How Pliny the Elder Became the Best Beer in America

In Naturalis Historia, Vol. VI CB, Pliny the Elder wrote, “In these matters, the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

How ironic then, that Russian River Brewing Co.’s famed imperial IPA, named after the abovementioned Roman philosopher, has by all accounts been certainty in a bottle for several years.

Because “certainty” isn’t exactly quantifiable, consider: for the sixth consecutive year, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder has been voted the best commercial beer in the country by members of the American Homebrewers Association. There were more than 1,600 breweries represented in Zymurgy Magazine’s most recent poll, but Pliny continued its reign, edging passed distinguished peers like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (second place) and The Alchemist’s Heady Topper (fifth place).

So how does the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based brewery ensure Pliny remains worthy of its cult-like following, particularly when making a beer that meets outsider standards year after year? Brewbound called up owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo to find out.

The following is a condensed version of the conversation.

Q: Pliny was just voted for the sixth straight year as the best commercial beer in America. What do you make of all that?

A: It’s definitely flattering and humbling, particularly because there’s so many great IPAs these days. We sell the majority of Pliny the Elder at our own brewpub. Although some of it does get out to distribution, the fact of the matter is, most people buying it are buying it from our pub. There are a lot of people traveling to Sonoma County to buy our beer.

Q: What do you attribute the success of the beer to?

A: We definitely have a focus on our lab. I’m a firm believer that a brewery should really run through the lab from a [Quality Assurance] and a [Quality Control] standpoint, both again for consistency and also just quality assurance. We taste it a lot. We look at the numbers analytically.

I think one of the main things, and this may be veering off a little bit, but one of the things that has continued to keep Pliny the Elder at a higher standard and make it better, we’ve just become better at selecting the hops we want. We know now what exactly we’re looking for in the hops. Not just for Pliny, but for all of our beers.

Simcoe is the main hop in Pliny the Elder, so when we’re selecting Simcoe, we think about it from a Pliny the Elder standpoint. How it falls into the other beers, is kind of secondary.

Q: What measures are in place to ensure the beer tastes how it’s supposed to by the time it gets to the consumer?

A: We can easily measure the original gravity, final gravity, and match those numbers from batch to batch and have an end goal in mind. But when it comes to the aroma and flavor, that’s something we, at Russian River and 99.99 percent of all other breweries in America, can’t do. We don’t have the lab equipment to break down the oil compounds in the beer and put them into a quantifiable number. A lot of times, it really does come down to just sensory—your nose, your palate. At the end of the day, that’s still, at least in my mind, the best way.

With Pliny and any beers that we do distribute—we have all cold storage here. We ship cold, all of our distributors, we have it written into our distributor contracts that they have to store it cold.

Every account we deliver to in North Bay where we do our own distribution, every account we sell to sells the beer off the cold shelf. We’re not na├»ve enough to think every account does, but that’s one of the things we work on.

Q: How do you keep it consistent?

A: It’s nothing different than what any other brewery does to keep consistency in a beer. It’s making sure all the brewers are doing things in the exact same way. No one making a slight variance batch to batch. The brewers need to understand that we’re trying to make a consistent product here.

I know that we’re really lucky to have a cult following for a beer. We really try to instill that in our staff. People come a long way, folks are coming a long ways and the beer needs to be at the highest quality.

Q: What are the current challenges you’re facing as a company?

A: We’re out of space at both of our breweries so there isn’t much wiggle room there. We’re working on ways to better manage the cellar, to try to squeeze an extra brew in there if we can. We’ve never been the type of brewery or business that’s just going to grow to grow.

We’re pretty content with the size that we’re at right now. That’s not to say that one day we’ll not build another production brewery that’s bigger than the one we have here, but it’s just not something we’re ready to do now. We just bought out the last of our investors.

I guess ultimately Natalie and I don’t feel like going knee-deep in debt. It probably would be more up to our waists.

Q: How has your quality control changed over the years?

A: I think really the foundation is quality. It’s in our DNA that quality is the most important thing for us and we are willing to dump batches of beer.

There was a batch last year, a batch of Pliny at the pub that didn’t meet our standards, so we dumped it. It was better to dump than to put out an inferior product.

If you do happen to come across a bad batch, it’s a real kind of gut check on the brewer, if you’re going to dump it or not. If you’re going to put it out because you need the money, or—it’s an interesting question for a lot of these new brewers. It’s easy to say you’ll dump a batch of beer, but when the rubber meets the pavement and it actually happens to you and you need the money or whatever it is—it’s happened to us on a couple occasions. It is what it is.