There was a dark time when beer in the United States was monochromatic. But the craft movement hacked a tiny wedge into the beer market in the late-seventies, when craft beer’s founding fathers began brewing bitter ales made with new piney-floral-citrusy Northwestern hops like Cascade and Chinook. By the nineties, it was these brewers up and down the West Coast that forever enshrined the American IPA into what dominates the craft market today.
As the craft movement started producing hoppier beers, cutting edge brewers used the charisma of the hop to tailor new recipes for an increasingly discerning audience. Luckily for us beer drinkers, the rising popularity of this aggressively hopped American IPA coincided with the beginning of Vinnie Cilurzo’s tenure at the now closed Blind Pig Brewing of Temecula, California in 1994. At the same time hops like Cascade and Centennial were on the forefront of hop experimentation, innovators like Mr. Cilurzo used these new incredibly oily lupulin packed hops to double down and create an icon of American imbibing.
In the American spirit of “bigger is better,” the bitterness of the typical IPA was not enough. Mr. Cilurzo and his cohort were not satisfied with the bittering units of their IPAs in the 50-70s, they wanted to reach 80, 90, 100 IBUs, and higher ABVs. This pursuit led to the Double, or sometimes called Imperial, IPA.
Mr. Cilurzo is widely seen as having invented this style in 1995, but when he moved to Sonoma County and began brewing at Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, he perfected it. In 2001, he brewed the quintessential Double IPA, Pliny the Elder. If you are able to get your hands on a bottle, you’re reminded there are rules to play when engaging with an icon. The bottle reads, “Respect Your Elder. Keep Cold. Drink Fresh. Do Not Age.”
Pliny represents a complete package, a well-built machine reliant on numerous forces working together in sync.”
After the pour, I advise you first take in the aroma the moment it is released from its pressurized container into the wild for the first time. The Simcoe hops shine, with a pungent piney resinous fume that is oily in weight. After swirling the beer in the glass, the grassiness from the dry hop tags in, smelling as if you just rubbed fresh hop pellets together and inhaled. A touch of malt breadiness is present, but nothing competes with the hops.
When contemplating the aromas, take time to notice its radiant color. Pliny crosses between a golden hue and a light orange shiny copper. It is crystal clear and its foamy white head stands tall.
The flavor is a reflection of the aroma – there is no surprise here beyond the shock of how good Pliny is. On the front is that piney resinous reflection of the Simcoe hop again, with a dash of berry flavor, daring us to find the elements of the other New World hops. They surface, briefly, with a floral-melon note, but give way quickly to that grassy bitterness.
Of course, the dominance of Simcoe is the sine qua non of Pliny, Mr. Cilurzo makes clear: “The Pliny the Elder recipe has ... been a beer toward the focus of the Simcoe hop. When I started making Pliny, Simcoe was just coming out. I had brewed with Simcoe as an experimental hop and that led me to using it in Pliny.”
After sipping, we’re left with a very bitter finish that is long, rough, tough, but pleasant. Staring at the lacing left behind from the head, let’s recognize that for such an incredible texture and 8% alcohol by volume, there is no rich maltiness. To bring the gravity up on this doozy of a beer, Mr. Cilurzo adds a highly fermentable dextrose powder for body and alcohol without causing sensory detection – a novel idea for IPAs in 2001 that endures today.
Overall it’s hard to argue with this beer’s iconic status. Pliny represents a complete package, a well-built machine reliant on numerous forces working together in sync. Whether you’re bellying up at Russian River, or got a hold of a bottle and are enjoying it on your back porch, you cannot help but feel the weight of IPA history in your hands.