SANTA ROSA – To encounter the legendary beer called Pliny the Younger, you need a plan.
Your entire day – maybe even your entire vacation – must revolve around getting the timing right. You will want to bring something to read while you wait. A magazine. Tolstoy, maybe. It all depends. But on the day you hope to taste this storied beer, served in 10-ounce pours for $4.50 each and limited to three per customer, you cannot possibly have other commitments.
You could be in and out of the Russian River Brewing Co. in an hour. Or you could wait, as many have, for up to seven hours, in a line that stretches down the sidewalk on Fourth Street, around the corner and into oblivion.
Due to the enthusiasm – no, the madness – that accompanies Pliny the Younger, an India pale ale that's available for just two weeks at the beginning of February every year, the brewery has had to post a list of expectations and rules.
Here, for example, is No. 6: "If you have a compelling reason for not waiting like everyone else, you will have to take that up with the 300 folks in line BEHIND you. Good luck with that!"
And so our day begins, with the sidewalk covered in early morning shadows. It is crisp and cold, yet Dan Stewart, who wears a beige driver cap and a white goatee, is thrilled to find himself second in line – an hour before the brewery's pub opens at 11 a.m. He and his wife, Jill, along with an IPA-loving neighbor, Joan van Rijn, made the 77-mile drive from San Francisco simply to taste Pliny the Younger.
Beer aficionados know it as a triple IPA – meaning it's triple the amount of hops in a regular IPA, which pushes the limits of flavor, intensity and alcohol content. The name Pliny refers to the Roman author and naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus – Pliny the Elder – whom many credit with having a hand in creating the botanical name for hops, a key ingredient in beer. Pliny the Younger is his nephew.
"I like hoppy beers, and this is as good of a hoppy beer as you'll find anywhere," Stewart said.
Later, he is seated at a table near an engaged couple, Rachel Andersen and Rick Young, who traveled 100 miles from Sacramento. They love the beer so much they named their Labrador retriever "Pliny."
On the other side of the pub, they might rub elbows with three men enjoying their 10-ounce Plinys, only one of whom speaks English. They are brewers from Japan, serious students of the craft who flew here specifically to be in the company of this thrilling concoction.
"It's amazing," said Koichi Katsuki. "It has high alcohol – almost 11 percent – but it's very drinkable."
"It's very flattering," said Natalie Cilurzo of all the acclaim Pliny has received. She and her husband, Vinnie, have run the brewery since 2003. Before that, it was owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars, which hired Vinnie Cilurzo to launch its craft beer business in 1997. In short order, the obsessive and talented brewmaster became the toast of beer fans, with his work seen as a major force in the rise of the craft beer movement.
"We're very happy that we make something that we love and that other people love," said Natalie Cilurzo.
So what's the big deal with this one beer? Sure Pliny the Younger has benefited from a good bit of hype, thanks to ecstatic reviews and the Internet. It's the kind of buzz that goes viral, with the tastemaker publication Beer Advocate pretty much proclaiming the triple IPA to be a perfect beer. That fueled the intense demand, one exacerbated by the ridiculously short supply.
Considered a seasonal beer, Pliny the Younger is not sold in bottles. You can no longer carry it out in half-gallon containers called growlers, not since the onslaught that began in 2010, shortly after the Beer Advocate's acclaim.
That February is remembered with a shudder by the employees at Russian River Brewing Co. Patrons were limited to four growlers each. Each growler cost $25. They got their max, got back in line and bought four more. Many then sold growlers in the parking lot, on Craigslist, on eBay. The going rate? $150.
Due to the limited release, cynics have accused the brewery of fueling the hype. But the Cilurzos insist that's not how they do business.
"Scarcity breeds demand, but this is not by design," Natalie Cilurzo said. "This is a seasonal beer. We're at capacity and we make as much beer as we can."
Asked about expansion, she said, "We don't want partners and we don't like debt."
The brewery is somewhat cagey about how it rations the beer, saying only that it cuts off service at some point each night so the batch will last the entire two weeks. Many have waited in line for hours only to be told there's no more Pliny – try again tomorrow.
The hype, the long waits, the obsession. It's all very real and, in this case, makes perfect sense. Pliny the Younger is impossibly, clean, crisp and smooth for a beer that's 10.8 percent alcohol. The hops – a maestro's blend of six kinds – offer a pleasing bitterness without being harsh or chewy. The beautifully balanced beer has an intense taste, but it's also subtle. There's a hint of fruitiness without being sweet.
This beer, like every highly regarded beer to come out of Russian River Brewing, reflects the skill and ingenuity of Vinnie Cilurzo, 42. Fans of fermented hops and barley worship him, though many may not be aware that he obsessively tweaks the Pliny the Younger recipe each year.
His Pliny the Elder, a double IPA that's distributed year-round in pint bottles and on draft, is also considered one of the world's greatest beers. In Sacramento, beer aficionados know who sells Pliny the Elder – and they know they have to act fast when there's a delivery.
At Taylor's Market in Land Park, the Elder is so popular that it's not even stocked where customers can see it. You have to know to ask for it. And if he's got any, Taylor's wine and spirits buyer, Richard Ebert, will bring out your limit. That's right – one bottle. Doesn't matter if you're having friends over for dinner or if you named your dog Pliny.
"We've sold it for about six years, but it's gotten to the point where we can't keep it on the shelf," Ebert said. "It's an interesting sort of cult thing, but everybody understands. It's almost gotten to be kind of fun."
At east Sacramento's Compton's Market, the limit is two bottles. It's gone almost as quickly as they can stock it.
"Typically, they are younger professionals. They usually know a lot about beer," said Tom Rusconi, a cashier. "I remember very vividly when we first started carrying it. When word got out, people would show up with coolers and try to buy out our entire stock."
A visit to Total Wine & More on Arden Way on Sunday found a hand-printed sign inside the front door: "Pliny the Elder is out of stock," followed by a frown emoticon.
Back at the Santa Rosa pub – bustling with energy and good cheer inside – the line grew and grew outside throughout the day. Dan Stewart cheered when he got in. Young and Andersen were thrilled. Last year, the wait was five hours, so they bailed.
"I actually took the day off work to do this," said Young with a laugh.
Across the room, Leigh Meyer, who works in the medical equipment industry, wanted to take a photo of his buddy drinking his beer, so he put his Pliny on a ledge near the front of the pub. He was savoring the moment, now that he was inside and could finally taste the holy grail of beer. But he was understandably nervous about taking his eye off his glass .
"If I set this here," he said good-naturedly, "will you promise not to steal it?"
The last day for the Pliny the Younger until 2014 is Thursday. If you miss it, the pub serves many other highly regarded beers with national reputations, several of which have provocative names like Sanctification, Perdition, Damnation and Consecration.
And for the diehards who wait too long to seek out the greatness and mystique of Pliny the Younger, there's no more fitting name than a seasonal beer the pub will release soon: Procrastination.