Back to the Hunt
We begin Thursday, appropriately enough, with Cilurzo. He now calls his double Pliny the Elder because a couple thousand years ago, Pliny and his contemporaries created the botanical name for hops, Lupus salictarius, meaning “wolf among scrubs.” That eventually became Humulus lupulus. Cilurzo is in the process of setting up a new brewery and pub in Santa Rosa, CA, and steals time to brew his Russian River beers at another brewpub, where he also makes beer.
Thus he is serving Pliny bottled back in June, and not as fresh as he would like.
“The hops haven’t dropped out on this at all,” Vic says.
“This beer is beautifully balanced,” I note, before suggesting that may not have been the case in 1995. “I would probably agree,” Cilurzo says. “I’ve raised the malt level (the Inaugural Ale was 6.5 percent ABV; Pliny is 8 percent). I try to use more high alpha hops, with lower cohumulone (a contributor to a coarser bitterness).”
Personally, he likes Pliny better at two or three months old. “But it really sells well when it is younger,” he says. “It is an extreme style, and I personally don’t think the beer should be totally balanced—it should definitely be slanted toward hops.”
He tries to be patient when consumers disagree. “I’m probably too frank with those people, but I tell them not to drink Pliny and drink our regular IPA. I continue to tell these folks that it’s a double IPA, it’s supposed to be big, just as a Scotch ale is supposed to be malt with almost no hop character to it. Bottom line, ‘double’ is about choice,” he says
Speaking of being frank, that’s our next stop: Frank Double IPA from Port Brewing Co. in Carlsbad, CA. Bad news. “Frank has left the building,” the volunteer tells us. The keg of Frank has been misplaced (so misplaced that it never appears). This becomes more disappointing Saturday when Frank wins the gold medal.
We step to the next booth, Port’s sister brewery, Pizza Port Solana Beach, where head brewer Tomme Arthur has earned national acclaim with a wide range of Belgian-style ales. A couple of years ago, a drinker arrived at the Pizza Port table and said, “Give me the hoppiest thing you got.” Arthur replied, “Don’t see any hops here.”
Today there are hops—Hop 15 will be the silver medal winner. “On the dark end of the (color) range, but beautiful,” Vic says, holding it up. “Smell those hops,” he adds, closing his eyes and smiling.
We bounce from Illinois to Virginia, back to California, over to Pennsylvania and on to New Mexico. Brewers who have seldom tasted the style as it has been nurtured in California for eight years are taking a poke at it.
“It was about a year or more ago that I started researching this elusive style,” Bill Madden of Capitol City Brewing, Arlington, VA, said before the competition. He decided to call his beer Imperial after a West Coast brewer reasoned that a true double would have to start at 32 Plato and have 140 IBU. “We only tapped a keg a week so our regulars would not drink it up so fast. We never advertised the Imperial IPA in the brewpubs, but still people in the know heard about it and would call ahead to be sure it was on tap. Stealth beer, we call it,” he said.
By the time the night is over, we will have sampled 29 would-be double IPAs. Some—one from Goose Island comes to mind—are wonderful beers but don’t have the fresh hop character West Coast brewers demand. “It’s like crushing a hop and throwing it in on top,” Vic says, holding a sample of Racer X Double IPA. “Just smell this.”