When Santa Barbara Brewing Company brewmaster Kevin Pratt asked if I’d like to go to Orange County for some Pliny the Younger, I was torn. On the one hand, I’ve always wanted to taste the beer – essentially one of the rarest beers on the planet – and I’d always wanted to at least see what kind of crowd might show up. I agreed, knowing that it would be, if nothing else, some good blogging fodder.
I arrived at The Crow Bar and Kitchen in Corona Del Mar at about 10:30 a.m. This was perfect, because that’s usually right around the time I like to start drinking on a Tuesday. There were about seven people in line to buy tickets, which went on sale at 11:30 a.m. One of those seven people were Kevin, so I joined him near the back of the short line and we waited for the doors to open.
The line steadily grew, and was comprised of roughly 80% young men with a female here or there. The line itself was a fun experience, as the group was relatively well-behaved and there was a palpable buzz of excitement from so many folks excited to try the highly sought-after Pliny the Younger (if you’re not familiar with the beer, don’t worry I’ll describe it in due time). It’s always nice to be with a font of beer knowledge, like Kevin, in situations like this because there’s so many beer myths that get perpetuated in situations like this that it’s nice to have someone with real facts to dispel some of these mistruths.
At 11:30, the doors opened and they ushered in the line to two cash registers. For $21 and some change you could buy two tickets (the maximum), which were good for two pours of Pliny the Younger.
Perhaps this was designed to give people plenty of time to get their tickets before the beer started pouring and fans started guzzling down pint after pint, but my guess is that it was also a means of getting customers in the door early. Since seating was readily available at 11:30 and The Crow Bar was as good (likely better) than anywhere else in the neighborhood for food and beer, Kevin and I grabbed our seats and cozied up to the menu.
I had already heard of this “Black Label” burger, and already knew I was going to get it. Prime ribeye blended into the patty? bone marrow butter? Yes. Please. I didn’t take a picture of the burger because, frankly, it looked like a burger. But it tasted like heaven.
It was delightfully rich, but not in a truffle-mac-and-cheese-with-extra-truffles-and-lobster-tail kind of way. The meat was just lightly charred and crispy the way the outer rim of a good rib roast is crispy, and the patty was tender and juicy. I can say with all sincerity that the burger may have been better than the pours of Pliny, and that’s not a knock on Pliny. I paired it with Weihenstephan Hefeweizen – because a world-class burger deserves a world-class beer.
The burger didn’t last forever, and it was only about 12:30. With an hour and a half before the main event, Kevin and I decided to split a bottle of Mikkeller Koppi, a “coffee IPA.” Brewed with coffee and fermented with what seemed to be a Belgian strain of yeast, this IPA did not taste, look or smell like any traditional IPA – although the coffee notes were very faint.
There was a bit of citrus and perhaps raspberries or sour cherries in the aroma and flavor as well, which made for a rather enjoyable experience. However, I was glad we decided to split the bottle. By the end of it, especially as the latter pours were laced with chalky yeast sediment, it was a bit tiring to get through.
As before, we found ourselves with more time and still no Pliney – so we opted for another taste of Russian River. The Crow Bar did have Pliny the Elder on tap, and the popular Double IPA might have found its way to our table had that not run out shortly before we were ready for it.
That’s fine though, because it allowed us the opportunity to enjoy one of the best beers in Russian River’s lineup – Temptation. This is an ale fermented with a blend of brettanomyces and ale yeast and then aged in Chardonnay barrels. It’s remarkably refreshing, just tart enough and had a pleasant palate-cleansing effect as we prepared for Pliny the Younger. It’s one of my favorite beers from Russian River, and in my opinion it’s what sets brewer/co-owner Vinnie Cilurzo apart from the rest of the field. His mastery of aging beers in oak is rivaled by very few.
Finally, the beer arrived. A server came around with several beautifully beer-clean chalices of the amber gold. She took our tickets and gave us our first round of Pliny the Younger. For the uninitiated, Pliny the Younger (or PtY in beer-geek parlance) is what’s known as a Triple IPA. It’s over 10% ABV and is hopped to high heaven. You can read more about it straight from Russian River here. The real key is that only 50 barrels, or 100 kegs, are brewed each year (I might actually be mistaken about that and it could be only 25 barrels, or 50 kegs. If you know better, please correct me in the comments).
Ahhhh, that aroma. Lots of grapefruit, a little pine and of course a hint of that 10.25% ABV. The same goes for the flavor – lots of grapefruit, a little pine and a bracing malt backbone to hold it all up. The alcohol burn is there and it helps bring out some of the bitterness, but it also brings out some of the sweetness – both of the malt and in the citrus notes from the hops.
It’s remarkably well-made, and the ability to brew a balanced beer of that ilk and with such a high alcohol content takes a tremendous amount of skill. But, speaking entirely from personal opinion here, I could go my whole life without ever drinking it again. I don’t want to sound snobbish or like I’m better than this beer, it’s a damn fine beer – but it’s a Triple IPA. That’s a whole lot of flavor and alcohol to be the kind of beer that one can sit back and enjoy again and again.
However, I will say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was great to be around so many beer geeks, and it was great to sit down and try some new beer as well as some old favorites. I’m not sure I would have done that if it weren’t for Pliny the Younger, and for that I’m truly grateful.