One of the best things about traveling to San Diego last month was that I got the chance to try Pliny The Elder from Russian River on tap.
I can tell you that I didn’t get it.
I had had it in bottles before; a couple of times in fact. Mike Lackey, who you’ll recall is something of a maverick brewer at Great Lakes, was good enough to pull a bottle out of his fridge during a beer tasting one night. It was early enough in the evening, before it had devolved into a beer drinking that everyone still had some form of palate left. I saw a number of brewers that I respected trying the thing and going oooh and ahhh and I just didn’t get it. It’s a very good Double IPA. It may well be one of the best in the world, but I don’t know that it did anything for me. We had bottles of other things that were just as good if not better.
On the ratebeer list it is valued as being one of the best beers in the world. I don’t know how much stock one ought to put in lists like that, but they do show valuable information in terms of trends over time. At one point it may well have been the champion of the world.
In terms of being the best beer in the world, I would have put several beers of different styles that we tried that night ahead of it. Hill Farmstead had a lovely porter for one. I think Ballast Point Sculpin might have made an appearance.
The thing is this: With the context that I have from two years of writing about beer, I didn’t know exactly what was going on or why people were going oooh and ahhh.
I tried it on tap to make sure that I wasn’t missing something. I tried it on tap at Tiger! Tiger! In San Diego. Now, it was during the Craft Beer Conference, so you can bet that Russian River had sent in the freshest stuff possible, knowing full well that people were going to be ordering their beer during the conference. It was fresh. Tiger! Tiger! Is a really good bar, so you know that their lines were probably up to scratch. It was clean.
I still didn’t get it.
At one point my friend Russ Burdick from Biergotter nearly cuffed the side of my head when I told him he should try the Lagunitas Barrel Aged Sumpin’ Wild instead. I got out of that one by buying a snifter for him. Great beer, the Lagunitas Sumpin’ Wild.
I felt nonplussed. I went out the next night in search of Pliny The Elder and tried it again. I’m afraid to say that nothing lifted the fog. I didn’t get the beer. It’s a great beer, but it’s not this great legendary thing.
I don’t think that I was just being contrary. I certainly wasn’t being contrary intentionally. I actually buy into the hype for the Westvleteren 12. In some ways I’m a credulous moron.
Let me change the subject briefly and ask you a question about Cinema.
Have you ever seen Citizen Kane?
It’s quite possibly the best movie ever made. It was made in 1941 and Orson Welles was a first time director. He had final cut approval over the project so it was made exactly the way that he wanted it made. He cast the people he wanted to cast. He got the shots and the editing he wanted. It was a hell of a longshot in a lot of ways. It was codenamed RKO 281 so that people wouldn’t know anything about it. It was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst; an intensely private gentleman who would probably have put pressure on the studio to shelve the project if it had been known that it was being made.
It’s an incredible film even today. The techniques and directorial choices are 70 years old, but the story clips along at a pretty decent pace. The storytelling technique from different points of view of friends and lovers of the main character predates Kurosawa’s technique in Rashomon by a fair bit. There’s even a rollicking musical number. Plus, to be entirely honest, if Welles eventually devolved into a behemoth (more ham than auteur), he’s immensely likeable in Citizen Kane.
The truth is that most of you probably will not have seen the movie.
That doesn’t matter. The influence of damn near every scene in the movie is culturally omnipresent. If you’ve seen the first six seasons of The Simpsons, you have more or less seen Citizen Kane. Monty Burns is basically Charlie Kane. His bear, Bobo is Rosebud. His hound-releasing estate is Xanadu. The show references it with an almost maniacal fervency. Charles Foster Kane. C Montgomery Burns. Smithers even organizes a song and dance tribute to Mr. Burns that’s basically identical to the original.
It’s not even that The Simpsons did it. Everyone did it. The White Stripes did it.
You know the movie even if you’ve never seen it. If you go and watch it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the amount that you know that you didn’t realize you knew. Maybe you’ll be enthralled. More likely, you’ll be bored because you’ve seen it before.
This is the problem with Classics. Even if you’re unaware of them, they influence just about everything that comes after them.
So, to get back to my original point:
I’m standing in a kitchen with brewers who are tasting Russian River’s Pliny The Elder alongside me. I was nonplussed, while they were awed.
What I know now is that it was originally brewed in 2000 and evolved from a 1994 recipe called Blind Pig. It was brewed by Vinnie Cilurzo, who ain’t exactly without reputation. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at when the first Double IPA was brewed in Canada, but I’m guessing it wasn’t 1994. I got into the beer writing game long after trying my first Double IPA, which I think was probably Moylan’s. For me, when I started, these were commonplace. You’d come across one every once in a while.
It’s not so much that it’s a legendary beer as that it is a massively influential beer. The fact that it exists means that it must be observed. It’s a cultural touchstone in the same way that Citizen Kane is.
If you experience it, you may not like it. You wouldn’t be the first not to like it. It’s influential because it existed at the right moment in time. Part of its cachet may be that it came to represent the innovations of a certain place and time.
Is it a great beer?
I will tell you this for nothing: When I had it at Tiger! Tiger! I also had a pork belly banh mi sandwich. If I had to choose between having Pliny The Elder again or having the sandwich again, it would be the sandwich.
What follows is my rating for the sandwich: