I’d taken the first Acela of the day down to Philadelphia and made my way into a line that was winding down South 16th Street, four blocks from the entrance of Monk’s Cafe. By just past noon, three hours later, I finally made it to the door. I paid my $20 cover and was handed a mere six ounces of Pliny the Younger, the famed “triple” IPA from Santa Rosa, California, and one of the few legendary IPAs of yesteryear that remains coveted today.
It was 2016, but it could just as well have been 2005, the year the IPA officially became a sensation. Looking at the January 22, 2005 Top 100 Beers (courtesy of the Wayback Machine), the list includes 16 IPAs or double IPAs. (Today’s list, by contrast, includes a whopping 89 IPAs filling out the top 250 slots.) In 2005, the style was dominated by increasingly bitter “hop bombs,” while today the state-of-the-art hews towards those that are more tropical and juicy. In fact, it could be argued that no beer style has changed more in the last decade than the IPA, even more than the stouts that went from minimalist dark beers to adjunct-laden ice cream floats.
By 2005, Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo was already an industry legend for his decision to raise both the hoppiness levels and ABV to create the world’s first double IPA while he was at the short-lived Blind Pig Brewing in the mid-1990s. (The 8 percent ABV Pliny the Elder, his more famous DIPA, wouldn’t come until 2003.) But it wasn’t until the first Friday in February, 2005, that the craft beer paradigm would shift, irrevocably. At a boozy 11 percent ABV and packed with citrus-forward hops, Pliny the Younger was an immediate sensation among Sonoma locals. As the Los Angeles Times wrote last year: “It was a revelation at a time when American craft brewing was really beginning to push the boundaries of experimentation and innovation, and sampling Pliny the Younger quickly became a rite of passage for beer aficionados.”
Pliny the Younger’s first release was indeed a revelation. As “Irishsnake” wrote in his 2005 BeerAdvocate review, “[Pliny the Younger] really throws down the gauntlet to other brewers.” The other top breweries of the day accepted the challenge; the IPA quickly went from being hoppy, but generally well-rounded and balanced, to a more-is-more, double-dare of a beer. Likewise, Pliny the Younger’s seasonal, tap-only release decreed that IPAs need no longer be year-round “shelf turds” of indeterminate freshness. The other most-acclaimed IPAs of the mid- to late-aughts were likewise once-a-year (or so) offerings, like Founders’ Devil Dancer and Bell’s Hopslam. The latter, a 10-percent-ABV beer with a label depicting a person being crushed by a giant hop, was soon derisively nicknamed “Hypeslam” for how quickly it sold out.
Today’s top IPAs are even more reliant on hype and ephemerality, though they are often way more accessible in terms of enjoyment than the IPAs of 2005—softly carbonated, pleasantly aromatic, juicy and, importantly, often consumed hours fresh. In fact, I only count a few “shelf” IPAs on the top 250 today, like Lawson’s Finest Sip of Sunshine (No. 29), Grimm’s Afterimage (No. 157), Lumen (No. 175) and Lambo Door (No. 222). Even those typically sell out the day they hit shelves.
Miraculously, the two beers that started it all have managed to stand the test of time, amid a drastic paradigm shift for IPAs. Neither is fruity nor hazy—The Elder is clean and harshly bitter, and The Younger more syrupy than juicy. Both are still quite tasty, but far from groundbreaking in 2017. But there I was, just a year ago, standing in line for Pliny the Younger like it was 2005. What’s my excuse? I wanted to finally taste, for the first time, the beer that made the IPA today’s most important style.