Pliny the Younger is here: What you need to know about craft beer's most famous brew

The beer fanatics are already congregating in California Wine Country. The first Friday in February traditionally marks the release of Russian River Brewing’s world famous Pliny the Younger. It’s maybe the most storied beer in the world, with a mythology that’s almost as grandiose as the proclamations about its character and quality.

For the two weeks following Pliny’s yearly debut, people will line up for hours in front of the Santa Rosa brewpub just to snag a taste, and as the limited supply of kegs are shipped to Russian River’s preferred accounts, beer lovers across California scramble and squabble for a glass. 

But what is a Pliny, and is it really worth all of the hype and fervor? Here are a few answers to the most frequently heard inquiries about Pliny the Younger.

So, it’s another IPA?

Yeah, Pliny the Younger is a creation of Russian River Brewing’s owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo. It’s widely considered to be the first commercial triple IPA, and it’s the bigger sibling to the brewery’s equally lauded Pliny the Elder double IPA (another style that Cilurzo is credited with inventing when he was brewing at the now shuttered Blind Pig brewpub in Temecula). A double IPA (also known as an imperial IPA) is like a beefed-up IPA: more hops, more malts and more booze. A triple IPA pushes the alcohol content even higher (usually north of 10% alcohol), and typically features an eye-watering punch of American hop flavors (like citrus, pine and tropical fruit). The magic in the best triple IPAs is how they remain quaffable by balancing the intense hop bitterness with an assertive alcohol presence.

Where can I get a bottle?

Pliny the Younger is a draft-only offering from Russian River, brewed just once a year. Besides the Russian River brewpub (which is crowded on an average day and becomes downright thronged with beer lovers during February), a very limited number of kegs are sent out into the world. Thankfully, Los Angeles has a fair number of bars that typically get a keg of the golden elixir, and many of them hold special events to handle the madness that comes with the beer. Social media is your best ally when looking for a place to score some Pliny. Some of the usual suspects in the L.A. beer industry that receive kegs of the beer include Beachwood BBQ (they hold a charity raffle each year for a pint of the beer), Blue Palms Brewhouse, Mohawk Bend, The Daily Pint, 38 Degrees, Lucky Baldwins and Father’s Office. The kegs sent down to L.A. usually start getting tapped toward the second half of February and into March.

Why is it so rare? Why don’t they just make more of it?

The official line from the brewery is that Pliny the Younger is simply too difficult and too time consuming to brew more than once a year. It’s also an extremely expensive beer to make with a tremendous amount of raw materials (malt and hops particularly) going into each batch. 

Why is Pliny so popular? Is it really worth the hype?

Back when Russian River first brewed Pliny the Younger in 2005, it was unique. Nothing else came close in volume of hop character, intensity of flavors or craftsmanship. 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. The second question is a bit tougher. The beer enjoys a perfect 100 score on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, and while it is unimaginably excellent, it isn’t as unparalleled in the beer world as it once was, and it certainly won’t change your life.  

What else is comparable to Pliny the Younger?

Craft beer fans are even more crazy for hops than they were back in 2005, and many other breweries have started to catch up to Pliny the Younger’s flavor profile and sheer hop assault. Locally, El Segundo Brewing Co. makes its own lauded triple IPA called Power Plant, and bottles of that brew will be released at the tasting room and sent to retailers around Los Angeles on Friday. Beachwood Brewing in Long Beach also cooks up its own triple IPA this time of year, and Hops of Fury hits just about every hoppy note you could ask for. The beer is available now, for a limited time. Knee Deep Brewing Co. in Auburn makes, and bottles, three different triple IPAs; keep your eyes open for fresh bottles of Hoparillo, Simtra! and Hop Shortage Triple IPA.

Who is this Pliny character anyway, and what’s the right way to say the beer’s name?

The Pliny pair were Roman authors and thinkers who lived in the 1st century. The Elder Pliny was an influential naturalist who was killed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, and the Younger was his nephew and a renowned man of letters and a Roman senator (he survived the eruption). Typically you’ll hear the beer pronounced “ply-knee,” though if you spend any time in line waiting for a pour of the eponymous beer, you’ll no doubt hear some well-meaning know-it-all tell you that the “correct” pronunciation is “plini” — rhyming with “mini”. While technically that pronunciation is correct, the brewers themselves ascribe to the more populist pronunciation.

Any way you say Pliny, it’s bound to get beer fans talking.

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