by Paul Deines
One of my first posts for Imbibliography was about the evolution of the Double IPA and its mad dominance over the American craft beer landscape. I named about 15 Pale Ales, IPAs and Imperial IPAs that typified the movement. I also listed 12 ales I’d yet to try, and I’m happy to say I’ve had the pleasure of tasting quite a few in the last couple months.
So today, let’s consider two of the better-regarded IPA’s out there, one an East Coaster, the other a West. Only one is imperial, but neither is especially light. Both are known for their drinkability and their massive flavor profiles. One sits near the top of both Rate Beer and Beer Advocate’s top beers lists. The other is one of those limited-distribution heartthrobs that vanishes from shelves as almost as soon as it hits them. I’m talking about Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder and Maine Beer Company’s Lunch.
First, the headliner: Pliny the Elder is brewed in Santa Rosa by Russian River, an off-shoot of Korbel (remember: the champagne’s not Korbel), and to a certain extent it is house that Pliny built. Brewmaster and owner Vinnie Cilurzo set out to push the hop profile of the IPA to a near-unsustainable level and temper it with the sweet malting. The result was a hyper-bitter beer that was nonetheless refreshing, and it became a sensation, first in Santa Rosa, then the whole of the West Coast, and now nationwide.
(It is Russian River’s most widely produced beer, but production cannot keep up with demand. You can find bottles along the West Coast, Nevada and Colorado. Kegs make their way to Philadelphia.)
The experience of drinking Pliny is probably improved by being ignorant of the hype. Not that it’s less than its reputation, but it’s not the mind-blowing experience of some of the other event beers (e.g. Westvleteren 12, KBS, Heady Topper). What it is a grand example of the IIPA, one of those category busters that inspire a community and becomes the template for a million imitators and embellishers. It’s the Pulp Fiction of beers.
Pliny pours a crystalline clear gold with a fizzy head. A whiff reveals the now-common citric quaff that denotes a West Coast-style hop wall. Grapefruit, mango, lemon-drop, and just a wee bit of those earthy notes. The taste is a shimmering blast of fruit-tinged bitterness, but this evenly subsides into the malting. There’s no battle between malt and hop. Pliny the Elder is probably the smoothest and most drinkable IIPA I’ve ever had. It’s light and charming, and the 8% ABV is dangerously masked.
Probably worth noting the bottle I enjoyed was about 40 days old. The label admonishes you to drink as soon as possible, but everything I’ve read says I’m safe as long as I stayed under two months. It’s conceivable the flavor would have been more robust right off the line.
What struck me about Pliny as I drank it was that it’s not go-for-broke gustatory napalming, like many West Coast IIPA’s. From the appearance to the taste to the medium-light body, the beer is clean and sharp. One can see how it’s taken a nation by storm and everyone outside the distribution states is scouring the web for a bottle.
Conversely , like a young fighter in the ring, Maine Beer Company’s Lunch is bravado and visible craft. No less balanced and drinkable than Pliny, it contains a more aggressive drinking experience.
Main Beer Company is fast becoming my favorite brewer. Founded in 2009 by David and Daniel Kleban, it produces only a handful of beers, but each is a marvel. The crown jewel, though, is Lunch, named not for the midday meal, but rather for a whale oft spotted of the coast of Maine. It pours an impenetrable copper with a thick creamy head. The nose is all rustic earth, and the first sip is an explosion of bitter pine balanced off with a malt not sweet but doughy. Mouthfeel is heavy, like seawater rather than cream. In short, this is a no-nonsense IPA that is utterly invigorating. To drink it is to know you are experiencing a new great brew.
There’s excitement in drinking Lunch. You can tell it’s a young beer reaching to the upper reaches of flavor, balance, and drinkability. Nonetheless, I wonder if being the new best IPA today is like being the new best big-band performer right before the Beatles hit. Beer lovers will always crave for hop bombs like Pliny or Lunch, but eventually brewers will turn away from them as a platform for experimentation. Already, we see brewers turning their collective attention to barleywines, saisons, sours.
But I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, here. My fridge is stocked with 20 pale ales and two gueuzes, so I know where my heart lies. In fact, I’ll probably crack another Lunch now.
PLINY THE ELDER (Russian River Brewing) – Available year-round on the West Coast, Colorado, and Nevada, on tap or in the bottle. Tap only in the Mid-Atlantic, mostly Philadelphia. Nothing in New York.
LUNCH (Maine Beer Company) – Available in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, year round. Basically from Maine to Virginia along the ocean. Happy hunting.