Pliny the Elder, the famous ancient Roman author and naturalist, gave hops (the quintessence of beer) its first botanical name. Fittingly, Russian River Brewing Company gave the world’s first commercially brewed double IPA Pliny’s prickly, peculiar name.
The beer is notoriously hard to find. Russian River distributes to a mere four places (California, Colorado, Oregon, and Philadelphia, Pa.). The story of the beer’s distribution is noteworthy in the expansion of craft beer in the U.S. Craft brewers operate in one of the most regulated and taxed industries in the country. They face advertising, supply, and distribution problems in the face of the behemoth organizations like InBev.
On Tuesday, the Brewers Association, craft brewing’s trade group, lobbied Congress to pass the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act (Small BREW Act) as a part of the Craft Brewers Conference taking place in D.C. Essentially, the bill halves the tax per barrel for brewers producing 60,000 barrels or less, and changes the tax rate per barrel for up to 6 million barrels. To give you an example; New Belgium, the craft brew goliath who, unlike Russian River, distributes in 29 states, and has projected sales of $800,000 for 2012.
Craft brewing’s expansion in the United States means more clout for the industry as it starts to support more jobs and gain more money to donate to campaigns. While the overall beer market grew 1 percent last year, craft brewing grew 15 percent in volume and increased by 17 percent in dollar value, according to the Brewers Association.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, while being honored for his support of craft beer, said that the Small Brewers Caucus was the only bipartisan effort in a divided, dysfunctional Congress. Moreover, the home brewer said, “Unlike Congress, you guys actually produce a product that consumers like.” From Sierra Nevada to Russian River, DeFazio is right. The trouble is finding the beer.
In a year where, in most cases, demand outstripped supply for many younger breweries, it can be even more difficult to find that bottle of Pliny the Elder. In the Springs, the best bet is Cheers Liquor Mart on North Circle Drive or Coaltrain Wine & Spirits on West Uintah Street. If you desire the beer, I recommend calling them ahead of time or checking their websites and Facebook pages. According to their employees and Russian River’s distributor in Colorado, Elite Brands, next week will be the best time to check for availability. The whole state receives one shipment every six weeks; an uncommon, but not unheard of, shipment schedule for that amount of beer.
If you couldn’t tell, there’s a lot of weird stuff that surrounds Russian River’s distribution. For example, Coaltrain has a one-bottle-per-customer deal, while Weber isn’t deemed “good enough” to carry the beer (by Elite, that is). In polite terms: that’s b&^* s$#@. In my reporting, I haven’t been able to determine whether it is Elite or Russian River that makes the rules. Weber is a great beer store. It has a huge bomber selection and lacks all the dumb wine they have at Coaltrain. Pliny would sell out immediately at Weber and appeal to the younger beer-drinker demographic who craft brewers desperately need to court in order to continue expansion.
But it appears Russian River isn’t concerned about expansion or being the king of craft brew. Rather, they insist on making great beers that sometimes need to be consumed soon after production. The Pliny label instructs you not to age or keep it on the shelves for too long, lest the beer lose its incredibly fresh character.
Pliny is generally considered by critics to be the best American brew ever produced; it set the standard for an entire style. It’s overwhelmingly pleasant. Masterfully balanced and packaged in an understated 22 oz. bottle, the beer brings a tamed ferocity to the IPA and precisely tunes, rather than kicks, up a notch on the intensity of the typical fruity and hoppy notes, while bringing in a fuller body that isn’t heavy. When it slid down my gullet, I was relaxed, soothed, and quite frankly, in Nirvana without knowing it.
If you can get your hands on it, you should try it. It’s an important historical beer.
Initially, this column was going to be devoted solely to Pliny. But in the interest of being useful, I decided to review two other double IPAs that you may easily purchase at Weber.
The Firestone Walker Double Jack is helluva beer. I would suggest having one with the month’s basketball events. It’s basically a citrusy, bitter IPA that doesn’t burden you with a heavy body or intense alcohol presence. The hops dry you out and the citrus give you a tingle of sweet.
In the opposite corner is the Mission Shipwrecked. I didn’t like this San Diego beer. Too much alcohol presence, too heavy, not well balanced the way I think IPAs should be. Overall, I expected more from a brewery founded by an ex-Stone Brewing Company brewer. This beer isn’t worth more words. Maybe he didn’t voluntarily leave his former place of employment…
While you sit in your dorm, apartment, or house and watch March Madness, make a stop to the beer store before the next game, pop open a double IPA like Pliny or Double Jack, and help support craft brew in America.