Rituals: Pliny the Younger

This brew is rationed once a year to craft beer fans. Want a taste? Get in line.

As a beer drinker and Green Bay Packers backer (my dad an “everyfan” who owns a single share of stock in the team), I sometimes enjoy popping by Hollingshead’s in Orange. There’s some fun Packers memorabilia lining the storefront deli-beer bar, and there are so many colorful bottles on the wall, it feels like a library of beer.

One February a few years ago, I was passing by early in the morning and saw a line of Apple-release proportions in the lot, at an hour when Hollingshead’s is usually long closed. Some in the line had lounge chairs and tents. I found out they were waiting all night in the cold for a single prize: one glass of beer.

The beer is the legendary Pliny the Younger—a fragrant triple IPA that the Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa has released in February for the past 11 years.

“The wait is kind of brutal,” says Harry Asher, a graying blond 56-year-old telecom engineer from Orange who holds the coveted title of Mayor of Hollingshead’s. He’s one of the regulars who keeps his own glass at the place. “You gotta get here extremely early, and I’m talking 2 or 3 in the morning. We’re old school.”

For beer diehards, a Pliny the Younger pour is near the top of the bucket list. The beer is complex, requires more time to brew, and costs more to make than most other beers. Enthusiasts praise it for its intense hops flavor and balance. There also are only a handful of beer events nationwide with anything near the same kind of cultish following. True enthusiasts make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives to Russian River Brewing to stand in line there and get the beer as fresh as possible. They can expect to wait 12 hours or more, sometimes in freezing rain—even though some brewers confide that Pliny the Younger actually tastes about the same later.

And here’s a little-known local secret: You can get it out of the keg here in O.C. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone, OK? Some of the restaurant owners actually told me they’d prefer as little publicity as possible. Because while it’s difficult to find the stuff outside of the Russian River location, there is, happily, an Orange County connection. A handful of local restaurateurs go way back with the Pliny provider.

Before they moved to the Russian River, the brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo (of the longtime Cilurzo winemaking family) was in Temecula producing a beer called Blind Pig, and that’s when some of our local restaurants started their relationships. And Cilurzo, who helped start Russian River, not only is making his beer, but delivering it. His brewery rolls a few kegs our way to reward some of its most loyal restaurants, and the restaurants in turn reward their best customers.

“People who don’t even drink beer have heard tales of this mythical unicorn,” says 38-year-old Gabe Gordon, owner of Beachwood BBQ restaurants in Seal Beach and Long Beach, which offer rotating craft beers and raffle a chance at a Pliny pour, proceeds to charity. “It’s become a cultural happening in the beer world.”

People begin waiting in line before 4 a.m. at Tustin Brewery, even though no one asks them to. And at Pizza Port in San Clemente, the idea is to avoid lines and wrist bands and keep it as quiet as possible—even so, it sells out within an hour, on word of mouth. I look for a few beer drinkers online who maybe aren’t so star-struck about the Younger Pliny. But they all seem to love the beer. This ritual actually seems to be more than just a beer happening.

“It’s definitely more about the beer,” says Orange Coast’s beer expert, Greg Nagel (orangecoast.com/booze-blog). “They’re going for the beer and also bragging rights to say they did it.”
Still, if I’m lazy, can I find anything similar without sleeping outside with a curb as my pillow?

“Triple IPAs are popping up all over the place that rival Pliny the Younger as far as flavor and quality,” Nagel says. “But Pliny the Younger has the brand recognition where people will still line up for it.”

So for many beer aficionados, Pliny remains the Holy Grail. Nagel bought more than $50 worth of raffle tickets for Pliny last year at the Beachwood event, and he didn’t get a pour, though he was happy to support the charity.

Other pours aren’t quite so hard to get. The Crow Bar & Kitchen in Corona del Mar keeps it low-key, informing its best customers, who usually take the day off work (commonly referred to as the Pliny Flu). They show up starting at 8 a.m. to wait in line to buy a ticket and return between 2 and 4 p.m. for their drink. Patrons are allowed to purchase two 10-ounce glasses, the largest serving I found.

At Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, Gordon initially did the same, offering the coveted Pliny pour to regulars. Then, he told me, “I got all kinds of nasty phone calls and emails about how unfair it was that we only hold it for our regulars.” He decided to offer the beer first-come first-served, but the regulars complained. He decided if he wanted to keep his customers, he’d open it up as a raffle—certified public accountants in attendance and the drawing performed live on a beer podcast—benefitting the national Melanoma Research Foundation.
Though tickets are sold only at the two Beachwood locations, the event has raised $40,000 since it began four years ago. “That’s a ton of money off a couple of kegs,” says Gordon, and I agree.

Gordon says San Diego is widely acknowledged as a craft beer mecca, but some of that is spreading into our county: “We have a growing beer culture in this county. As more breweries pop up, like Noble Ale Works and The Bruery, you’re starting to see the foundation of a great beer culture.”

Mike Hollingshead, the third generation in his family to run the business, agrees. “More and more craft breweries are popping up in Orange County. It goes along with the money here—people strive for quality over quantity.”

I guess it’s just another sign of our maturation as a county, one that some of us cherish almost as much as a performing arts center. The beer around here just keeps getting better.

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