The IPA -- a flavor-packed, hop-heavy middle finger to bland macro brews -- is America's best-selling beer style, which means that there's no shortage of terrific options out there. But even with the stiff competition, a few cult favorites stand out.
Heady Topper is the reigning champ of the East Coast. Out west, it's Pliny the Elder, a highly coveted heavy hitter that's generously dosed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops. It's made in short supply to keep bottles as fresh as possible, so the stuff flies off shelves while all the hazy hop flavors are at their best. The mouthwatering flavors packed in, combined with the rarity from Russian River's limited production and distribution network, has given Pliny a die-hard following.
Need proof? On Beer Advocate's list of most highly rated beers, Pliny the Elder clocks in at #10 in the world, and #4 in IPAs. That's damned impressive.
But the important question is: does it live up to the hype?
Appearance: Pale gold with great clarity and a low, fluffy white head.
Smell: Juicy, tropical notes burst out of the glass. There's lots and lots of sweet mango aroma, with a little bit of citrus underneath.
Taste: Unlike the nose, the taste is dominated more by bitter pine and floral flavor. There's a passing contribution of sweet fruit, but the biggest factor is the wave of soft pine and grass -- though it's not a palate wrecker like some other pine-heavy IPAs. Instead it's smooth and a little sweet, with a bitter and slightly astringent back end. The hop flavors cascade across each sip, without too much harshness.
Mouthfeel: Slick with medium carbonation. It leaves a slight bitterness at the back of your mouth, but is still fairly easy to drink for 8% ABV.
If you're inside of Russian River's distribution area, it's well worth tracking down. It's a terrific beer to be sure, and certainly one of the most impressive IPAs out there. The one caveat, though, is that there are so many similarly great IPAs all over the country that braving the black market of beer trading to check this one off your list isn't all that necessary. Make no mistake, it's a wonderful beer, but you can find others with similar pine-y hop flavors that are a lot easier to come by.
That said, it's still a delicious, powerfully flavorful brew that skews heavily towards earthy pine flavors but doesn't overwhelm with bitterness. There's more than enough interesting hop flavor to please any IPA obsessive.
If you've got the time and inclination to trade for some bottles, or to make a pilgrimage to Russian River on your next West Coast vacation, then by all means, go ahead -- it's a beautifully flavored, intensely aromatic, and all-around terrific beer, and is certainly one of the country's best.
Want some? Russian River distributes in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Philadelphia. If you live in any of those spots, plug in your zip code here to see if it's available in your neighborhood. Otherwise, you'll have to take to the beer trading forums.