Reviewed: Russian River Pliny the Elder
Official description: Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist, scholar, historian and author. In his writings he refers to “Lupus Salictarius,” meaning “wolf among scrubs,” likely an early reference to hop vines growing wild among willows. Pliny the Elder died in 79 AD while saving people during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. He was immortalized by his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Elder, the beer, is a full-bodied, hop forward Double IPA. Keep refrigerated and consume fresh to best enjoy this beer’s intense hop character.
Russian River Brewing Co – Russian River Pliny the Elder – 510ml bottle served in stemless snifter – 8% ABV
Pliny the Elder, or just Pliny, is one of America’s most iconic craft beers. When I first got into beer more than thirteen years ago, Pliny was one of the most sought-after beers among enthusiasts. Fast-forward to today and not much has changed. The recipe has probably been tweaked over time since it debuted in 2000, but I couldn’t find any official full recipes besides the one that brewer Vinnie Cilurzo published in Zymurgy in 2009, which is more like a homebrew clone guide and doesn’t match up with the Russian River website. According to the brewery’s website, Pliny includes Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops. Of note, Simcoe hops are ubiquitous today but debuted the same year as this beer. Pliny also utilizes hop extract (concentrated hop oils), a well-known “fact” among enthusiasts, but I cannot find an official source to verify that claim. Feel free to correct me in the comment section below.
Russian River uses an interesting marketing strategy for Pliny and its other flagship beer, Blind Pig IPA. Russian River has never really ramped up production of these beers despite high demand. That scarcity should push prices sky high and leave expensive beers rotting on store shelves. Instead, RR keeps prices reasonable at around $7 per single large format bottle, which almost ensures the beer sells out immediately after landing at retail outlets. That translates to consumers getting exclusively fresh Russian River hoppy beers – continuing the cycle of high quality and high demand. Now that RR has expanded to a larger facility in Windsor, CA; we will wait and see how that changes their output and sales model.
After a freak chance of walking into my favorite bottle shop on a Pliny “drop” day, I was able to grab a bottle dated 6/17/19 – less than a week old at the time of writing. The Christmas color label design and odd 510ml bottle size look exactly the same as when I first tried this beer more than ten years ago.
Into the glass, Pliny is clear deep golden in color with a thick head of yellowish foam that sticks around for several minutes before collapsing. Unlike Blind Pig, which takes awhile for the aroma hops to get going, Pliny bursts right out of the gate with pineapple upside-down cake, orange sherbet, and juicy cantaloupe. Dig in, and Pliny is ultra juicy in flavor with buckets of sweet Valencia oranges and spicy citrus peel. Unlike Blind Pig and Happy Hops, there’s the perfect amount of balancing sugar that allows you to really sit back and enjoy the beer vs. the lingering hop punishment of the other two. There’s a lasting, spicy hop finish to each sip that is nicely bitter but not overdone. By today’s standards, Pliny is about as tame as Double IPAs (or even regular IPAs) come. There’s a smooth creaminess to the mouthfeel but no stickiness like you find in most other DIPAs. After sitting with the beer for several minutes, it’s clear just how clean and well-mannered this is for the style. Pliny lacks the roughness, booziness, and astringency that plagues other DIPAs for the most part. It’s one of those perfect beers that just melts in your mouth.
Perceived Specs for Russian River Pliny the Elder
Over the many years that I’ve explored and evaluated beers, one beer style that I have come to shy away from is Double IPA. There’s hardly any redeeming quality in my opinion to having a high-gravity hop bomb that attempts to find balance by boosting sugar, alcohol, and bitterness to the maximum. My revisit of Pliny today has restored my faith in this style. Pliny is far softer than you might expect with a flavor profile that would fit right in with most regular IPAs. Its modest 8% ABV is the absolute lowest that can be considered a Double IPA, but that is just plenty to produce a masterpiece. Its beautiful aroma, juicy flavors, incredible balance, and perfect mouthfeel solidify it as one of my favorite DIPAs of all time. This 19-year-old recipe still dominates the competition reaffirming its legendary status.
Pliny the Elder is a classic beer that sets the bar for the style, so I can’t offer any readily available substitutes. I will say that most Double IPAs are far too rough, boozy, and/or sticky to compare directly with Pliny. Given its relative lightness and modest 8%, it matches up closer to regular strength IPAs in my opinion. The only DIPA that I think is in the same league is Lawson’s Finest Sip of Sunshine (also 8%), which has a similar distribution model and thus is difficult to find. I will try to get my hands on some soon for a review.
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August 24, 2019 @ 8:36 pm
“… a high-gravity hop bomb that attempts to find balance by boosting sugar, alcohol, and bitterness to the maximum. ”
The point of a high alcohol bitter hop bomb is anything but balance. It’s about hops! Dank, citrusy, piney, bitter, hops. When I see “balance” in the description of a DIPA I move on to the next one. It’s like an apology in advance from the beer maker to those whose tender palates are easily offended. You know if I’m talking to you.
That being said, the reviewer gave Pliny the exact same judgment as I would, having drank it for going on 17 years.
July 15, 2019 @ 7:40 pm
You need to travel to the Russian River Brewery public house to get the real taste of Pliny the Elder. What they sell in the bottle does not taste the same as what comes out of their tap. On tap this beer is piney, probably due to large whirlpool and dry hop additions of Simcoe hops. I bought a case of bottles from the pub that were less than 2 weeks old and had one the next day and could taste little of the piney flavors that dominated the day before at the pub. I think that the piney hop flavor is very short lived and quickly disappears from the beer. This beer needs to be kept refrigerated and drank fresh making it difficult to transport it far from the brewery and maintain quality.
July 15, 2019 @ 9:37 pm
I’ve been to the brewpub in Santa Rosa several times in the past. For my reviews on The Full Pint, I don’t review beers that are relatively unreasonable for a normal person to access. Most people going to the internet for reviews, I believe, are wanting to know if they should spend the money on X beer at the store. If they are going to Russian River itself, there’s a good chance they already know exactly what they want. The same could be said for every beer on earth that the fresh version from the brewery is better than the bottled version in stores. It’s not really fair to state in the review that it’s not as good as the fresh tap version. Breweries sell their beer in bottles and cans all over the world and ask money for them. It should be good.
Chris St. Mary
July 15, 2019 @ 5:29 pm
Not sure but I would think that in the state would be their distribution unless you get close to the state line. I am pretty sure NYC would be Two Roads. Cheers!
July 15, 2019 @ 5:30 pm
Excellent, thanks again!
Chris St. Mary
July 15, 2019 @ 5:16 pm
If you go for Sip, be sure you get a bottle direct from Vermont. They are having Two Roads contract for them and distribute further afield than they do and it’s not the same. I live in Buffalo and they distribute it here. VERY disappointed when I tried it and found it wasn’t the same beer I had in Vermont. Nice beer but not the same.
July 15, 2019 @ 5:23 pm
Thanks, Chris, for the info! I’ll be in Vermont next month but wasn’t originally planning to go that far north. Do I need to go up to Lawson’s itself to source the beer or are there places in southern Vermont that would carry the real thing? I had a can recently in NYC that was quite delicious, but I don’t know if it was a Two Roads contract-brewed one.