From the Cellar: Sour in the Rye

A few years ago, I decided to store a handful of bottles that I wasn’t quite ready to drink in my parents’ wine cellar. I knew that some beers got better with age but had never experienced a vintage beer before. The bottles I placed in there were Victory at Sea from Ballast Point, Avery Czar Imperial Stout, Firestone Walker Sucaba Barleywine, Russian River Consecration, and Russian River Supplication. Of these original five beers, the Sucaba is the only one I have yet to drink, and I don’t think I plan to anytime soon. At first, I slowly added to the collection, sending a beer or two back with my dad every month when he would head home for the weekend after working the week in Southern California. Eventually I started drinking more aged beer through the avenues of bottle shares and bars like Beachwood BBQ hanging on to kegs of imperial stouts and barleywines for a couple years before tapping them.

The Original Lineup

The page really turned when I started to drink what I’d left in the cellar. The first was the Avery Czar, which after a year had mellowed out considerably, allowing the alcohol to come across as sweet instead of hot. I was convinced. Since then, most of my bottle purchases are actually intended to go into the cellar, which is conveniently located 200 miles away at my parents’ house to minimize the risk of me drinking something too soon. I have about 80 bottles in the cellar right now and try to have them organized mostly by type. I have two cases of nothing but sour beer, a case of all stouts, a cupboard filled with Trappist ales, and a box with twelve different Firestone Walker beers. On my first ever visit to The Bruery in Orange County, I was blown away and left with a bottle of Sour in the Rye, which I figured I would save for a special occasion, and into the cellar it went.

Recently, my brother and I were at our parents’ house for Easter and had a Sunday filled with delicious food and great wine. At the end of the day, Kyle suggested grabbing a beer from the cellar. In one of those moments where the subconscious mind makes a decision before the conscious mind even realizes what’s going on, I said “How about that Sour in the Rye I’ve been saving?” The bottle was eighteen months old at this point and I guess I instinctively knew it was time to drink it. Being in the wine industry, Kyle knows many people with incredible wine collections and unsurprisingly, most of them have wines they are saving for special occasions. Many of my friends with great beer cellars say the same thing. The problem is that after a certain point, we get afraid to open the bottles we’ve collected. I’ve done it myself and I’m sure there’s some principle of psychology in the same realm as why people hoard that explains it. Basically, after holding on to something for awhile, we tend to overvalue it and don’t want to “waste” it by drinking it at the wrong time. Many of these bottles (of beer or wine) are irreplaceable and once they’re gone, they’re gone. This leads to two problems: holding on to something for too long that it passes its prime and building up unrealistic expectations of how good it’s supposed to be. So, if you’re saving a bottle of beer or wine for the perfect moment, take my brother’s advice: “Don’t wait for the perfect event to open a special bottle; opening that bottle IS the event.”

Cellared to Perfection

So, we opened the Sour in the Rye and poured it into wine glasses. I’m personally of the opinion that good things happen when beer is brewed with rye and this beer is the perfect example of why I feel that way. According the Bruery, they use 40% rye for their base malt and it shines through with a lightly spicy aroma. On the nose, I also got notes of apricot and sour cherries and some tart funkiness. While the flavors are not quite as bright on an aged bottle, I found them to be more complex, taking on stronger fruit flavors. When I get the taste of stone fruits like apricot and nectarines on the palate, along with under ripe strawberries, in a beer that has no fruit added, I am very impressed. The beer also had a refreshingly sour acidity with a mouth-watering aspect that suggests taking another sip is not such a bad idea. Savoring a beer like this was an event in and of itself, and I’m really glad that I wasn’t afraid to open it this time around (there have been other instances in the past when I felt it wasn’t the right time). Beer was meant to be enjoyed, so by all means, enjoy it!

In Search of Pliny

Drinking before noon is something usually reserved for holidays, brunches, and college football tailgates. Yet it’s a Monday morning in February and here I am, sipping a beer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Five hours ago I was waking up earlier than usual, having set the alarm and backup alarm generally reserved for situations of grave importance. I rummaged through my closet to find my Russian River t-shirt, because today I was getting the much-sought-after Pliny the Younger and I had to prove to everyone else in line that I was a fan of the brewery by wearing a shirt; waiting hours for a beer they brewed would not be enough. When I got in my car, still groggy from my early rise, I had a moment of panic when I saw that my low fuel light had come on just halfway down my own street. I had roughly twenty miles of range left and Hollingshead’s Deli, in Orange, was eighteen miles away. There was no time to stop for gas—every minute counted. My goal was to arrive at Hollingshead’s just before 8:00 AM so I would wait for about two hours and get Pliny the Younger at 10:00 when they opened. I pulled into their parking lot out of breath and nearly out of gas and saw that the line already wrapped around the building. So I jumped out and speed walked to the back of the line and began to wait.

Clear skies, full mugs, can’t lose.

It takes a special kind of person to wait hours in line for twelve ounces of a beer and looking around me I saw that such a person isn’t so hard to define. Most likely he (yes, he) is a 24-35 year old Caucasian or Latino with some combination of a beard, a brewery t-shirt, and a friend who fits the same description. Hollingshead’s graciously partnered with a local donut store and a Starbucks to provide free donuts and coffee to Pliny’s devotees while they waited for the golden suds. I gathered, from both walking to get donuts and some mindless time-passing ambling, that there were different tiers of beer fandom that comprised the line. I heard chatter from newcomers asking about sours, midrange beer fans bragging about other rare beers they had gotten their hands on, and seasoned aficionados discussing their latest trade hauls and comparing homebrewing notes.

I convinced my friend Jeff, who lives around the corner from this deli and loves drinking beer but not overanalyzing it, that he should wait in line with me and sample the flavors of this rare nectar. Unfortunately for both of us, Jeff and I had forgotten to bring chairs, books, a deck of cards, and iPads that other denizens of the line had remembered. We resorted to good old-fashioned conversations and met our neighbors, and before we knew it, four hours had passed. Wave after wave had been admitted into the deli, and upon seeing a larger group leaving, I knew Pliny was only moments away. I should now mention that I have had Pliny the Younger once before: two years ago, I drove over two hours with my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day to get a mere five ounces of it just before the keg kicked. Being patient, understanding, and a lover of hops herself, my girlfriend was okay with how we spent that February 14th. Yet my last impression of the beer was that it was great, but not phenomenal. And having it alongside Pliny the Elder, I actually preferred the double IPA to the much-rarer triple. Really thinking back, I even remember saying I would not go out of my way to get Pliny the Younger again. But here I was, on the tail end of a four-hour wait, about to drink a 11% ABV beer before noon.

Jeff agreeing with me.

The beer poured an extremely clear light golden color into a special “Hollingshead’s Deli Presents Pliny the Younger” twelve-ounce mug. I smelled it for a good minute before I took a sip. Its aroma was present from the moment the beer left the tap—a wave of pine and citrus that could have convinced me I was holding a grapefruit in the middle of a forest. When I finally did allow myself to try some, I quickly noticed how precisely the flavor followed the nose. It was wonderfully piney, with nice mid-palate sweetness from the heavy malt bill (beer doesn’t get to 11% ABV without some help from fermentable sugars), and a long-lingering aftertaste of pine sap and resin. The carbonation was flawless and the tiny bubbles contributed a great mouthfeel that really helped the flavors dance around on the tongue. The alcohol was nearly undetectable and the beer seemed to leave a resiny stickiness in my mouth that encouraged another sip. This was a damn good beer. Jeff seemed to agree with me.

The famed nectar.

Pliny the Younger season is now behind us and another chance at tasting the rare beer is another year away. With that said, is it worth it? Is it the best beer ever? What have I learned upon my second encounter? My honest opinion is that no, it is not worth it. It’s hard for any beer to live up to the hype of waiting hours and hours for a chance at a few sips. It is not the best beer ever as far as I’m concerned. I do not even think it’s the best IPA that Russian River brews. At the end of the day, beer is subjective and if I had the choice between Pliny the Younger or Pliny the Elder (a mere 8% ABV) for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the Elder. To me, Pliny the Elder is a more balanced beer with a refreshing quality that the Younger (probably intentionally) lacks. Many bars do not want to create a whirlwind hoopla around the beer, and quietly tap it so that regulars can enjoy it without the chaos found elsewhere. Others sell raffle tickets for a chance at a pint in order to raise money for charity. In the future, I vow not to get swept up in the hype and if I’m to drink this beer again, it will be through one of these two avenues. That is, of course, unless time changes my perception of how good it is and I convince myself to do this all over again next year. If that happens, please find me and show me this post.

Is it worth the wait? Are there better Triple IPAs out there? Share your thoughts in the comments!