Both highly sought-after beers from California’s Russian River Brewing Company are a deep golden color, and are loaded with hops (and alcohol), to be sure – but the differences between the two are rather interesting. They do, however, both share one common characteristic: neither one really lets on quite how potent it is, especially when compared to other imperial IPAs. But first, a little bit of background. Pliny the Elder, clocking in at 8.0% ABV, is nearly always available, while Pliny the Younger (11.0 ABV) appears but once a year, in February (and in rather limited quantities – which, of course, makes it an Event Beer).
While many beer/history geeks are likely aware that Pliny the Elder (the human, not the beer) helped inspire the scientific name for hops (quite some time before expiring in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and the often-overlooked Oplontis and Stabiae), it’s very pleasing that Russian River gave a little nod to him – such details are easy to forget, although there’s no chance of forgetting about the hops in either of these beers. The non-potable Pliny the Younger, namesake and nephew of the Elder, is perhaps best-known for writing about his uncle’s death – but he was a busy man beyond that, palling around with the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius, and traveling extensively. We’ll overlook the fact that both men probably considered beer something for unlettered barbarians – so, back to the beers.
Although it’s less potent, Pliny the Elder comes across as sweeter than the Younger; it’s something it shares with some of the better ‘special’ IPAs out there (e.g. Tröegs Nugget Nectar, Bell’s Hopslam), although it can certainly be said to have set the standard for them. It has a distinctive malt backbone, with a lot of biscuity flavor – yes, it’s hoppy, but it’s so well-paired with the malts that they just work together beautifully. Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA) is actually a little more subtle; it’s a much dryer flavor, and it hides its strength well; it almost comes across as something more in the 7%-8% ABV range. This is especially pleasing when comparing it to other beers of this alcohol content, which can sometimes be overly sweet (beyond intentional sweetness, that is) – the hops are still very much leading the way, but even they seem almost a little toned-down next to the hops in Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Younger is a deliciously deceptive beer – and ‘subtle’ is the adjective I keep returning to – it’s got every excuse to be over the top, but it keeps it all (almost) under wraps – it’s got plenty of fabulous hop flavor and a refreshing bitterness, but those aspects are not overpowering. It’s a surprisingly different beer from Pliny the Elder – I admit I expected essentially a hoppier/stronger version of that one – but it stands very much on its own.
Both are great, unique beers that live up to the hype in different ways – and both are worth seeking out.