The Land of Pliny

2016 Pliny the Younger logo

2016 Pliny the Younger logo

At 6:32 a.m. on Friday, February 5, I stood a mere block and a half from the magical Land of Pliny. It was barely light and 39o when I claimed my place at the end of a line that had started at midnight. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, as it frequently has in previous years.

Russian River Brewing Company wouldn’t open for another four and a half hours, but the queue already stretched two-thirds of a block and another thirty feet around the corner. We had journeyed from all over the country and beyond to the town of Santa Rosa, California for a single reason: Pliny the Younger.

I'm to the far left here. Photo courtesy of SFGate and Chris Preovolos

Pliny the Younger line on February 5, 2016. I’m barely visible on the far left. Photo courtesy of SFGate and Chris Preovolos.

One of the most famous beers in the world, Younger is available only two weeks of the year, beginning the first Friday in February, at Russian River and for a short period after at a few outlets in the Bay Area. Each customer is limited to three 10-ounce pours and three hours inside the pub, served on draught only, no bottles, no growler fills. RateBeer.com ranks Younger the fifth best beer in the world, while nearly 2800 BeerAdvocate drinkers have voted it number four and scored it a perfect 100.

Vinnie Cilurzo, me and what's left of a Pliny the Younger

          Vinnie Cilurzo, me and what’s left of a Pliny the Younger

Russian River co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo is the man behind the magic of Pliny the Younger and the brewery’s long list of award-winning brews, including Pliny the Elder, Supplication, Santification, Temptation and Blind Pig. He is unofficially credited as the creator of the now hugely popular and aggressively hopped West Coast style India Pale Ale. Younger, in fact, is a triple IPA, meaning lots of hops and an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 10.25%, similar to some wines. While one in four craft beers sold in the U.S. today is an IPA, one of the hottest trends is sour beers. No surprise that Cilurzo, also revered for his brews in that style, won his first GABF (Great American Beer Festival) sour medal way back in 2005.

Natalie Cilurzo and me after 5 hours in line

                         Natalie Cilurzo and me at 5 hours in line

Meanwhile, Russian River’s other co-owner and presdient, Natalie Cilurzo, also Vinnie’s wife, handles just about everything except brewing. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote asking about the organization required to carry off a Younger release.

“We start gearing up for Younger in September” Natalie replied, “starting with changes to the regular brew schedule. Pliny the Younger takes about twice as long to make as Pliny the Elder, thus tying up precious tank space. Our merchandise orders need to be finalized and placed in December. I’m busy with the public relations and communications aspect for about 6 weeks prior to the release. We hire extra staff, buy thousands of dollars in wristbands, pull an events permit from the City of Santa Rosa, and engage our neighbors early so they are prepared for the huge onslaught of visitors. It’s kind of like getting ready for a big wedding with 15,000 guests that lasts 2 weeks. Exciting and overwhelming all at once! Releasing Pliny the Younger has definitely evolved into something much bigger than just tapping a new beer on the first Friday in February!”

Security guards Damon Gault and Brandon Haberthur

           Security guards Damon Gault and Brandon Haberthur

But, back to the line. Unlike most folks, who had come with friends or family, I was dropped off by my husband, who agreed to make the trip to Santa Rosa but refused to stand in line hours for any beer. Not a problem. Up and down the line, neighbors got to know each other quickly enough. In front of me, Alex and Charles had driven up from LA the day before. This was Charles’ third Younger release. Both men planned to come back the following day for a second round in the line. Behind me, Erika and Armando had made the hour drive up from Oakland this morning.

LA friends Alex Gilbert and Charles Vallarta

                      LA friends Alex Gilbert and Charles Vallarta

The Cilurzo’s phenomenal organization was evident throughout the day. The rules of the game—“helpful information” on the website—had been posted weeks in advance. A shorter, printed version was duct-taped to walls every twenty feet or so along the line. Security guards strolled by every few minutes, chatting with the crowd while insuring people stayed well-behaved, didn’t cut in line or smoke, cleaned up after themselves, etc. The mood was so mellow that around 8:00, when guards announced folding chairs would no longer be allowed, I didn’t hear a single complaint as folks packed up and hauled chairs back to their cars.

Armando and Erika

         Armando Villanueva and Erika O’Bryan from Oakland

A few minutes before 11:00, whoops went up from the front of the line, and we moved en masse some six feet. Early on, the guards had told our section of the line we were around 140 people back. Since the pub and patio hold 134, we clung to the hope of getting seated on the first round.

Every three to five minutes, we’d lurch a few more feet and the excitement would build. Then, around 11:30, the movement came to a halt and our spirits lagged. With every person who walked out of the pub, many toting 12-packs of Pliny the Elder or Pliny the Younger gear, rekindled the hope. Still, the line didn’t move.

I was talking with a couple of guys who had flown in the previous day from Atlanta and not listening when a guard walked by saying something. Erika from Oakland interrupted, “They’re calling for a party of one!” I dropped my new neighbors so fast it was embarrassing. Two minutes later, I was sitting at the bar.

Bartender Michael May, serving up a Younger

                     Bartender Michael May, serving up a Younger

So was Pliny the Younger worth standing in the cold five and a half hours?

Absolutely. Without exaggeration, I believe it was the best beer I’ve ever experienced. The medium to dark gold ten-ounce pour came with a finger of head and a bevy of hoppy aromas—floral, piney, fruity, citrusy, lovely. The first sip was pure beer bliss. I swallowed and waited, savoring the tastes from six varieties of hops.

A beer with 10.25% ABV isn’t one you drink quickly. As it warmed up, the forwardness of particular aromas and flavors took turns on center stage. I asked two bartenders about the IBUs (bitterness measurement). “Off the charts,” both replied. An hour and a half later, after two glasses, I never sensed any harshness.

Janet Nunez and Nelson Rivera from LA

                       Janet Nunez and Nelson Rivera from LA

Nelson and Janet, seated on my right, told of leaving Los Angeles the previous afternoon and snagging a place near the head of the line just after midnight. The bartenders chatted with us off and on. All the time, I waited, keeping an eye on the man with whom I most wanted to talk. Nearly an hour went by before Vinne Cilurzo walked our way. I asked for a photo, which Janet immediately offered to take. Listening to one of the great brewmasters of the world talk about his notes and tinkering with his recipe year to year was an amazing experience. Then, I interrupted him as one of the best known beer writers in the country walked by–but I scored a photo with Jay Brooks.

Jay Brooks and moi

                                     Jay Brooks and moi

Seven hours after I’d arrived, I walked outside, carting my purse, backpack, jacket, an Elder 12-pack and a Younger t-shirt. With so much baggage and my husband pulling up to the curb, I didn’t make it back to say good-bye to Alex, Charles, Erika and Armando, who were still standing in the line. I hope they stayed their full three hours when they finally made it into the Land of Pliny.

Note: 2016 Pliny the Younger sales continue at Russian River through February 18.

Comments

  1. Janet Nunez says:

    It was so nice meeting you this past weekend! I must admit I was shocked to see the picture of Nelson and I on here, but appreciated none the less! We sure do look cute! We both hope to see you next year, hopefully you’ll be closer to the front. Stay in touch and stay safe!

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Hi Janet, thanks for making my party-of-one time at the bar a lot of fun. I really hope to be further up the line next time–but I doubt I’ll ever get there at midnight like you guys!

  2. Great adventure! I like all the photos of all the friends you made.

  3. Erika obryan says:

    It’s been almost 2 weeks an I just remembered to read you blog!! It was a pleasure standing in line with you an sharing stories. It was such an amazing experience. It was a little bitter sweet watching you walking into Russian River without your “line family” because we had wished it was us, but we knew we would get there eventually. We ended up getting in with the second group seating at about 2:15 PM & ended up sharing a table with Alex & Charles. And once seated couldn’t wait to take that first sip… It was amazing and well worth the wait. Thanks again for including us in ur story. Hope u see you standing in line next year… Maybe ur husband will join you!!

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Hi Erika, thanks for such nice comments! We really did kind of become a “line family.” For sure, we spent an unforgettable morning together!

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