Localize it, pt. 3 - The Younger the better
Admittedly, I am not, nor have I ever been, a starry-eyed fanatic of Pliny the Elder. Despite passionate dalliances with the coterie of Russian River's offerings, including an ashamedly fanboy exuberance over any of their Belgian modeled brews, this flagship IPA has always struck a curious chord on my palate. Every year, though, along with the demise of the football season and the emergence of a certain gigantic rodent from the frozen landscape, comes another iteration, one that warrants a quick foray up through the construction equipment rental yards, cow pastures, and dreadfully vacant car dealerships that pave the way through southern Sonoma county: Pliny the Younger. And while I was boggled by the level of delusional clamor I saw - people literally purchasing hundreds of dollars of growlers (as it's on tap, and at the Santa Rosa pub only) with the intent on shipping them to folks outside of driving range - it would be untruthful of me not to admit a newfound fresh, starry-eyed fanaticism that it managed to inspire.
The curious chord at the heart of the Elder, for me, has always been its coldly sharp bitterness, an effect I'm tempted to liken to the experience of a morning gone frost-bitten on a subalpine camping trip, one of those places where despite the promise of a warm afternoon, the summer's heat can't compete with the barren cold that follows a cloudless night, forcing one to wake squiting into the sunrise, in shock. There's a quick, prickly forest bite like pushing past pine and fir, cutting needles unyielding in their harsh, scraping way, a somewhat masochistic thrill of taking a deep, bracing breath, calling it invigorating. It's enjoyable, without question, but for me it's enjoyable in the same doses and frequency as camping is. When my palate needs readjusting (to wit, the lupulin threshold shift), when something brisk and just a tad punishing will settle things, the Elder is as honest, fresh, and distinctively local as beer can get. But the Younger, perhaps thanks to the loads of collateral impact that come along for the ride when you try to amp an all-malt beer up to over 10% alcohol, all those peskily unfermentables, that richly complex malt residue, is a completely different beast, with a glowing core of mandarin orange and a strange insistancy, a strange permanence in the glass that just demanded extra attention and a bit more reflection.
Perhaps it was the way that despite its proximity to the most depressing day of the year, the sun limped along in the sky, hesitatingly keeping things warmer far longer that it should have, lingering stubbornly in a rusty sky instead of plummeting behind Inverness Ridge like it was supposed to. This stranger, stronger sibling seems to be wrought of a deeper, warmer wellspring, an effluent life of depth that's only hinted at beneath the frost of its paler brethren. Like an impossibly warm summer's morning, the prickly edges of those evergreen branches have been softened, revealing a greener, more floral side, dense waves of pollen alongside eager blossoms perfuming the air. It is by no means a "hot" beer, the alcohol level is dangerously well hidden, but has a warmth of balance and a restorative sense to it, a soulfulness. This is Pliny the relaxed, Pliny the assured. Any semblance of shrieking , potentially sharp, spiky edges have been muted and mellowed, peaceably calmed, allowing for a richness of essence that lends itself to the kind of deliriously overwrought elucidation that can only come with long, slow, ruminative tasting.
But there's something Italian here, too, I could swear. A connection to the bold digestifs of the culture that brought us elixirs like Campari and Sanbitter, the bitterness that lingers in the back of the throat made me think of Orangina, of a time before sucrose, a strange sort of parallel of being a child newly introduced to taste in five dimensions, and of being the overstuffed omnivore that I am now, settling back into the rhythms of the evening, full, fat and happy with a glass of something comforting and easing to accompany the darkening of the sky.
And soon it will be gone, fleeting, not worth trying to save and store and cellar (and pity those poor folks in far off lands with flat, lifeless growlers of the stuff trying to figure it all out while pretending to ignore the dent it's made in their credit card bill), but exists truly just an act of local beer done perfectly, in a way that no other I can think of at the moment sums it all up, the life out here, so justly, so well, all of it. A great reminder of how lucky we are, and for what's possible.