It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, and the line from San Diego’s vaunted Toronado Pub already stretches 60 deep. The people in line take care to avoid blocking entrances to neighboring storefronts as they take turns seeking respite from the heat of the late-morning sun. Before the doors open at 10, the line will approach the century mark as thirsty drinkers gladly queue up on a weekday to get a 10-ounce pour of one of America’s most sought-after brews. Early February can only mean one thing for West Coast craft beer fans: it’s Pliny the Younger season.
As this scene unfolds in sunny San Diego, 540 miles to the north in Santa Rosa, the line at Russian River’s brewpub started much earlier. During the two weeks that Russian River releases its burly triple IPA, it’s not uncommon for people to line up in the cold predawn hours while heavy rain beats down on them from above. For those who make the pilgrimage to the source, wait times can range from six hours on weekdays to nine hours on the weekend. The frenzy over this beer is so big that in 2013, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board calculated that the annual 14-day release event is worth $2.4 million to the local economy.
So what is it about this beer that makes people go absolutely insane? For starters, it’s a very well-made triple IPA that has an excellent aroma and flavor with tons of malt and hops, but that’s not it. There are plenty of great beers out there that don’t engender a Krustyburger Ribwich-like cult following of people wherever kegs are rumored to pop up. Quality aside, the biggest thing going for Pliny the Younger is scarcity and the feeling that you’re getting something exclusive whenever you’re able to snag a goblet. It’s not uncommon to see similar fervor around releases of other “whales” like Dark Lord from 3 Floyds and server-crashing online sales for brews like The Bruery’s Black Tuesday and Veritas by The Lost Abbey.
Back in San Diego, Toronado’s midday tapping of Pliny the Younger wasn’t announced with a lot of fanfare on Facebook or Twitter. For those who signed up for the bar’s email newsletter, a simple message detailing their release plans (a total of four kegs spread out over the course of a week) was the only warning people got. “I’ve never had Younger before, so there’s definitely some anticipation and excitement,” said Ross, who was the first person in line at 7:45 am. Accompanying him in line was his friend Brent who has had it before but added, “I like the rarity, and that probably adds to the anticipation.”
Despite limited publicity, it didn’t take long for word to spread through online forums and Facebook groups, and the rush was underway. “It’s pretty manageable,” said Ian Black, owner of Toronado. “We get a lot of people showing up, but we usually get around 200 pours from a keg.” For the Tuesday morning release, those 200 pours managed to last 51 minutes before the keg kicked.
With the rampant popularity of Pliny the Younger, it’s becoming increasingly popular for bars to use that enthusiasm to raise money for a good cause. O’Brien’s pub, which is one of the elder statesmen of the San Diego craft beer scene, charged people $20 for a ticket good for a 10-ounce pour and donated the money to local animal charities. “This is our 4th year of doing the charity keg and I know other bars around the state do something similar, which I think is great,” said Tom Nickel, owner of O’Brien’s. “There is a lot of hype surrounding the release of Pliny the Younger, and it is nice to be able to funnel all of that into supporting some great causes.”
In case you thought that the inflated price might give would-be drinkers pause, people still lined up as much as an hour early for the opportunity to snag their beer later at a more leisurely pace. Think of it as a way to prepay your line-standing time so you can stroll in later like a rock star and grab your brew without a wait. “You can buy the ticket now, and then come back a couple of weeks from now and have your beer in the afternoon instead of drinking it at 11 in the morning,” said Dan, who was the first in line for the charity pour tickets.
Will the novelty of Pliny the Younger ever wear off? Maybe, eventually, but it seems like the end of the exuberance is nowhere in sight. Until it happens, as long as they keep making it, people will keep lining up earlier and earlier.