My First Taste of Pliny the Overrated

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.

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Categories: Beer, review

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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64 Comments on “My First Taste of Pliny the Overrated”

  1. Rob Crozier
    August 19, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    I was supposed to attend Philly Beer Week back in June – one of the main reasons was to finally get a taste of Russian River beers which are available there. Long story short, I didn’t make it but my older brother and some friends did and got to taste Pliny. The first question I asked him when he came back was “How was it?” – it was understood what beer I was asking about. His response wasn’t what I expected but his comments were similar to yours in that the hype was so great he was expecting the best beer ever and was disappointed. He felt that for all the talk, the beer was OK and that there other IPA’s that he’s tasted that were just as good and not as hyped. I still would like to try it if I ever get the chance just to say I did. Now that I’ve heard the comments of two that have tasted it, my expectation level won’t be as high and I may like it even more.

    • August 19, 2010 at 8:49 am #

      Yeah, with corrected expectations I think you’ll find it to be a serviceable IPA.

  2. August 19, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    How fresh was the Pliny? I’ve had it a few times in bottles and very fresh on tap in San Diego. Obviously the fresh version was just tons better. A lot of West Coast IPAs drop off quick. Sculpin fresh is the best IPA i’ve ever had but when I had a few older bottles it was just a whole different story.

    • August 19, 2010 at 9:22 am #

      I’m not sure how old it was, but it didn’t taste like an old IPA, so it wasn’t ancient.

      I would love to try it fresh on tap. Everything’s better on tap.

  3. mikemoriendi
    August 19, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    I think you hit the nail on the head Jim. I think it is a very good DIPA but it is by no means the best one I have ever had.

    • August 19, 2010 at 9:28 am #

      I think Pliny was the best DIPA out there once upon a time and I also believe it made a lot of other breweries try to make something close or better. It is still one of the best out there. Yes it was hyped, mostly because it was only available on tap for the longest time and only got bottled maybe 2 years ago? Hype does play a huge part in everything but damn I would love to have some Pliny in my fridge right now.

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:59 am #

      I agree with you Mike – there are better ones out there now.

      And by saying “now” I think Dave is on to something. Perhaps Pliny set a standard that other breweries have now matched. It’s to the point where it now comes down to preference, as there are a handful of credible alternatives to Pliny these days.

  4. threefrenchs
    August 19, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    Putting any beer in a top 10 or top 20 list is not what craftbeer is all about. The styles and variations between all the breweries is what makes craftbeer exciting. BUT, If you took all the double IPAs available and compaired them side by side Pliny would rate very high, that being said it has alot to do with enviroment, pairings and “expectations”. Yes, there are many West Coast style IPAs and DIPAs that would give Pliny a run. Me personally, I would never turn down a Pliny. If it is fresh, and better yet on tap…Awesome. Maybe I have bought into the hype, but Pliny when fresh is one of the smoothest DIPAs I have ever had the chance to drink. Is it my favorite…the fact it is so hard to get, that when I do have the chance to drink, I will go for it. In case you were wondering my Top 20 list has about 100 beers on it. Time and place, thats what it is all about.

    • August 19, 2010 at 10:57 am #

      You’re right on about time and place – we’ve talked about it on the site a lot in the past. Context matters.

      I would have Pliny again for sure – it’s a very good beer. It’s just not mind-bending. I think any beer would have trouble living up to that level of hype.

      My Top 20 list has 100 beers on it too, and I reserve the right to switch any of those 100 out for five alternatives depending on what I’m in the mood for.

  5. August 19, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    I could have written this exact same review a month or so ago. I had one that was about 2 months old (not ideal of course but not “old”) and I thought it was very good. But that’s about as far as I went.

    I followed it up with an Oak Aged Un*Earthly from Southern Tier which was about the same age and I thought that it was much better than the Pliny.

    I’ll definitely drink Pliny again but wouldn’t go out of my way to get it when Un*Earthly is so accessible for me as is Hopslam once a year and Dogfish Head 90 Minute if I run across the border.

    • August 19, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

      I agree Mikey – it was very good and I’ve taken pains to not slam the beer for being bad or Russian River for benefiting from the hype – I’d do the same. Why not, right?

      Generally DIPA isn’t a style that I go out of my way for, and it’s definitely not one I’d ever put in the number one position on my list of favorite beers. Dragon’s Milk has that slot, at least for now. It changes with my mood, which is the great thing about craft beer – there’s always something to suit your taste at the moment.

  6. Evan
    August 19, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    About 2yrs ago, I considered Pliny the “end all be all” DIPA. Now, it’s topped by several others. I think it’s a mixture of a few things: I think the brewery is experiencing growing pains with their new production brewery, I’ve noticed the latest Simcoe crop tastes completely different than previous years (and Pliny is very heavy on Simcoe), and a few other beers have come along and blown it out of the water like Black Raven’s Wisdom Seeker, and Laurelwood’s Workhorse.

    I have a bottle sitting in my fridge that’s been there for two months now. I just keep reaching around it for something else.

    • Don
      August 19, 2010 at 10:24 am #

      Better not reach past it too long Evan, as I understand it doesn’t cellar well.

      • Evan
        August 19, 2010 at 10:28 am #

        Sure doesn’t. I’ll get to it here soon 🙂

      • August 19, 2010 at 11:26 am #

        I wonder if folks are gunning for Pliny, trying to create an DIPA that tops it. I imagine they have a target on their back.

    • August 19, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

      And as for Black Raven… folks gotta come to Redmond to get some. 🙂

      Seeing that Pliny the Elder is rating quite high, and has quite a bit of hype, you can bet that other brewers are looking to make a DIPA. Will they get the hype? Probably not. But it still makes for great beer.

      • August 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

        There seems to be more and more DIPA’s out there (hello, Gunba!) so I think you may be on to something. If the “best beer in the world” is a DIPA, that probably motivates other brewers to make their own.

      • Don
        August 19, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

        It’s kind of like the Elvis of Beer. See Elvis was great, but he was also eclipsed by many other rockers to follow. But he was first, and hence always special.

        • August 19, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

          What about the Beatles?

  7. August 19, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    Jim brings the smack-down again! You alluded to some Jersey-available IPAs that were as good or better than P.T.E but (unless I missed it) didn’t mention them. Care to share?

    • August 19, 2010 at 10:25 am #

      I assume you can get Southern Tier Un*Earthly and Dogfish Head 90 Minute there, right?

      Those might be the two best IIPA’s I’ve ever tried…

      • August 19, 2010 at 11:46 am #

        Thanks! Yep, both are pretty easy to come by here in JRZ, I was just wondering what Jim would recommend over the Pliny.

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:45 am #

      The Un*Earthly for sure, as well as Avery’s Maharaja and DFH’s Burton Baton. And those are just off the top of my head. I also prefer a few IPA’s and pale ales as well.

      • August 19, 2010 at 11:48 am #

        Thanks Jim. That’s 2 for the Un-Earthly!

      • August 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

        I’d try the Maharaja as well. But you’re not a big IPA guy, so I think it’ll be tough for you to fall in love with a DIPA.

  8. Paulette
    August 19, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Glad you were finally able to try it, and I’m sorry it didn’t live up to the hype.
    I’m a big fan of Russian River Brew Co (in fact I think they are my favorite brewery at the moment) I live fairly locally and they are a solid brewery. I’ve never had a bad beer there and I’ve tried just about all of them. Now with that said I’m not a fan of all types of beers especially IPA’s and while I can appreciate a good one it doesn’t mean I enjoy it.
    I’ve heard that the Pliny the Younger which they release once a year (and sells out in hours) is the beer of all beers for IPA lovers but I think that any beer people talk up so much can never live up to it’s hype. I think their belgian sours are pretty amazing, but I don’t want to hype it up too much! If you get the chance to try them I hope you are not disappointed.
    Cheers!

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:49 am #

      I hear great things about Russian River, and based on Pliny they seem to make very good beer. I would love to try more of their stuff. It’s just that after all the hype, Pliny the Elder turned out to be just another very good beer, which was a disappointment.

      I don’t hold it against Russian River for benefiting from the hype. If we were hyped as the best beer and whiskey blog on the Internet, I’d embrace the title and try to reap all the benefits we could.

  9. August 19, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Fun to be able to sit down with you, Don and Rick to enjoy that Pliny. Thanks for including me. I’ll go on record as really liking the Pliny—for what it is—a piny, sprucey well put together DIPA. Front, middle, back, everything is about where it should be. You mentioned it was missing a floral note you like. I had Pliny the Elder a couple of years ago (my first) and I distinctly recall it having a bigger floral note than the bottle we had last Sunday. I’ll also go on record, as others did here, that if I had a bottle of Un*Earthly and a bottle of Pliny the Elder, I’d enjoy the Un*earthly more. Don’t get me wrong, I’d eagerly drink both. But I like Un*Earthly better.

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:52 am #

      It was terrific sitting down with you too, Chad. Thanks for buying us a few beers as well . You spoiled us and I’m not sure I had the chance to say thanks – things were a little fuzzy by then 🙂

      I enjoyed the Pliny too and wouldn’t turn one down either, but I’d probably go for an Avery Maharaja first. I bet Pliny would be pretty special fresh on tap. Maybe the floral notes would return.

      • August 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

        Fuzzy by then?! I left feeling pretty, pretty good just before 6:00. I heard you and Don we’re enjoying yourselves for another 3 hours or so! When you said you were a professional, you weren’t kidding!

        • Don
          August 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

          Oh Chad, those three hours weren’t kind to Jim. Not only could he not talk by the end of the night, annunciating was difficult too. Seems he lost is voice and his faculties all at the same time…

        • August 19, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

          All lies!! I couldn’t talk because I’m allergic to Idaho (what’s with that place?) and I wasn’t slurring at all. I was laser sharp the whole time. At least I thought I was. Hmmm…maybe I’m not the best judge here.

        • August 19, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

          Ha ha. Don took it easy but I kept trying new beers – always the explorer. I was shocked when he said it was 9:00. It felt like 6:30. Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

          And don’t try this at home kids.

  10. TrevorB
    August 19, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    I have always felt DIPA’s should be served borderline green. If your bottle had to come from california, I would venture it is to old. Served fresh Pliny is fantastic, although still not my favorite, if it can be had fresh, check out Ska brewing’s Decadent Imperial IPA.

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:54 am #

      The fresher the better for DIPA’s for sure. I also think that it’s not my favorite style, so Pliny probably wouldn’t be my favorite beer – I’m a dark beer guy mostly, but I do enjoy a nice pale ale or IPA now and again. The fact that I thought the Pliny was very good and it’s a DIPA goes to show just how well it’s made.

      I would love to taste it on cask!

  11. Don
    August 19, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    OK Jim, here is where you and I part ways…again. I thought Pliny was an excellent DIPA. I’ve had the Un*Earthly and loved it, Pliny was softer and I felt better crafted. I got some floral notes, but they weren’t up front the were layered in the flavortowards the bottom of my palate, but I got them. I loved this beer. Is it the best I’ve ever had? No, but as for the style it is in the top 5 for sure. I thought it was well crafted, subtle, and had a depth and richness of flavor that is pretty well unmatched by many if not all DIPAs. I would venture to guess it is pretty hard to make a subtle DIPA, but Russian River has done so, and that is worth some accolades.

    • August 19, 2010 at 11:56 am #

      It’s worth some accolades, and putting in the Top 5 DIPA’s available is fair. But best beer out there? Not by a long shot IMO.

      It would never top my list, as I’m not a huge DIPA fan, but it was one of the better I’ve had of the style for sure. But I enjoyed the Maharaja more.

      • Don
        August 19, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

        Avery makes great beer, and the Maharaja is awesome. I think I liked the Pliny better because it was less in your face, but that is me, and I know you are an in your face kinda guy… 😉

      • August 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

        I actually thought the exact opposite – the Avery Maharaja was a bit creamier and sweeter, and is how I like my IPA’s – fruity, not piney.

        It’s really about personal tastes at this point.

      • Don
        August 19, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

        No its not. I’m right and you’re wrong. 😛

      • August 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

        I know it’s your blog, too, but it’s MY post, which gives me veto power. So you’re wrong and I’m right!!!! Mwahahahahaha!

        • Don
          August 19, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

          I know you are, but what am I?…

  12. Don
    August 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    Hey, where the hell did you get that misspelled logo that you posted so prominently at the top?

    • August 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

      Ha ha – good catch!! I got on the Internet, which is always right – just like me!

  13. August 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I must confess a similar reaction to Pliny the Elder when I had my first–and to this point, only–crack at it in June in NYC. A very generous #brewyork’er (@thehopshoney rules!) shared a bottle with me and after that we split a Russian River Temptation and a Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. (First time drinking the latter two as well… can’t get any of them in my home state of TN) As you’ve said, the Pliny was very good. But the Temptation was a better beer in my opinion and the KBS was “mind-bending” for me and I don’t even typically like stouts as a style. I saved the three bottles from that night (dork alert!) but it’s the KBS that still makes my mouth water.

    • August 19, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

      I had my last KBS on Tuesday night and it was wonderful. Of the three you listed, it would be my fave, too.

    • Paulette
      August 19, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

      If you liked the Temptation you should try RRBC’s Consecration. Of all the RRBC’s belgian “sours” it’s my favorite, I think it’s the most balanced of the four (I think they have four, don’t quote me on that). But at $25 a bottle it’s a bit steep for everyday drinking.

      • August 19, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

        I think I require a sample first – I have a tough time spending $25 on a bottle of beer, but a sour? Forget it!

  14. August 21, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    I have the same sentiments that you do. When I had it and reviewed it on the site I was happy with it but not wowed.

    • August 21, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

      It’s definitely very good, and it’s might be a cool part of craft beer history. Lots of DIPAs have followed Pliny.

  15. Matt
    September 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    I had Pliny 1 week after it was bottled and I can tell you it was a phenomenal beer and definitely worthy of the hype. Maybe you just don’t like hops? IMO, comparing Avery Maharajah to Pliny the Elder is ludicrous. I’m thinking you may not be a big hophead since you said you like your IPA’s fruity instead of piney.
    The wonderful thing about Pliney is how balanced it is. It is an incredibly hoppy beer that delivers a clean, balanced taste that very few beers at this IBU level can provide.
    The only IPA that I ever tasted that I can say is comparable to Pliny the Elder is Hoppin Frog Mean manalishi Double IPA out of Akron, Ohio. (I have no affiliation to the brewery). Even this I place as a distant second.

    • September 15, 2010 at 8:50 am #

      Just out of curiosity, what makes you think the Maharajah comparison is so ludicrous?

      Also, one name I haven’t seen brought up yet (no doubt because of geography) is Bell’s Hopslam.

      It’s a for sure top 5 DIPA, probably top 3 and possibly #1 for me. It’s the one beer that I’ve seen consistently cited as better than Pliny by those who have tried both.

      Again, my Pliny was 2 months old so it wasn’t as fresh at it maybe should have been but to me Hopslam was much better it when it was a month old and even when it was 5 months old.

      • Don
        September 15, 2010 at 9:57 am #

        Geography is an issue, but I have to take this opportunity to tell you how stupid my brother is. Jim was in Milwaukee this summer and picked up two hearted and Oberon and New Glarus, and left the Hop Slam on the shelf! What an Idiot!

        • September 15, 2010 at 9:59 am #

          Don, you don’t have to tell Mikey how stoopid I am. I’m sure he’ll figure that out on his own.

      • September 15, 2010 at 10:04 am #

        You’re off the hook Jim. Hopslam comes out in January and even if you did track some down it would have been well past its prime (especially if it wasn’t stored in a cooler).

        But once January comes around, doing what you have to do to get Hopslam would be a VERY good idea 😉

        • September 15, 2010 at 10:24 am #

          Ha ha – thanks Mikey. My Spidey senses told me to stay away… 😉

    • September 15, 2010 at 10:20 am #

      I enjoyed Pliny and have had and enjoyed a Hoppin Frog DIPA as well. They are both very good beers that are a great pick when you’re in the mood for a balanced hop bomb.

      But you’re right Matt – I’m not a huge in-your-face hop guy, so this mood is a rare one for me. Nice insight. I like hops, but at a certain point they can overpower and ruin a beer for me. I think Pliny strikes a great balance here and is really drinkable for something with big IBUs, but I’d rather curl up with a barrel aged stout or ale.

      Where we don’t agree is that comparing Maharaja to Pliny is ludicrous. That’s a pretty strong statement, especially when they are both Double IPA’s. It’s akin to saying you can’t compare a Mercedes to a BMW. Sure you can, but if you’re a big Mercedes fan you’d probably think there’s no comparison, even when there obviously is.

      Anyway, it sounds like you’re much more into hops than me, so you probably can appreciate Pliny’s nuances more than I. I’d rather have a Dragon’s Milk!

  16. threefrenchs
    September 15, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    For those of you in SoCal, pick up a bottle of Knuckle Sandwich from Bootleggers Brewery (Fullerton, Ca). This DIPA is awesome.

    • Don
      September 15, 2010 at 10:08 am #

      That is what GABF is for! Looking forward to it.

    • September 15, 2010 at 10:29 am #

      Another one for the list. I’m sure at some point one of us will get a Knuckle Sandwich during the GABF. Hopefully in our glass!

  17. Ellis
    December 29, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    If you’re ever in San Francisco, Pliny the Elder is usually on tap at Toronado if you want to give it a try.

    • December 29, 2010 at 11:00 am #

      Pliny on tap would be an awesome treat, I’m sure. Now I just need a reason to go to San Francisco…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What’s the World’s Most Overrated Craft Beer? « Beer & Whiskey Brothers - August 27, 2010

    […] whined a bit lately about getting my fist taste of Pliny the Elder and being a bit disappointed because it didn’t live up to all the […]

  2. Drinking the World’s Worst Beer: Olde English 800 « Beer & Whiskey Brothers Blog - November 8, 2010

    […] like I was disappointed that Pliny the Elder didn’t live up to its billing, I was equally underwhelmed by Olde English 800′s […]

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