at Toronado Pub
Jay R. Brooks
At the turn of the Millennium, a well-known Bay Area beer bar, The Bistro, after years of putting on an annual IPA Festival, decided to launch another festival in February, the Bistro Double IPA Festival. Owner Vic Kralj is an unabashed hop lover and was eager to promote the burgeoning new sub-style of IPA known for even more hop character than regular IPAs.
He invited ten breweries to the inaugural fest and one of those was Russian River Brewing. Their brewmaster and co-owner, Vinnie Cilurzo, was no stranger to double IPAs, having made one in 1994 when he owned another brewery in Temecula, California, Blind Pig Brewing, a beer widely believed to have been the very first Double IPA brewed anywhere.
But his new brewery, Russian River, did not yet have one, so he pulled out his old recipe and started tinkering to come up with his newest Double IPA. The result was a revelation, a surprisingly smooth beer loaded with delicious hop character and yet very little bitterness. It’s easy to taste why it achieved cult status and has been named the best beer in America seven years in a row by the American Homebrewers Association in their annual survey of members.
But the new beer needed a name. His wife, and co-founder of the brewery, Natalie Cilurzo, started brainstorming and paging through beer reference books looking for inspiration. What she found was the story of Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known to us as Pliny the Elder, whose 77 C.E. book “Naturalis Historia” contains arguably the first mention of hops in history.
He described them using the name “lupum salictarium” in the original Latin, which was coined by his contemporaries, and has been translated as “wolf among the scrubs,” or “wolf among the willows.”
While there is some uncertainty as to exactly what Pliny was referring to in his description, the story has certainly captured the imagination of brewers, especially in the modern era of craft beer. And to the Cilurzos, it was the perfect name for their new Double IPA, one that’s become much beloved, helping to spread its mystique and the status of Pliny as one of America’s most popular beers.
(English beer historian, Martyn Cornell, once took a deep dive into the historical record and discovered a lot of misinformation and unsubstantiated conjecture unsupported by the actual text. In the end, looking at centuries of evidence, Cornell concluded that while there’s no definitive proof of what Pliny was referring to, it’s still “somewhere between possible and probable that lupus salictarius WAS the wild hop plant” we all know and love in our beer today.)
The year before Russian River Brewing created Pliny the Elder, Vinnie Cilurzo met Dave Keene, owner of San Francisco’s premier beer bar since 1987. For many years after it opened, the Toronado was the place for craft beer.
If “Big Daddy” — Keene’s nickname — liked your beer, it could open doors and help your beer reach the most enthusiastic beer geeks.
In 1999, armed with samples of his latest beers, Cilurzo met Keene at the Toronado to try and convince him to carry the beer from his fledgling brewery. He brought with him the first batch of Damnation, among many others, opening bottle after bottle while nervously hoping for some positive feedback. Eventually, Keene remarked that “I could sell this” and the pair tasted their way through the rest of the range in a more relaxed state. Finally, as Cilurzo was preparing to leave, Keene posed one final question: “How many kegs can I buy?”
Since that day, Russian River beer has been on tap at the Toronado. Once Pliny the Elder was introduced, it, too, became a standard offering at the San Francisco pub, so much so that you could invariably rely on the bar having it on tap. As he’s trying to remember how long it’s been, Keene seemingly gives up, saying, “I don’t remember not having Pliny.” To this day, it remains one of their consistent best sellers and over the years Keene reminisces that “many people were introduced to the Toronado through Pliny, and introduced to Pliny through the Toronado.”
In the intervening years, the Cilurzos have become close friends of Keene and his wife, Jennifer. Russian River has created special anniversary beers for the Toronado’s 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries, and employees jokingly refer to the San Francisco pub as the “south campus.”
Both the beer and the place create a unique impression. Walking into the Toronado is like being home, if your home is like a dive bar with good taste. It’s a generally frenetic scene; bottles, stickers and beer memorabilia filling every open space on the walls. The giant draught beer list sign dominates the front of the bar from its perch hanging down from the ceiling, and as every Toronado regular knows, you don’t belly up to the bar unless you already know what you want. So make it easy on yourself, order Pliny the Elder.
Once you slide onto a barstool with your beer, the scene changes. Amidst the noise and colors, you relax, and become, in a almost tangible way, alone with your beer. The background recedes into white noise, and you concentrate on the aromas and flavors in your glass in a sort of spiritual experience that belongs on every beer lover’s bucket list. For many years, the Toronado was one of the only places to drink Pliny the Elder, but I’d argue twenty years later it’s still one of the best.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.