My friend Rob was recently in California on a scouting trip for filming of the Pliny The Younger release day for his show Limited Release. He was kind enough to bring me back a couple bottles of Pliny The Elder, just about as fresh as you can get them--right from the source. Named after the ancient scholar who first described hops, Pliny the Elder is probably the first true commercially available double IPA and has a cult following as one of the best beers in the USA. Needless to say I've been looking forward to trying the beer for quite some time! The green and red minimalist label extols the fact that you MUST not age this beer, but drink it fresh. I always follow orders, so I had a couple friends over to the bar last night and we did a head to head tasting of Pliny against our local DIPA superstar Surly Abrasive.
I think I've mentioned Abrasive a few times in this blog, but for those just checking in, I'll give a quick run-down. This beer was released several years ago as a limited run double IPA and called 16 Grit. I got to try that batch once on tap and thought it was quite good, but not my favorite beer in the world. Last year's batch was more widely available in cans and made with the "new" Citra hop. This version was amazing and quickly became one of my top five desert island beers. My brief review of the beer at that time even made it into an issue of Zymurgy! Initially Surly had planned on making the beer with different hops every year, but after an enormous amount of fan feedback they seemingly kept the Citra hops for this year's batch as well. I stocked up on several cans of this when it released last month. I want to drink this fresh too, though I did find one can of last year's vintage hiding in the back of my fridge about 2 months ago and it tasted surprisingly good.
So the big question is this: Does Pliny hold my personal award for best DIPA, or can a young upstart like Surly outdo the originator of this now popular style? I enlisted two good friends, Dave and Steven, who are well versed in this beer style to help me out with this challenge. We could have tried to do this tasting blind, but all of us are familiar with Abrasive and I didn't think this would add much to our tasting. I'm guessing that they were happy to take one for the team. My wife watched on in horror, commenting on the cat urine aroma wafting from our glasses. She is not a fan of IPA and hoppy beers. To start out the event we had a calibration beer, the Squatters Hop Rising DIPA, just to get us in the hoppy mood. That beer smelled and tasted oxidized and had less hop flavor and bitterness than expected for its 75 IBUs. Not a great beer, but a good place to start.
First up was Pliny The Elder in its oddly shaped bottle. Popping the cap one gets a burst of grapefruit and orange aroma that expands as you pour into the tasting glass. I chose fluted or curved glasses to help concentrate the aromas from these beers but I'm not sure it was even needed. Excellent clarity with deep gold color and a fine white head. The taste can only be described as heavenly: a complex mix of malt, citrus, and bitterness. This is one of the most well balanced double IPAs I've ever had and I can see why it has such a reputation. The dry finish makes this easy to drink and one could easily down a few and then have a tough time walking. Dangerous but extremely tasty. I give it a 5 of 5.
Next on the agenda is Abrasive: perched at the end of the bar in its brightly decorated and shiny 16 oz can. This beer is normally served in 10 oz glasses at bars, but at home you must finish a true pint or risk wasting great beer. Or I guess you could share...but that's crazy talk! This beer pours a similar deep gold but with a hint of haze. Strong tropical fruit/mango aroma dominates, but some citrus and catty aromas are present as well. The taste is similar to the aroma, with a strong bitterness. Also ends dry, but has a hint of alcohol burn that I don't remember from last year's batch. I still give it 5 of 5, but last year's was even better.
The results? Three of three chose the Surly Abrasive as the favorite of the night. The powerful flavors and aromas in the beer slightly outshone the balanced wonders in the Pliny. I am often one who complains about the extreme beers being out of balance, but apparently I'm a sucker for more hops and less balance. Keep in mind there may be some bias here since we are all local Minnesota boys, but all of us were very excited to the the California superstar beer. You will not lose with drinking either of these beers, but both are hard to come by. Enjoy them when you can and drink them quickly before they lose their hop character. Thanks to my expert panel for their input (and for drinking my hard-won beers!)