytime it was held again.
We live in a free-market, capitalist society but we hate it. Nearly every adult human being aspires to become rich; to at least have enough money that we can do anything we want and not have to worry. But nothing makes us more suspicious and resentful than being faced with those who actually achieve this. The simple fact that Vinnie Cilurzo willfully leaves possibly millions of dollars on the table in favor of his craft tickles our cultural sweet spots like mad. I don’t know if this has ever come up (I’d be astonished if the overture has never been made) but I can slap-damn guarantee you that, if it were even hinted that RRBC was for sale, Budweiser’s mega-parent, AB/InBev, would back a semi up to the Russian River loading dock and shovel bundles of c-notes into laundry carts until Vinnie and his puzzling wife Natalie said, “Whoa!” It is hard to even speculate what the name and recipe for the Plinys would be worth on an open market but I also guarantee you that we’ll never find out because Vinnie Cilurzo, I’m convinced, would rather suffer a slow disembowelment than sell out to a mega-brewer. So, add to that the scarcity of the Plinys and you have a can’t-miss recipe for a critical and public darling. Not only is there the innate Cool Factor of obtaining Elder but the subliminal realization that, when we do, we’re helping to Stick It to The Man. Steep that in the heady marinade of an emerging sub-culture of brewing – which, in itself, Sticks It to the Man on a daily basis – and you have Pliny…the mania that’s helping kill craft beer.
To say that this sort of frenzy is bad for craft brewing is a vast understatement. Wine has always been seen as an exclusive beverage, along with single-malt Scotches, fine Brandy and Cognac, and small-producer Bourbons. Beer has always been INclusive, the choice of the Everyman, the blue-collar working stiff. It’s no coincidence that working class heroes in the US came to be called “Joe Six-Pack” in the media, because that’s what was in every refrigerator. And the craft beer culture evolved with the values of that stratum of Americans firmly intact: hard work, a “DIY” attitude, “American Made” and proud of it, an almost self-ridiculing lack of pretense, and fierce independence, even in the face of attempted buy-outs by the mass-producers who decided that purchasing a craft brewery was the shortcut – instead of actually, y’know, brewing better beer – to gaining cred within a rapidly changing beer marketplace. The names, images, brewers, people, and especially the beers themselves were and mostly still are appealingly unpretentious; the exact antidote to the stuffiness and self-importance of the wine culture. But the dilettantes, the upwardly-mobile newbies who have begun to infest the craft beer community, revel in that pretense, that attitude of exclusiveness. “Pliny The Edler” fed that, with a name that most of the Joe Six Pack crowd had never come across, and a beer type that automatically excluded the most casual beer drinkers. And, ultimately for the trendies, reshaping their microcosmic beer cultures – the six or eight friends with whom they show up to brewery openings and release parties – is far cheaper and easier than with wine – More Pretense for Less Ca$h. I work in the wine trade, daily; have for two decades. I’ve tasted six 100-point wines in that time, or, put another way, about six more than casual wine lovers will ever try. There have been probably 250 in those two decades. Six. You can go to your local beer shop and maybe even a well-stocked grocery store and buy 100-point beers right now, as soon as you can drive over and get in the door. And they won’t cost you $75 to $300 a bottle, either. Ten bucks should do nicely.
(Curiously, though, at just about the beginning of the era when beer threatens to get stuffy, winemakers have decided that the brewers shouldn’t get to have all the fun, so young visionary producers like Charles Smith, Cody Wright, Rich Funk, and Trey Busch started to change the stifling conventions of how wines are presented. After a century+ of “serious” wines really only being credible if they had a pencil sketch of somebody’s chateau on a plain cream label, “serious” wines – like Busch’s transcendent Sleight of Hand Cellars roster and Smith’s 95+ pointers from K Syrah and Charles Smith Wines – began to sport labels both wildly colorful and edgy as rock band poster art. The godfather of this, in the Northwest, was Saviah Cellars’ Rich Funk, whose stable of “The Jack” wines hit younger American wine lovers like a wet sledgehammer. Newcomer Cody Wright, son of Oregon legend Ken Wright, has also made his statement that wine no longer has to have a pole up its backside with his gorgeous Purple Hands labels. And the attitude of these wines is absolutely counter to the hide-bound American convention of desperately trying to produce uber-sophisticated, faux-French wannabes. Sleight of Hand’s tag line is “Punk Rock Wines for Punk Rock Minds”. )
Not the least of all the probems associated with the Pliny fixation, there is a small ocean of truly great American craft beer that gets trampled into the dirt in the headlong frenzy to find Pliny. A distributor with whom I’ve worked, whose Mid-Atlantic company handles RRBC, told me over the phone, one day, that, “I have about 400 really great beers sitting out there in my warehouse and all anybody wants is Pliny.” In those blind tastings, I had beers from Ninkasi, Port Brewing, Boundary Bay, AleSmith, Stone, Deschutes, Laurelwood, Hopworks, and about a dozen more, including the “ringers” from new or under-appreciated breweries like Big Al, Fort George, Pelican, Old Schoolhouse, and even a smuggled-in thing from French Broad Brewing. Pliny fared rather poorly against almost all of them. People who obsess about Pliny simply miss a world of great beer and for what? The dubious and momentary glamour of possessing one American IPA.
If the Pliny Scare were the only thing that’s working against the inclusive, common-man vibe of American craft beer, I wouldn’t be writing this. But lately we have online pieces like the one recently brought to my attention by my friends at Bavarian Air Force, who shared a piece in which the author claims, right there in his headline, that “Using the wrong glass for your craft beer will give you a terrible experience.” And so it begins: the urgency to have just the right beer and just the proper glass and drink it at just the proper temperature and have it with the correct foods and match the beer style to the season and…all that crap that’s become such a part of the lore of wine and Scotch that it’s a universally-understood cliche. The very pretentious nonsense, in short, for which craft beer has always been the antidote. Believe this, if you never believe another word you read here: What will cause you to have a “terrible experience” in drinking your craft beer…is Bad Beer. Period. Drink great beer out of a Mason jar, jelly glass, a test tube, or your child’s sippy cup and you’ll still have great beer.
Riedel, the legendary Euro wine glass maker, recently barged into the craft culture with their new IPA glass, a design which, as with all their glasses, they claim is scientifically designed to make the beer pour into one’s mouth at just the proper angle to hit that sweet spot on the palate at which it will taste best. The problem is…it’s a bad design. Their famous pink Champagne flute, designed as a fund-raiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, was the same basic design and its tragic flaw was quickly revealed: the stem is hollow and the liquid within is quickly warmed by your hand, which the conventional stem is designed to avoid. Wrap your hand around the stem of the IPA glass and you’re lowering the temperature of your IPA every second you take to finish it. I’m hoping that consumers don’t fall for this nonsense but many will, especially the trendies mentioned earlier, who will embrace the glass with fevered hands…and wonder why their beer gets warm so fast.
Where will all this end? It won’t. Once you get people involved with anything who are there purely in service of their lifestyle tics, the culture of the thing begins to erode. The teeth-gnashing pretension and shallowness of the wine culture will eventually consume craft beer and maybe not totally ruin it but the uncomplicated, communal, inclusive, Everyman appeal will be lost. We’ll have $100 bottles of beer that mere mortals will never taste, and we’ll deify an endless succession of beers and brewers – this year, even Russian River isn’t the Flavor Of The Month – like this year’s critical darling, Shawn Hill, and his Hill Farmstead Brewing of Vermont. The best all of us who have been involved with craft beer since the beginning can do is to resist being handed the proper glass, the correct food match (Beer with pizza? Not unless it’s shrimp with Brie and arugula, on a white sauce!), or being force-fed whatever the moment’s anointed fave is. We can simply drink what we like best, in our old Disney World stein, and be considered hopeless throw-backs by the Cool Kids.
But at least we’ll have a LOT of great beer to console us.