Becoming Pliny

How a limited-edition beer from a small brewery came to be the best in the world — and whether it's worth the hype.

An odd thing happened in downtown Berkeley last Friday, or at least odder than the kinds of things that normally happen in downtown Berkeley. Starting at around 4 p.m., a line began forming outside Bobby G’s, the pizzeria-bar on University just below Shattuck; soon enough, it would be out the door and up the street, and the crowd wouldn’t fully dissipate for hours. The energy was like something you might see outside an amusement park or a super-trendy restaurant: feet and iPhone screens were tapped impatiently; necks craned to see how fast the line was moving. Conversations moved between chirpy speculation and idle small-talk in the way they only do when you’re both bored and excited at the same time. They — we — were standing in line for Pliny the Younger, a Triple IPA from Santa Rosa’s tiny Russian River Brewing Company. Also, possibly: the best beer in the world.

Or at least that’s what BeerAdvocate decided in 2009, meaning this heretofore well-regarded-but-widely-unknown brewery in Northern California was now beating out not only all the big guys, but also the types of places where monks hand-brew beers out of, like, lily water and baby’s tears. It was at some point shortly after that, according to co-owner Natalie Cilurzo, that things started to get crazy for Russian River: The brewery soon became inundated with acolytes — some traveling from as far as Japan and Denmark — all itching to get some Pliny the Younger. It wasn’t long before Russian River was forced to ban growlers because too many people were trying to hoard the beer. These days, it’s distributed — via kegs only — for less than a month each year, beginning the first Friday in February, at Russian River’s low-slung, warehousey Santa Rosa brewpub and in small quantities at select bars throughout the Western US thereafter. Most kegs go in less than a day and many go in less than an hour.

For her part, Cilurzo sounded some combination of embarrassed and awestruck when describing the phenomenon over the phone last week: “We’re just happy so many people like our beers,” she said. “It’s flattering, and it’s exciting.” It’s also quite the object lesson as to how a beer can get launched to cult status — especially without the welter of, say, a massive marketing team, or even the active participation of the people making it. “It’s funny; it’s become sort of a collector’s item,” offered Steve Shapiro of the (fantastic) blog Beer by BART, who waited in a four-hour line for the beer’s proper release at Russian River a couple weeks ago. “I think it’s a combination of it being a great beer and a very limited quantity.”

The quality is Russian River’s own doing, as is the limited run (Pliny contains triple the hops of the brewery’s standard IPA, and as such, it’s expensive and labor-intensive to make), but the hype is entirely the product of external buzz. Cilurzo and her partner do what they can to manage the insanity, but at their core, they’re a small, local brewery, unprepared — and, it seems, uninterested — in becoming much more than what they are right now. But as food-chatter blogs in general gain currency and beer continues to be elevated from its frat-boy depths to its crafty-goodness heights, there’s more room — virtual, metaphorical, and, outside Bobby G’s on Friday, physical — for people to get excited about this stuff. Buzz has a way of multiplying and magnifying itself, and scarcity is perhaps the world’s oldest and best driver of interest. So here we are, and there I was: late afternoon on a cold and overcast and thoroughly Februaryish day, standing outside Bobby G’s. “I really underestimated what this meant to people,” a bespectacled Berkeley undergrad marveled to his bros. Indeed.

The keg was to be tapped at 5 p.m. By 4:30, the line snaked up University and onto Shattuck; passersby tended either to gawk, giggle, or simply ask what was going on, after which they would commence with the gawking and/or giggling. Because, yes, if we’re thinking about this objectively, it is patently ridiculous to stand outside in the cold for hours during the workday just for the privilege of buying a glass of beer, best in the world or not. (As Shapiro said: “As a phenomenon, it’s both interesting and disturbing.”)

But we’re not, obviously, thinking about this objectively. We call people fans because they’re fanatical. In that sense, waiting all year for a beer isn’t so different from standing in line for a concert or a restaurant or an iPad. (Or, put in context another way: The line at Bobby G’s on Friday was only slightly longer than the line at Cheeseboard every day.) And at the same time, as beer has only recently become trendy, there’s something satisfying about brewmasters — usually bearded and rubber-booted, typically rooted in working-class and craft traditions rather than money and flash — being treated as minor celebrities, and of keg-tappings being treated like record releases (in the pre-leak era, at least).

It was around 5:45 that I finally got mine, in a dainty ten-ounce glass and for a totally-not-insane $6. The taste was just as I’d heard it described: malty-hoppy-piney-almost perfect, bitter but not overwhelmingly so, exceptionally balanced, and, at nearly 11 percent ABV, deceptively strong. I don’t know if it was the best beer I’ve ever tasted — drinking a lot and remembering what you’re drinking tend to be at odds with each other — but it was really truly very good. Next year, if you’ve got the time, you should try it.

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