The story of how I got my greedy mitts on a bottle of Pliny the Elder is almost as integral to the mystique of the imperial IPA as the complex taste wave the beer possesses. In some camps, there’s an argument that Pliny’s stories of inaccessibility — it’s only available in parts of California — are what’s driving its monumental success in the beer world.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After one gulp of the stuff, it’s clear that Pliny the Elder is a world-class beer. Period.
Let’s take a moment to look at the story of my bottle of Pliny, before I try to pin down the beer’s mystical taste wave.
Tim, a friend of mine, was in LA two weeks ago. I hatched a plan. I sent him a text that read, “If you find some Pliny, and I have faith you will, can you mail me a bottle? I’ll pay you double whatever it cost.” Tim’s a badass, so I knew once I planted this challenge, he’d get a bottle of Pliny across the country to Maine.
As has been the story for any human on an odyssey, however, it was an arduous road for Tim to travel. Maybe it wasn’t filled with Cyclopses and sirens, but it was peopled with ornery store clerks and signs like this one.
A day into his great quest, Tim texted me, “0 for 3 so far, but I have a lead, hopefully tomorrow.” I said a prayer to Silenus, the ancient god of beer, for Tim’s lead to pan out without him having to fight off a mob of suitors pining for their own bottle of Pliny.
The next day, Tim responded, “During my last minutes, at the last possible spot I could look before leaving LA, I found The Elder.” Cue the triumphant symphonic music! We had a bottle of the elusive Pliny the Elder!
Said bottle then traveled from LA to Vegas for a week then on to a slew of layover stops on Tim’s flight home, and finally, as if it had survived a ten year journey, the bottle, a little worse for wear, settled in Tim’s fridge in Portland, Maine.
The story might seem superfluous. But is it? Does the fact that this beer is so hard to get make it taste better than it might if I could easily grab a bottle at my local Hannaford? I’m torn here.
In any case, it’s time to discuss the taste. Was all of this anxiety to procure a bottle worth it?
The emphatic answer, Hell yes!
The best way I can describe the drinking experience of Pliny the Elder is saying that there is a taste wave the drinker experiences. First, of course, is a hop insurgence that gives a full bodied citrus wallop to the tongue, but not an obnoxious wallop. There’s a moment in Pliny’s taste wave, like when a surfer first hits a big wave, where everything feels like it might go wrong. I’ve had plenty of imperial IPA’s that start off magical only to land hard on a sour taste note. Not Pliny.
The next part of the taste wave is a fresh bittering flavor that lingers on the back of the tongue with a clean pine taste. It’s different than that first hop hit. What you’re left with is wonderfully different than the taste you started with.
The citrus-to-pine taste wave makes you want to go back for another flavor ride.
And then another, ad infinitum.
I have no idea how they make that taste wave so complex, yet pleasing for the entire ride. Maybe some magical yeast? An eye of newt? However they do it, the drinking experience is surprisingly pleasant and easy compared to many double IPA’s. It clocks in at 8%, but it doesn’t assault your palate with alcohol; rather, it does an intricate dance in the mouth.
So, is it the best tasting beer in America, or is it the best storied beer in America?
I vaguely answer: Yes.
I say, put in the Odyssean effort to get your hoppy hands on a bottle. Or, if you want the real challenge, try to find some Pliny the Younger! Though I’m pretty sure a Cyclops does guard that beer.