Whenever I tell someone I drank 365 different beers in a year, there are two questions they invariably ask.
One is: ‘Did you get fat?’
(Answer: A bit, but I blame it mostly on pub fries.)
The other is: ‘What was the best beer you drank?’
On that one I’m always stumped. For starters, I’m too indecisive to pick a favourite colour, let alone a beer, of which I’ve tried hundreds. Secondly, the question could be answered any number of ways, depending on what they mean by ‘best’. Is the best beer the most technically perfect? The one with the highest rating on the internet?
Or is it simply the one that – for whatever reason – I enjoyed drinking the most?
By this stage, whoever asked the question has likely lost interest and started playing Candy Crush on their phone. If not, I might tell them about the time I tried The Best Beer in America.
In January 2012, when I was halfway through my year of beer, my boyfriend and I spent a few days in Los Angeles on our way home from a holiday in Mexico. I had arrived in the city with a very specific goal and, unlike the previous two times I visited LA, it wasn’t to meet Mickey Mouse.
Beer. Beautiful, bountiful, Californian beer – that’s what I had come to experience. With more than 500 craft breweries, among them legends like Stone, Anchor, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, for beer lovers California practically is Disneyland.
Naturally, I wanted to try as many different examples as I could safely fit into the three days, but there was one in particular I was seeking above all others. I had heard its name mentioned many times back home, usually in hushed, reverential whispers at beer geek gatherings. Apparently, the odd bottle had even been smuggled back to New Zealand, but everyone agreed it was best consumed fresh.
Pliny the Elder, named after the Roman naturalist who first gave a scientific name to hops, is a double India Pale Ale made by the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa. It sits at the top of many ‘best of’ ranking lists, praised for walking the perfect tightrope between bitter hops and sweet malt. On beer ratings’ website RateBeer.com it has a perfect score of 100/100, and members of the American Homebrewers Association have voted it the ‘Best Beer in America’ for eight years running.
Naturally, Pliny is hard to get hold of. Russian River brews it in small quantities, and this, coupled with the incredible hype around the beer, ensures retailers usually sell out within a few hours of getting a shipment. I’ve even heard of an insufferable-sounding tribe known as Pliny Hunters who will call around the liquor stores every other day, going from place to place and buying up as much of it as they can. I knew I never wanted to become quite that obsessive, but I was determined to taste Pliny the Elder at least once.
On our first night in LA, a web search for Pliny led us to the Blue Palms Brewhouse on Hollywood Boulevard (via one or two other craft beer bars that were en route, sort of). When we arrived, two big screens were displaying a list of twenty-four beers on tap. To my dismay none of them was Pliny.
‘It’ll be on later,’ the bartender told me, in the weary voice of someone who had been shooing away Pliny Hunters all evening. ‘You want something else while you wait?’
I ordered an IPA from San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. It was sublime. I made enthusiastic tasting notes on my phone and alerted the twitterverse to its greatness. Next came a Russian River Consecration, a sour ale aged in oak barrels with currants. This time I gave up on the notes altogether and simply tweeted a photo of the bottle with a thumbs up.
Finally, the bartender disappeared out the back and something flickered on the electronic screen above my head. I looked up and grinned.
Pliny was In the House.
Beer lovers will often talk about having ‘beerpiphanies’ – those eureka moments where you realise beer can do things you never thought possible. Beer can be sour! Beer can be smoky! Beer can taste like funky old gym socks! That first sip is the one you will remember forever, able to be recalled at any moment as easily as Coca-Cola or apple juice.
I had expected my first sip of Pliny the Elder to be one of those moments. I wish I could say it was. Instead it brought on another kind of epiphany altogether: the realisation that I was staggeringly, breathtakingly drunk. No sooner had the beer hit my tongue than the room started to forwardroll, my mouth filling with saliva in a way that can mean only one thing. I clambered off my barstool and lunged toward the Ladies, reaching it just as my first sip of the Best Beer in America made its unceremonious evacuation.
To say this story is shameful – especially when relayed to anyone in beer circles – is putting it mildly. Aside from the fact I had squandered a glass of Pliny, there is an unspoken notion among craft beer enthusiasts that we should never get drunk. Drinking beer to the point of intoxication (let alone regurgitation) is a sport reserved for the unsophisticated masses, the consumers of cheap pale lager who wouldn’t know a Belgian lambic if it hit them on the head. Never mind that craft beer sometimes has double, even triple, the alcohol content of those lagers, we are supposed to share our craft beer with friends, sip it slowly, and drink it with food. In short, we are supposed to know better.
These are all sensible guidelines to follow, of course, and most of the time I do. But as a fairly small person with a penchant for big beers, things don’t always go according to plan.
The next morning I got up, dealt to my hangover with a stack of pancakes drowned in syrup, and cabbed my sorry arse back to the Blue Palms. ‘It’s just something I have to do,’ I told my boyfriend, who was beginning to fear Pliny fever had affected my sanity.
This time I was able hold the golden liquid up to the sunlight, fill my nostrils with the aroma of grapefruit and pine-scented hops, and take a deep, long sip without provoking a revolution in my stomach.
It was Delicious. Dazzling. Easily one of the most enjoyable IPAs I’d ever had.
And yet… it was only a beer.
What had I expected? It’s hard to say. When I was a kid, someone told me that if a human were ever to see a new colour outside of the normal spectrum, our brains, unable to process the information, would simply explode. I’m not saying I had expected that to happen with Pliny, but I was hoping for something in the ballpark.
And that’s the problem with legendary beers. They may well be world-class, top-notch examples of their style, but they never quite shake your universe the way you hope they will.