Finally, the Younger
Every March, the most sought-after beer in Oregon is an amber-hued ghost in the night from California.
Mention “Pliny the Younger” to any serious beer geek, and their hair will stand on end. Those who’ve enjoyed Russian River Brewing Company’s triple IPA speak of it with hushed, reverential tones, the kind of soft-spoken admiration usually reserved for distinguished statesmen and religious leaders. Oregon’s vaunted craft brewers churn out similar beers that inspire fervor among beer aficionados, but few have produced something so crisp, clean, and smooth.
Pliny kegs arrive at a handful of Portland beer bars each spring, inspiring a Phish-like cult to pursue the beer’s decadent, pine-inspired flavor. Some bars sell tickets to Pliny tastings that sell out in minutes and draw lines around the block, but most advertise it until the keg runs dry after three or four hours. A few years ago, one pub quietly tapped the keg but listed it as a shitty macro lager on the menu, letting investigative beer geeks figure it out.
Pliny the Younger, along with Russian River’s double IPA — Pliny the Elder, natch — is nigh impossible to find without an event ticket or silly luck. The second Pliny appears on a local beer bar’s Twitter feed, I assume the keg will have blown by the time I arrive.
This pattern repeated itself for years. I fell victim in 2014 to a few cases of wrong place/wrong time misfortune, and food poisoning left me bedridden in 2015. Unbridled hope yielded, time and time again, to a crushing realization: Perhaps I’m not meant to enjoy Pliny the Younger. It’s fine, I’d tell myself after yet another bitter disappointment, it’s just beer.
Naturally, my interest piqued when Portland’s Green Dragon Bistro and Pub advertised a $30 event this March that promised tastes of both Plinys. I called the bar immediately after seeing the event in my Facebook newsfeed, hoping to finally cash in my golden ticket. I breathlessly redialed after getting voicemail the first few attempts — I sensed the event’s limited capacity filling with every ring — and relaxed only after a helpful employee granted me access to this one-night-only speakeasy.
Here in line, my friend Phil and I marvel at Pliny the Younger’s rare public appearance. At this point, the beer possesses a quality like a reclusive star spotted in public. Once at the bar, I expect it to have been brewed with unicorn tears or fermented with yeast strains culled from Sasquatch hair. A brief disappointment overtakes me when D.B. Cooper himself doesn’t pull the Pliny tap behind the bar.
The bearded bartender slowly pours Pliny the Younger into a four-ounce glass. Insisting I get my money’s worth, he lets the few millimeters of foam dissipate — really, the head is no thicker than a shoelace — before one last tug on the tap fills my diminutive glass to the brim.
Beers in hand, Phil and I walk to a table near the front door while “In the Air Tonight” saunters into my headspace: “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh lord.”
Phil takes a sip, purses his lips, pinches his eyes shut, and shakes his head like a Pearl Jam fan lost in one of Mike McCready’s soaring, ethereal guitar solos. A few seconds later, he lets out a guttural sigh, deeply satisfied. This is a ‘stare in your glass’ beer, he says.
My curiosity piqued, I take a drink three years in the making.
I expect a hop bomb to explode upon impact, given its abrasive IBU count (90) and dangerously high ABV (10.25%), leaving behind the charred remains of my palate where functioning taste buds once sat. Hop resin and stray stems should float about the glass, and the face-puckering bitterness should overwhelm anything else I eat today.
But the expected burning sensation never arrives; in its place, a succulent, pine-tinged smoothness gives way to the slightest whiff of citrus. The full-bodied beer never launches an all-out assault on my tastebuds; rather, it ambles in and gives them a juicy massage. Far from picking hops out of my teeth, I taste a midsummer sunset on the Oregon Coast. I taste a night under the stars in a remote forest. I taste my first kiss, a cool drink of mountain river water, a springtime rain shower. I taste the hype.
A slight hoppy taste dances its way onto my tongue.
I savor every sip, but four ounces lasts about as long as one would imagine. Pliny the Younger disappears the same way it arrived. Quickly. No longer do I wonder what next spring will taste like. I know, and I miss it already.
Without a word, Phil and I go back to the bar for our next beer.