Thanks to a good friend, I came into some Pliny the Elder over the weekend. For the uninitiated, this is significant for two reasons: (1) Pliny the Elder is widely considered to be the world's greatest India pale ale. (2) Pliny the Elder is not available in the Northeast. In fact, the beer -- made by Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif. -- is distributed in only one state in the eastern half of the United States: Pennsylvania.
Pliny is best consumed fresh, because its huge hop profile -- the quality that makes it so beloved -- fades quickly. If you can't get a bottle that's less than two or three months old, you shouldn't bother at all, unless you'd prefer that it taste like a regular pale ale.
Why am I writing about Pliny if it's not sold around here? Easy: If it's the world's greatest IPA, then it's the standard against which all other IPAs ought to be measured. Also, there are gray-market ways to obtain Pliny the Elder, so you, the beer aficionado, may want to know whether it's worth the expense and effort to get it.
So here we go: Pliny the Elder is indeed among the greatest -- perhaps the greatest -- IPA I've ever tasted.
Bright orange-amber with a creamy head, it has a big bouquet of an aroma dominated by grapefruit and pine. Bitter and extremely hoppy with overtones of tropical fruit, it tastes as citrusy as a beer can get. Balance is not the idea here. Pliny is a 100-IBU hop shower, a gigantic cone of goodness. I can't imagine a more perfect IPA. (Pliny the Elder, which contains 8 percent alcohol by volume, is usually classified as a double or imperial IPA. Russian River also makes a higher-ABV imperial IPA called Pliny the Younger -- which is sold only on tap and only once a year -- as well as a lower-ABV IPA called Blind Pig.)
But is Pliny so far ahead of every other IPA out there that hopheads should seek it out at all costs? I say no.
Sculpin, made by Ballast Point Brewing in San Diego, is very, very similiar, and it's distributed in Massachusetts, though it's on the pricey side, about $11 for a 22-ounce bomber. (Piny sells for about $5 per 16.9-ounce bottle in California.) Another complication: Ballast Point doesn't date its bottles, so you can't be sure it's fresh.
Lunch IPA, produced by Maine Beer Co., is also quite similiar to Pliny, though it's brewed in very small batches and can be difficult to find in stock. (More on Lunch tomorrow and in Saturday's 99 Bottles column in the Globe.) Two Vermont-made IPAs -- The Alchemist's Heady Toppper and Hill Farmstead's Ephraim -- are rumored to be a lot like Pliny, but I haven't had either yet. I will do so soon, though: The Alchemist just started selling Heady Topper in cans.
Are these beers Pliny? No, but they're close, and they can save you some hassle. If, on the other hand, you can get a pal in California to arrange to help you get some Pliny without violating US shipping laws, then that's a different story.