Pliny the Elder has long been the holy grail of craft beer, having been voted the Best Beer in America eight years in a row (2009-2016) by readers of Zymurgy magazine. It’s one of those beers we’d heard talked about, revered and casually name-dropped by other beer geeks, the way people happen to casually drop into conversation the time they met a celebrity. “Oh, I just happened to drop into this dive bar in LA to kill some time and there it was…”
We hated those people. Russian River are fiercely adamant their beer should be drank fresh and locally because transporting beers over long distances can affect the quality of the end product. They have a clear vision of Pliny the Elder and what it should taste like, which is a wonderful thing, really. It shows how passionate they are about their beer. But christ, it makes it difficult to get hold of when you live in the UK, some 5,500 miles away from the brewery in Santa Rosa, California.
It’s always been a bucket list beer for us. One we thought we’d probably never get hold of. We’d forever be left cursing those Pliny name-droppers while trying our best to appear nonchalant about it. It’s only a beer, right?
And then it happened. As fate would have it, a work assignment saw me tasked with attending a conference in San Francisco. I knew at that moment that I too was going to become one of those obnoxious Pliny name-droppers.
So this is my Pliny story. If you see me in the pub, feel free to stop me and tell me you’ve already heard it if you’re reading this. It’ll save us both time, and you’ll hate me a little less if you don’t have to hear it a second time.
Step 1 was research…
Where can you get Pliny the Elder in San Francisco?
There may be more than one answer to this question but we checked on Untappd and people were regularly checking it in in a dive bar called Toronado over a period of months. So it seemed like the safest bet.
The second step was actually getting to San Francisco. From Belfast, this involved a two hour bus journey to Dublin, then a direct flight all the way to SFO. It doesn’t really sound too difficult but it’s a 12 hour flight. Including the bus journey to Dublin, a couple of hours sitting around in the airport and the flight itself, roughly 16 hours later, we landed in sunny San Francisco, mid-afternoon.
Thanks to the joy of time zones, even though we’d been up all night, we found ourselves checked in to our hotel by around 4pm. We decided to go for a walk around the area, to get our bearings. San Francisco is ridiculously hilly; within about 5 minutes, we were knackered.
We were also baffled by the traffic light system – there’s no green man for crossing the road – cars can continue to drive if there’s no-one crossing but they’ll yield to you when you step out. If you’re stood on the pavement waiting, they’ll just keep driving so you’ve gotta trust them to stop, or you’ll be stood there forever.
We then accidentally stumbled into the Tenderloin, a neighbourhood known for its high crime rate and homelessness. I’ve never felt such a swift change in atmosphere before, as we moved from the gentrified Nob Hill area of San Francisco to the Tenderloin. We’d read about it in advance but to see it yourself is truly eye-opening. We didn’t experience any problems when we were there but we did see people picking fights and taking drugs on the streets. For two middle-class, pasty, white boys from Northern Ireland, it was both humbling and intimidating.
So our wandering around lasted about 20 minutes. Between the adrenaline rush of the Tenderloin, the ridiculously steep inclines, not to mention simply crossing the road, there was nothing else for it… we went to the pub. We didn’t go straight to Toronado, though. We were still trying to play it cool. It’s only Pliny, remember. Just a beer. No big deal, no need to name-drop it in every conversation we ever have with fellow beer geeks for the rest of our lives. Did we mention we were going to try Pliny?
Thanks to our research planning the trip, we knew the Mikkeller Bar was right on the edge of the Tenderloin, so this was out first craft beer stop on the trip. We’ll do a full post on our visit there at a later date but needless to say, it’s an amazing spot with some amazing beers – and the vibe inside the bar is a stark contrast to the neighbourhood on its doorstep.
Our next stop was Toronado. We got an Uber there. In fact, we didn’t do much more walking in SF after that, it’s very much a city for taxis, for all of the reasons discussed above. Uber was founded in San Francisco, which is one of the least surprising things ever.
Before we went in to Toronado, we stopped off for a slice of pizza at Mythic Pizza, right next door. We’d not eaten since the awful airplane food, we were a few beers deep and I was coming to the realisation that I actually had a work event to attend at 8am the next morning, so it didn’t seem like a terrible idea. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was the excitement of trying Pliny the Elder for the first time… but they were a couple of the best slices of pizza we’ve had.
Finally, it was time. Toronado is a real, dark, dive bar in the Lower Haight. There’s a bouncer on the door checking everyone’s ID at all times. We walked in, our eyes adjusted and we looked up at the tap list. It’s a tiny dive bar but they have 40 beers on tap putting most UK craft beer bars to shame.
There it was, like a shining beacon of light, first on the menu. Pliny the Elder. On tap. We pulled up two stools and perched ourselves at the bar. We weren’t sure how to pronounce it, does it rhyme with Minnie? Or with Piney? We mumbled some weird variation of the two at the barmaid. She knew what we were here for anyway, she’s seen the travelling beer nerd type before.
And just like that, there it was. Pliny the Elder for $6! An absolute bargain and we only had to travel 5.5k miles to get it.
What does Pliny the Elder taste like?
It’s the archetypal West Coast IPA – big bitterness, supremely hoppy, floral, citrus, piney and dank. The closest we’ve had to it in the UK is probably BrewDog’s Born to Die series.
Was it the best beer we’ve ever had? To be honest, it’s not even the best DIPA we’ve had. You’ve got to remember though that this beer has been around for 18 years! It was revolutionary and has stood the test of time amazingly well. Only in recent years, has it been surpassed.
As amazing as it was to sample Pliny the Elder on tap in Toronado – they also sell bottles of it to go. So we grabbed a few bottles to bring home with us in our suitcases, wrapped in underwear and socks to protect our precious cargo. Just don’t tell Russian River about it…
Remember, if you get to try Pliny the Elder too, don’t compare it to the standout DIPAs brewed in 2018. Think of it as a beer that transformed the beer scene in the early noughties, a taste of a snapshot in time when there really was nothing quite like it.
There might be a number of beers which match up to it now, maybe even surpass it – but Pliny is still one of the best DIPAs available anywhere, and Russian River have been brewing this amazing beer for coming up on two decades now, so give them the credit they deserve. Respect the Elder.
Have you tried Pliny the Elder? Tell us your Pliny story in the comments below!