I have been to hell, and they serve Pliny the Younger there.
Maybe hell is a little harsh, as there are certainly worse ways to spend the day than hanging around sunny Santa Rosa while waiting to sample one of the most coveted beers in the world. But my pilgrimage to Pliny was certainly a punishing experience.
This is the 14th year that Russian River Brewing Company has made Pliny the Younger, the highly-sought-after triple IPA currently ranked seventh on the influential Beer Advocate website. They brew a limited amount, and long lines form wherever it is served, whether at their brewpub in Santa Rosa or at beer bars lucky enough to score a keg.
My wife, Darcey, and I have sampled Pliny the Younger several times in the past, but we were always the beneficiaries of well-connected friends, and we never had to serve our time in line. Most beer journalists would lob a softball interview at Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo as a pretense to cut the line and get free pours. But rather than exploit my media connections, we traveled to Santa Rosa on Feb. 7 for the real Pliny the Younger experience, waiting in line like ordinary beer fans.
Huge mistake. Huge. The following is a timeline of our descent into the heart of dankness.
10:15 a.m.: We arrive in downtown Santa Rosa after a little more than two hours on the road, and although Russian River doesn’t open until 11 a.m., the line already has stretched around the corner of Fourth and D streets. According to my count, there are roughly 300 people ahead of us in line, and the brewpub operates at a 175-person capacity. I am not loving the math. After only a few minutes of standing there, dozens more have queued up behind us.
10:30 a.m.: A man in a truck cruises by and yells: “Drink Miller Lite. It’s cheaper!” We get the feeling this is neither the first nor the last time this week he will shout this exact joke. I wouldn’t drink Miller Lite if it were free, but with all the excellent IPAs out there these days, it does seem impossible that this might not be worth the effort. Will Pliny even surpass a beer like Fieldwork Tundra, a triple IPA that we waited in no line to try the previous night? It does not bode well that I am having these thoughts after just 15 minutes in line.
11:36 a.m.: The line starts to inch forward around 10:50 a.m., but we come to a halt almost a full block away. A Russian River employee informs us that they have finished their “first seating,” and that the line will not move again until the first customers start to trickle out. After the lines in previous years got out of hand, Russian River instituted a three-hour and three-pour maximum, but that means we are at least another three hours away from the entrance. I regret everything.
12:35 p.m.: Sun-soaked boredom starts to set in. It’s a warm and beautiful day, but it grows a lot less comfortable when the shadows disappear midday. We see a few customers exit the brewpub carrying cases of Pliny the Elder, but the line doesn’t budge. Still, the customer service is unimpeachable – they hand out free water and there is always a friendly person out front to answer questions, while another employee comes around every hour to clear the doorways in front of nearby businesses.
1:15 p.m.: Line rules state that you can take off if one person holds your place in line, which makes it smart to travel in groups, although single riders have the advantage the closer you get to the entrance. Darcey offers to hold our spot while I take a break, but I have already forgotten my life before the line. The line is all that I know now.
1:50 p.m.: Russian River is constructing a new facility in nearby Windsor that will increase both their seating and production capacity. It is scheduled to open in late 2018, so this might be the last year of these crazy-long Pliny lines in Santa Rosa. But the Pliny narrative is as much about rarity as quality, and while the system has apparently improved in recent years, it still seems like deliberate inefficiency and scarcity are used to manufacture the desired optics of long lines. The Cilurzos love to peddle anecdotes about best friends or future spouses meeting in line, but the longer I stand here, the more I feel trapped in a nightmare of their diabolical design.
2:15 p.m.: We see several people give up just steps away from the finish, and while you would have to physically overpower me to get me out of line at this point, I totally get it. Four hours in line, and we are still two or three dozen people away from the entrance. Literally nothing in the world is worth waiting this long to try. I have begun to accept the fact that I will die in this line.
2:35 p.m.: Nearing the entrance, we are standing next to the patio as a particularly loud group of older gentlemen gets seated. As they toast their first glass of Pliny the Younger, several of the men shout “Dilly, Dilly!” – a reference to a recent Bud Light commercial. Someone at a nearby table drops a plate, and the entire group shouts and applauds, finally breaking out in a chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Time to die now.
2:55 p.m.: We’re in! After nearly five hours in line, we score a two-person table in a corner of the patio, luckily on the opposite side of the outdoor area from the extremely sloshed Dilly Dilly group, who we later see out front aping Don Ameche’s break-dancing moves from “Cocoon” while waiting for their luxury bus to arrive. Meanwhile, it feels so good to sit down. I may never stand up again.
3:03 p.m.: We get our first pour of Pliny the Younger, colored cantaloupe gold with a thin white head, and emitting an aroma of boozy citrus, crackers and pine. Looking back at our notes from previous years, the 2018 Younger is darker in color and less refined in terms of flavor and aroma, less dry and more diesel-y, with a stronger sense of the double-digit alcohol content. We are relieved to receive our prize but agreed that it was in no way worth the effort.
5:05 p.m.: Neither of us used all three of our Pliny pours, and while it is indeed an excellent beer, the highlights of the day all came from the Belgian and sour flight that we ordered in addition to the Pliny. Still, for all the acute boredom and stiff joints that we suffered, it was a unique and unforgettable experience. Now let us never speak of this again.
Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, beer enthusiast and one half of the blog “His & Her Beer Notes.” He can be reached at email@example.com.