Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis. Bored? Backtrack and read more of the adventure here!
Our party of four exits the cab and heads towards the entrance of Higgins, a relatively small but smartly presented restaurant near our hotel in the Southwest Quadrant of Portland, Oregon. We were met by a server who was impeccably dressed, she was even wearing a tie, A TIE and we are immediately escorted to a table. I look around and feel a little under dressed for such a smart establishment, I also feel a little light headed thanks to topping up yesterdays healthy helping of beer with a great deal more and the tiny hands of jet lag are starting to gently massage the back of my eyeballs. Food will help with the tiredness though, I think to myself plus I'm really looking forward to trying some local seafood being so close to the Pacific Ocean.
Pliny the Elder, not a bad drop.
We are handed both food and drinks menus, the latter induces a wave of excitement, not only is the beer list extensive and excellent it also recommends beers to be paired with the meals. I pinch myself, am I in the future? I most certainly believe that beer and food pairing is the future for restaurants (without meaning it should replace wine, that's just madness). A great example of this food pairing was De Struise Pannepot with their dessert menu, I was impressed enough to see Pannepot so far from home but this pairing option was the icing on the cake, so to speak.
Our server returns and tells us this evenings food specials, I can't resist ordering the Dungeness crab cakes for my main. She then informs us that they have a special beer in stock that isn't on the menu due to it's limited availability and they only managed to get hold of a couple of cases for the restaurant, that beer of course as the title of this post suggests is Russian River Pliny the Elder.
It's silly to get excited about something as simple and everyday as beer but I can barely control the spasm of excitement that flows through my body at this moment. I was finally going to try the beer that had been at the top of my wish list for over a year and most importantly I was going to try it fresh. I must confess I've had a small taste of Pliny before but the bottle was at least five months old and hadn't been stored properly. On this occasion it tasted a little mouldy and vegetal so I wrote off this experience and decided to judge it when I finally tasted it fresh as the brewer intended. As I've said before American style IPA is my favourite style of beer and so I hold beers such as Pliny on the loftiest of my beer geek pillars.
My Dad, who like me had not had this beer before also ordered one and soon the two large bottles were brought to the table with accompanying glassware and we got stuck in. Let's gloss over the label, sure it's distinctive but if it wasn't for the reputation this beer had it would hardly leap off the shelf now would it? I check the date and note that this bottle is a mere 19 days old and so falls into the mega fresh category that a beer such as this needs to. I pour the bright, golden liquid into the glass and note how clear and luminescent it is as the low light of the restaurant catches its edge. The aroma is something else, I often struggle with defining clear descriptive scents in many strong IPAs but every single aroma molecule stood proudly on it's own and I immersed myself in it's glorious stench. Everything you'd expect from a great IPA was here, huge juicy lemons, limes and grapefruit, hints of guava and passion fruit and a whole pine forest of resinous wonderment, I'd not even tasted this beer yet I was already singing it's praises.
Those beautiful aromas translated wonderfully onto the palate, just as with the aroma each flavour was incredibly clearly defined and easy to identify but the main reason that it tasted so good was because it was clean, bright and above all perfectly balanced. I'm not sure how the brewers at Russian River manage to support such juicy fruit flavours on what seems like such a fragile scaffold of malt, this is clearly the work of master craftsmen. Even after you swallow those rich, juicy citrus and pine flavours sing their chorus on and on, begging you to take your next mouth full.
Hype is a terrible thing and can often ruin moments such as these but not on this occasion, as far as I'm concerned fresh Pliny the Elder deserves every ounce of praise that it is so often burdened with. Is it the best beer in the world? Well I couldn't possibly answer that but as an IPA fan it's most certainly in my top three. What's certain is that there is a massive level of skill that goes into crafting this beer and it's not surprising it's so sought after. I'd be wary of anything over three months old though as this beer is ALL about that intricate network of hop resins that need to be alive and well for this beer to sing its song.
As I sip away at this beer, savouring every moment, I think to myself that I've tasted a beer similar to this before. It might surprise a few of you to say that this beer is in fact Thornbridge Halcyon, arguably another of my top three beers. It's the fresh, bright and clean characteristics in both of these beers where those similarities are to be found. If you are seeking Pliny over here in the UK but your efforts are in vain, pick up some Halcyon because this will be fresh and not have journeyed thousands of miles without proper refrigeration and those wonderful flavours will still be there for your enjoyment.
I finish the beer and stare at the half empty plate of delicious Dungeness crab cakes sat in front of me. Perhaps it's the excitement of finally having a Pliny, perhaps it's the jet lag and masses of beer catching up with me but I'm falling asleep in my seat and despite it still being early I admit defeat and head back to my hotel for a well deserved kip, a box full of half eaten crab cakes tucked safely under my arm.