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A beer geek's quest to hunt down an elusive brew

One of the coolest things about craft beer is that it’s a regional affair. You can only get beers brewed by New Glarus within the borders of Wisconsin, and Three Floyds only distributes to the upper Midwest. If you want it, you have to go there and get it. This makes travelling a lot of fun, but it also leads to hard-to-get beers becoming very hyped.Case-in-point: Russian River’s Pliny the El
**FILE** In this July 28, 2008 file photo, a pint of beer is pulled in a pub in London. The iconic British pint has become the latest victim of the global credit crunch Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, with total beer sales dropping around 7 percent in the third quarter of this year.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)
**FILE** In this July 28, 2008 file photo, a pint of beer is pulled in a pub in London. The iconic British pint has become the latest victim of the global credit crunch Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, with total beer sales dropping around 7 percent in the third quarter of this year. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

One of the coolest things about craft beer is that it’s a regional affair. You can only get beers brewed by New Glarus within the borders of Wisconsin, and Three Floyds only distributes to the upper Midwest. If you want it, you have to go there and get it. This makes travelling a lot of fun, but it also leads to hard-to-get beers becoming very hyped.

Case-in-point: Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, a double IPA that many hopheads say is the best beer brewed in America. It is only available in five states, and beer geeks across the country trade it the way pioneers traded furs – a bottle of Pliny is the mink pelt of beers.

Many other people (including myself) also consider Pliny to be one of the most overrated beers in America. I’ve had it from the bottle, and it’s very good, boasting a huge citrus hoppiness that’s sublimely balanced with a sweet malt backbone. But, honestly, it didn’t live up to all the wonderful things I had heard. Maybe it was an old bottle (freshness makes a big difference with IPAs), or maybe it’s that other brewers have caught up to Russian River and created their own double IPAs that rival Pliny, making it a little less special.

I was hoping for a chance to find out this past weekend, when I headed to San Diego for a business conference. Western beer geeks say that Pliny flows like water in The Golden State, so I figured there was a good shot that I could find it fresh on tap while there. I wanted another opportunity to be wowed by The Elder, but mostly I wanted text my brother Don that I was chilling with a glass of Pliny in sunny San Diego. That’d drive him nuts!

Story: How too much hype can spoil the brew

As it turns out, Pliny was far more elusive than I had anticipated. As the weekend whittled away, I realized all I had left was a one-hour window on Sunday to find my prey. Letting my fingers do the walking, I hit up the Internet and found a craft beer bar near my hotel called Neighborhood, which boasted 27 taps and listed Pliny on the menu. Perfect. I dragged my non-beer-loving boss there after a late dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter to collect my prize.

The bar had a very chilled out, dark industrial charm, with dim lights, high ceilings and soothing trip-hop dripping out of the speakers. There was a wall of kegs near the bathroom that actually turned out to be a secret door leading to a speakeasy-type back bar that was packed with locals. If I were to create a beer place, this is how I would do it – I was in heaven.

Today

I walked up to the bar and decided to swing for the fences, and asked for the OTHER Pliny, Pliny the Younger, a super-rare Triple IPA that is only released once a year and can only be had on tap. The bartender said they had it two weeks ago, but it was gone and would not return. Slightly crestfallen, I ordered a Pliny the Elder instead.

This is where my plan totally fell apart – they tapped out of The Elder 30 minutes before I got there. Uh oh. Frozen like Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” when he sits on Santa’s lap, I stammered for a moment, when the fella nursing a pint next to me suggested I try a Russian River Blind Pig IPA, something he claimed was just as good as Pliny the Elder. Not able to process my fresh misfortune, I agreed, and the bartender pulled me a pint of the Pig. That guy at the bar was a liar – it was NO PLINY! That’s like saying we’re all out of Kate Upton, but don’t worry, her frumpy cousin Bernice is just as awesome. Not even a little bit true.

I went and sat at a table to figure out my next move. I scanned the menu and saw several other beers I’d love to try on tap, including Avery Maharaja, a double IPA similar to Pliny, but one I truly adore for its pineapple-scented nose, biscuity malt body and boozy finish.

As I sipped the sample and chatted with folks about beer, I realized I wasn’t going to find a happier way to spend my hour. I ordered a goblet full of Maharaja, sat back in my comfy chair and settled in. There’d be no Pliny for me on this trip, but that was just fine with me in my moment of serenity.

Some may say I’m lame for not pursuing Pliny or that I chose the lesser of two beers, but I disagree. There comes a time as a beer geek when you have to decide between chasing hype or chilling out and enjoying the bounty of delicious craft brews that are on hand. I think I chose well.

Now my pursuit of Pliny the Elder on tap can continue; if there’s one thing beer geeks love, it’s the thrill of the chase.

Tell us, is there a brew you've been longing to try?

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits.

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