First off, let me introduce myself: My name is Mike, and I have been given the dubious honor of being named Drunkspin's West Coast Beer Correspondent, which means that every now and then you'll see some writing on a beer that Will Gordon either can't get up in Massachusetts, or can't, like, get up in Massachusetts. In any case, I'm happy to be here, though my wife isn't sure whether the appointment better supports my passion for writing or for drinking—and yet what are answers if not an end to the far more noble pursuit of questions?
Now to terrestrial concerns.
Chances are that if you pay any attention to the world of beer, you've heard of something called Pliny the Elder. Pliny is a double IPA from Santa Rosa that is whispered about in tones so reverential you'd think it was hopped with faerie bones. (For all I know, it is; Santa Cruz isn't that far away.) Unless you live in or around Central California, Pliny is hard to find: Its brewery, Russian River, works at small scales and shows no interest in expanding. Until a recent road-trip stop, I'd only had it once, and remembered it the way I remembered certain summer-camp romances: sweetly and in passing, figuring it would never happen again.
But there we were in our rented Ford C-Max (a name we couldn't help but say aloud every time we turned the car on), pulling into the Russian River parking lot like we were picking up the mail. It was New Year's Day, and the wait for a table was about an hour, which felt heavy, so we opted for the bottle shop—basically a grotto off the bar's entryway, manned by a friendly-looking guy with a beard so large I had trouble finding his mouth when he spoke. I bought three bottles of Pliny and three of their Blind Pig IPA, as well as a small bottle of a Pinot Noir-aged thing called Supplication. (I regret not buying more of the sours, but have been having the same problem with beer that I do with books: I own more than I can reasonably enjoy.)
My sense is that most people think of the IPA as synonymous with the idea of craft beer in general. Friends of mine who don't care what they drink or avoid beer altogether often tell me that they're curious about craft beer, but find it "bitter" or "too hoppy," which leads me to believe that they're either a) drinking IPAs, or b) not sure what hops are, but have absorbed the word through conversation. Certainly there are a lot of bright, interesting IPAs out there, as well as a lot of clownish, pornographically hopped ones marketed to rec-room daredevils so numb that they need to treat beer as some kind of extreme sport. (I can't tell you how many times I've seen bartenders deal with a man who didn't seem to know what he wanted by asking, "You want something big? Something real hoppy?" as though they were selling red meat or those pewter testicles that hang from truck hitches.)
I mention this because for all its cult and myth, Pliny is a simple beer, archetypical for the style. At 8-percent ABV, it isn't light but won't put you to sleep, and has none of that heat or bitterness that blisters through heavier double IPAs. Poured out, it appears gauzy and orange, almost sunburst-like, with a fluffy white head. The feel is clean, not sticky, and the taste tends toward the piny and floral—instead of citrusy— end of the spectrum, though Pilgrims don't lie when they say that Pliny is almost spookily well-balanced, with no one flavor surging out in front. This is basically the Ramones of double IPAs: You explore it first as a touchstone, put it behind you as you get into headier territory, and return to it a calmer, less thirsty person who understands that perfection or anything approaching it tends to be not a matter of grandiosity or ambition but of quietude; of something done clean, done well, and done without fuss.
And while it's possible I fetish underdogs, I liked the Blind Pig even better. After months spent in the wilds of more overtly complex beers (saisons, sours, bretty things, and things aged in barrels), the idea of a regular IPA seemed almost regressive. Lighter in color, crisper in taste but just as full in body, Blind Pig is about as close as I can get to the mindset of retirees who've done basically everything they've wanted to do and now make daily appointments with the sunset. It is not the only beer I ever want to drink, but it is the beer I would drink if after that I could never drink another beer again.
I realize that all this makes me sound like a real Wilco fan, an arbiter of that rugged, no-BS life. (It is true that I am wearing all corduroy as I write this.) The truth is that I'm as curious about weird, exploratory beers as I am about humble ones, but I do think that Blind Pig now occupies a strange platonic space in my mind. It may not be the most fascinating beer I've ever had, but were I to be sentenced to death, I think I would ask for it with my last meal, if for nothing else to delay the moment by forcing the warden to drive up to Santa Rosa.
For me, the limited nature of things like Pliny and Blind Pig is both a turn-on and an annoyance. When they're great, I wish they were more easily available; when they're not, I chastise myself inwardly for getting swept up in the hype. Some of my favorite beers—Port Brewing's Mongo, Firestone Walker's Pivo Hoppy Pils, Saison Dupont—are available year-round, and at no real consequence, price-wise; others—like Zombie Dust—exist in my mind as apparitions, nodes of Biblically covetous feelings, a Consumer Product in all of the extraordinary ways Karl Marx feared, a thing to have in part because it seems so hard to obtain.
When putting the Russian River six-pack in the fridge, I noticed a thin line of border text on the bottles, urging you to drink them fresh. The text was written in comic sans, a font so artless that there have been several campaigns to ban it. The text seemed incongruous (a legendary beer stamped with a font whose every playful squiggle invites you to not take it seriously), and yet it also made a poetic kind of sense: It's just beer, it suggested, which it is. I drank all six bottles in about 10 days and enjoyed every one of them. At some point, I actually said wow aloud from my desk, prompting my wife to ask what was going on.
"It's stupid," I said, "but this Pliny is really good."
"You know it's pronounced Pleeny," she said, and I said oh, and we both went back to work.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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