I don’t blog here very often about IPAs. There are a few reasons for that. For one, by the time I get around to talking about one, the keg’s usually already blown. For another, I don’t really feel like I need to open people’s eyes about IPAs; everyone already knows what they are. And finally, while some IPAs are certainly better than others, I think it’s safe to say that most of the IPAs you get at Bailey’s are pretty solid, often very good. Distinguishing one from another is certainly possible, since IPAs have a decent range of variations, but there are so many good IPAs available, that it is rare that I find one that is truly great and really worth endorsing here.
To be a great Baltic Porter, a great Pilsner, a great Oktoberfest? That stands out. To be a great IPA, it has to pit itself against so many other very good IPAs and somehow bring something new. How do you do that? How do you bring something unique to a style that everyone brews? And that most everyone at least does capably?
I don’t know. I have no idea, as a matter of fact. But every once in awhile, you run across an example that just makes you stop and wonder. What did they do differently? How is this IPA unique, and why does that difference improve it? And why hasn’t anyone else ever done this before? That’s what you should be asking yourself when you have a truly spectacular IPA in hand.
That’s what Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is like. As much hype as this beer gets, I’m afraid to tell you that it’s entirely justified. For the first half of a sip, you might say that it tastes like a very capable, very solid IPA, something along the lines of any number of other very nice versions of the style that you’ve had before. But at that half point in the sip, something changes. The beer that you’re expecting to finish kind of cloying and sweet, dirty and thin just doesn’t. It somehow balances, neither leaning too sweet nor too bitter. And somehow that last taste ends with a flourish, as if you had just started the sip rather than ended it.
What’s so intriguing about this beer is that it doesn’t rethink the wheel. In so many ways, it is a purely conventional IPA, but its subtleties, its balance, and its finish improve on everything that a good IPA would do. I think its name clues us into its intentions: it is an Elder wise beer, stuck in its ways to a certain extent, but more thoughtful, careful, smarter. It knows a little something about sophistication and craft while all those eager young upstart beers are just going crazy with random hops and hastily assembled recipes.
Of course, this is a beer that has just been pouring non-stop since we put it on. We had been after a keg of it for a very long time and now it’s probably going to leave us really soon. If you haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, you really should. I fear this Elder isn’t much longer for our world.