Hype can be a fickle mistress. It can draw attention to something that’s marveluous and help it gain in popularity (like Seinfeld), but it can also create high expectations that, if not met, can drive people like me away quicker than you can say Battlestar Galactica.
I don’t go in much for hype. Just because a lot of folks love something doesn’t mean I’m jumping in with both feet. But I’m also not too cool for school, avoiding stuff many people rave about just because it’s too common for my refined sensibilities. If I like something, I’ll embrace it, regardless of what other people think.
When I got the chance to try Russian River’s Pliny the Elder I jumped at it.
Here is one of the most hyped beers in the world. It tops best beer lists, it’s hard to get, and beer nerds discuss it with a breathless entusiasm that reminds me of how my friends and I talked about Sue Gregorson in high school. Chances are you’ll never get it, but if you’re lucky enough to finagle a taste, it’s a notch in your belt that you’ll forever wear with pride (the beer, not Sue – but Sue would’ve been even better!).
Don and I were recording a podcast at Brewforia during my recent Idaho visit, and Boise beer guru Rick Boyd broke out a bottle of Pliny the Elder. It was a totally unexpected and wonderful surprise.
Now I’ve been in this position before. I’ve been handed tastes of Utopias, Tactical Nuclear Penguin and other “ungettables” that are the rock stars of craft beer. Experience has taught me that sometimes, as in the case of Utopias, the hype is warrented. It has also taught me that sometimes hype writes checks that a beer’s grain bill just can’t cash (I’m looking at you TNP). It’s important to taste these gems with an open mind.
In the case of Pliny the Elder, I‘ll say that it’s a very good beer and that’s about it. It’s a well made IPA that strikes a nice balance between malts and hops, but it also has a lingering pine bitterness that I don’t prefer in an IPA. Actually, I think another highly regarded pale ale – Bell’s Two Hearted – is superior to Pliny the Elder in a few meaningful ways. Besides being more floral and a bit sweeter, Two Hearted just tastes “special” to me in a way Pliny the Elder does not. Of course taste is subjective and your opinion may vary, but I was a bit disappointed.
So my verdict is that Pliny the Elder is greatly overrated. Not because it’s not a good beer, because it is, but it’s not a transcendantly awesome one. It’s very good, but it’s been handed a mantle of greatness that its flavor doesn’t warrant. Pliny the Elder wouldn’t make my Top 20 beers, forget the #1 spot.
So now I know what I’ve been missing and it’s not that much. There are a few very good IPA’s that we can get in New Jersey that I think are just as good as Pliny, maybe even better. I would certainly have it again, but Pliny the Elder is just another good IPA that has benefitted greatly from a lot of Internet hype.