It’s a tough time for “old money” beers, those legends that rose to the pinnacle of the beer world in the aughts, well before the era of pastry stouts, canned New England–style IPAs and the concept of waiting in line to buy weekly releases. Bell’s Hopslam Ale, a seasonal release that Michiganders used to speed around town trying to find, is now a bona fide shelf turd. Ballast Point Sculpin, an IPA that I, myself, once had shipped across the country by a friend in San Diego, now gathers dust at my local Duane Reade. And Founders recently announced that they will be discontinuing Canadian Breakfast Stout (CBS)—still the No. 13 beer in the world, according to Beer Advocate—because so few people bought the last release; a once-mighty whale, now beached and dying on supermarket endcaps.
Yet one beer from this pre-social media age has, inexplicably, never lost its luster among serious beer drinkers: Russian River’s Pliny the Elder. Its distinctly dry, piney and bitter profile is the polar opposite of the hazy, juicy and downright sweet IPAs that dominate the industry today, yet this double IPA is as red-hot and sought-after today as it was two decades ago, during the embryonic stages of craft beer.
“We still see many customers coming to our breweries … just to try Pliny the Elder for the first time,” says Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, California. “We also have regular patrons who have been drinking it every day for the past 15-plus years.”
Vinnie Cilurzo, Natalie’s husband and business partner, is generally credited with inventing the entire concept of the “double IPA”—upping the hoppiness and ABV of a typical IPA to teeth-chattering levels—in 1994 when he worked at Blind Pig Brewing. By 1997, he had moved to Russian River Brewing (at the time owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars) where he first brewed Pliny the Elder. When he and Natalie took over the brewery in 2003, the beer took off. An immediate sensation, it was already No. 68 on Beer Advocate’s Top 100 list by 2005, the same year its close relative—the draft-only, triple IPA Pliny the Younger—was released.
Although the beers were only available in the Bay Area and a few isolated bars in Denver and Portland, for the next two decades, their reputation continued to grow as they trickled across the country by means of online trading and so-called “muling” (asking visitors to bring bottles back), leaving a wake of rave reviews on beer forums everywhere. By 2008, the year The Elder was first bottled, both Plinys had entered Beer Advocate’s Top 10 list.
“In the early days of beer trading, if you were anywhere other than California, you heard the lore of Pliny,” recalls Cory Smith, a beer writer and photographer, who quickly began trading for it in 2013, around the time he started to dive deeper into the craft beer world. “Sure, other IPAs had some notoriety back then, but I think Pliny was one of the first that you were told, ‘Oh, you need to trade for this beer!’”
There were, in fact, plenty of reputable IPAs distributed in New York, where Smith lived in 2013: Ballast Point Sculpin, Stone Enjoy By, Hill Farmstead Double Galaxy, and even occasional drops of The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, the beer that would go on to redefine IPAs. But back then, and even today, when just about every major market has local breweries making a world-class IPA or two, nothing could slow down the lust for Pliny. Both the Elder and Younger expressions have been firmly entrenched in Beer Advocate’s top 20 for the last 12 years, usually in the top 5, occasionally even ascending to No. 1.
These figures are particularly staggering, considering that Pliny the Elder breaks all the rules not just of modern IPAs, but of modern craft beer. It’s an archetypal “West Coast IPA”—dry and extremely bitter compared to the maltier ur-IPAs that were first brewed in England and then copied across the East Coast—from a time when the location of a brewery could actually reveal something about its flavor profile. (To be fair, Natalie says the recipe is always slightly evolving.)
“We never flooded the market with the beer, which keeps interest high. But we have also been realistic knowing that Pliny would not always be the most sought-after beer in town,” says Natalie. “Yet our clear double IPA still stands out in a sea of hazy beers.”
Looking at the 79 IPAs currently ranked on Beer Advocate’s top 250, the only ones that even come close to showcasing a similarly retro profile are Three Floyds Permanent Funeral, at No. 134, and the aforementioned Bell’s Hopslam, once a top 10–ranked beer, which has been plummeting ever since New England IPAs entered the zeitgeist, and now stands at No. 165.
“Consumers still seek [Pliny] out because it was ‘the best’ for so long that even though we’ve moved on, it remains mythical,” says Gage Siegel, of BeerMenus.com. Indeed, Pliny was undoubtedly ahead of its time; after all, it was the first beer Siegel recalls ever preaching freshness on its label, which reads: “Drink fresh, do not age!”
Other than that disclaimer, however, Pliny’s packaging is a relic from another era. In a modern market where even supermarket-stocked beer brands like Harpoon and Sam Adams have switched to de rigueur “pounder” cans, Pliny still comes only in 500mL bottles that lack graphic sticker labels and feature the unironic use of Comic Sans.
“[We] have been looking into the possibility of canning on our terms,” says Natalie. “Our main concern is the lack of data regarding TPO (total package oxygen) in cans.”
Yet this decision to stick with bottles doesn’t stymie sales. Eleven years after Pliny was first bottled, stores still issue APBs when they receive a shipment, people still clear it from shelves when “re-ups” arrive (forcing stores to implement per-customer limits), buyers boast on social media about drinking it, and gladly wait in hours-long lines during the two weeks a year that Pliny the Younger is available on draft at the Russian River pubs and select bars like Toronado in San Francisco.
Pliny the Elder remains Russian River’s best-selling beer, ranking even higher in Google search results than the actual, historical Pliny the Elder, the army commander for the Roman Empire who died in the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.
Pliny’s success could be attributed to an uncommon lack of missteps in the beer’s lifetime, which seem to have plagued just about every other top-ranked beer: unfortunate corporate mergers (see: Alpine Nelson), recipe alterations (see: Ballast Point Sculpin), contracting out the brewing (see: Lawson’s Finest Sip of Sunshine) or overproduction (see: Founders CBS).
“Somehow, production has lagged behind the mystique,” notes Siegel. “By [Russian River] not scaling up significantly, never contracting, never ever becoming easily accessible, they’ve been able to hold on to that.”
It’s possible, however, that Pliny, too, is heading for ubiquity—a well-worn path to demise.
On October 11, 2018, Russian River opened the doors to a second brewery, in Windsor, California. The 85,000-square-foot brewpub features a beer garden, a Pliny-stocked gift shop, a tasting room and a growler fill station. Production overall has quickly doubled, with 60 percent of that being attributed to Pliny production. The new space will give Russian River the ability to distribute Pliny to more markets in California and, eventually, beyond. Just six months ago, Santa Ana’s Native Son Alehouse started receiving their first shipments.
“I was amazed when people started coming in for Pliny,” says Neil Hirtzel, Native Son’s beer buyer. He notes, however, that it was mostly “older guys” coming in for it, not the 21-year-old NEIPA-obsessed haze bros. But he admits that they, too, eventually came in to drink Pliny.
“Mostly to try it and say they liked it.”