Pliny the Younger makes history: It’s the No. 1 beer . . .

PLINY THE YOUNGER is one of those characters out of Roman history who, even if you weren’t dozing in history class, you’d have little reason to remember. He was a first-century lawyer known primarily for a letter that described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

But ask a beer freak about Pliny the Younger, and you’ll get a rapturous, tongue-wagging oratory: It’s the world’s greatest beer.

At least, that’s its current status at the popular ratings site. Last month, the double India pale ale – brewed by Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, Calif. – jumped ahead of the longtime No. 1, Westvleteren 12, brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium.

The rating ignited a cultlike fever, with word of its annual appearance spreading virally among anxious fans.

Fewer than 100 barrels (about 25,000 pints) of the intensely hoppy beer were brewed and released last month, all on draft. Crowds queued up outside Russian River’s brewpub and the few dozen bars across the country that were lucky enough to score a treasured keg.

(Note: Pliny the Younger was reportedly among the brands that Pennsylvania State Police were searching for last week when they raided three Philadelphia bars. The brand was not properly registered for sale in Pennsylvania. The case is still under investigation. )

I stood in line early (an ungodly 10 a.m.) one Saturday morning outside Capone’s, in suburban East Norriton, for my taste. About 60 people had gathered, waiting for the place to open.

“When they say it’s the best beer in the world, you’ve just got to try it,” said Michael Campbell, who traveled 40 miles from Wilmington, Del., to get his taste.

Nearby, Bill Schwindt, who drove 50 miles from his home in South Jersey for a glass, had a knowing smile on his face: He’d sampled the beer earlier in the week at another bar. “Most people will never get to taste this beer even once,” he said. “So, of course, I’m going to come out and try it again. “

A waitress stepped outside and sold tickets at $8 for a 10-ounce glass, so no one would miss his or her chance. (Yes, that’s expensive – but compare it to the world’s best wine. You might have to wait years just to get on the mailing list at California’s Screaming Eagle winery, just for a shot at buying bottles of its Cabernet – at $500 a pop. At auction, those bottles go for about four grand. )

The ale’s arrival was preceded by word from other towns where mobs – desperate for a sip – swamped bars. At the Grey Lodge and Monk’s Café, the crowd kicked kegs in under a half-hour. In Colorado, one pub reported its keg blew in just 12 minutes.

Some bars, worried that they’d be overrun, didn’t bother advertising the beer’s arrival.

“We purposely just threw it on [tap] for the bread-and-butter regulars,” said Andy Dickerson, of Teresa’s Next Door, in Wayne. “That was neat because, instead of people who come in for a once-a-year event, there were total strangers coming in who lucked out and got to give it a try. “

At Russian River’s brewpub, patrons waited in line for three hours for a table. Last year, it took five days to run out of the beer. This year, it took 8 1/2 hours.

The man behind the madness – brewer Vinnie Cilurzo – was astonished at the reaction. “It was nuts,” he said. “Nearly every person left carrying the four-growler limit” at $36 apiece.

Why is Pliny the Younger suddenly all the rage?

Cilurzo, who has brewed the beer for six years, said he’s not altogether certain.

“A lot of it is the new media,” he said. “People are Twittering and writing on Facebook and blogs and all of that crap, so word really got out. ” He suspects that the BeerAdvocate rating was spiked partly because he poured the ale at a festival in Boston, the Web site’s home base.

Brewing the No. 1 rated beer, though, can be a bit of a hassle. Cilurzo said that he spends hours answering occasionally angry e-mails from beer drinkers and bars demanding the beer.

“I could care less if it’s the No. 1 beer in the world,” he said. “What’s more important is, one, we like the beer; two, our consumers like it; and, three, we stay in business. “

So, what does Pliny the Younger taste like?

The golden ale has the body of a Cabernet, filling the mouth with the rich, exceptionally citrus (grapefruit) flavor of hops. While it is certainly bitter, the flavor is buffered by a sweet glow that makes it easy to sip – even with its stiff (11 percent by volume) alcohol content.

But don’t take my word for it.

Assuming the cops don’t confiscate it first, you can try Pliny the Younger tomorrow at noon at Tria Café (12th and Spruce, Washington Square West) as part of Philly Beer Weekend.

Or, you can reserve a glass for a tapping on Sunday at the Blue Dog (4275 County Line Road, Chalfont). Tickets are on sale for $25 a glass, with proceeds to be donated to Haitian relief efforts and an animal rescue organization. Info: 215-997-9988.


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