Is Pliny the Elder Overrated?

Eno Sarris, October 27, 2016

I think Pliny the Elder is a really good beer. It's a well-balanced pine, resin, citrus and malt bomb, with everything turned up real loud, so loud that everything makes sense together, and it doesn't actually feel that crazy. It's an original gangster, one of the first, best IPAs. 

When I buy Pliny the Elder, it's to trade it. I'm just sure I can get other interesting beers I've never had before, or beers I'd rather drink. The possibilities outweigh the pleasure of drinking another Pliny. And this isn't because it's plentiful to me, here in California, home of Russian River.

These three bottles in my fridge, which I'm trading, came to me because I randomly asked someone at a beer store that wasn't working that day and he mentioned that they had a secret case in the back and I could get four if I wanted. (One's already in Chicago.) 

That experience seems to suggest it's not overrated, but there's an underlying exasperation in that one interaction. I didn't ask him for Pliny because I don't ask for Pliny because I never find Pliny and also because I'm friends with too many people in the industry that complain that everyone that comes asks for Pliny. (The picture above is from my local beer store, for example.)

I hate the word overrated, but the idea that this is a beer that has so much hype around it that I've stopped asking for it, and only buy it in order to trade it... that idea seems to be summed up decently in that terrible word. 

The problem is this. How, with our different ways of looking at data, could we spot an overrated beer? 

My first thought was to go back the Whale Factor stats and look at trades. Perhaps, among the most 'wanted' beers on trading sites, Pliny was the most 'gotten' beer? That might suggest an active group rating Pliny higher matched by an equally active group willing to trade it away. Nobody would be hording Pliny in this scenario. 

That might appear in the numbers, but not as much as it does for some other beers, one of which (Abyss) I love and do not find overrated at all. But that's subjective. Here's the list of trade targets, sorted for the top 30 most wanted beers, and then sorted again for the beers that had the highest 'got' percentage. These are highly desired beers that are also relatively easy to acquire: 

Beer Brewery Style got% wants
Bourbon County Brand Stout Goose Island Beer Co. American Imperial Stout 267% 2688
Founders KBS Founders Brewing Company American Imperial Stout 139% 4454
The Abyss Deschutes Brewery American Imperial Stout 129% 2910
Hopslam Ale Bell's Brewery, Inc. American Imperial IPA 128% 2633
Parabola Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Russian Imperial Stout 114% 3146
Supplication Russian River Brewing Company American Wild Ale 79% 2708
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout Goose Island Beer Co. American Imperial Stout 71% 4177
Zombie Dust 3 Floyds Brewing Co. American Pale Ale (APA) 65% 4698
Dark Lord Imperial Stout 3 Floyds Brewing Co. Russian Imperial Stout 64% 3203
Black Tuesday The Bruery American Imperial Stout 60% 3254
Trappist Westvleteren 12 (XII) Brouwerij Westvleteren Quadrupel (Quad) 58% 3629
Pliny The Elder Russian River Brewing Company American Imperial IPA 55% 7139
Heady Topper The Alchemist American Imperial IPA 55% 9066
Darkness Surly Brewing Company Russian Imperial Stout 42% 3313
Bell's Black Note Stout Bell's Brewery, Inc. American Imperial Stout 37% 2758

Wow. Twice as many people have Bourbon County Stout as want it. That's the sort of thing that might fall into our definition, not 55% that Pliny averages, despite the fact that the Pliny number is relatively high. Still, if twice as many people want Pliny as are willing to list having it available for trade, I don't think you can call it overrated on the basis of that data. 

What if Pliny was coasting on old scores? It's still the third-best beer on our leaderboards, but what if the numbers have been dropping, subtly, over time? 

Because the sample degrades a bit there at the end, and because it's not really a general trend, and because it's still getting really nice four-plus star grades at the end, this doesn't seem to be much of evidence of anything. It's still an excellent beer getting four-star grades more often then not. 

So, the data proves it. I'm a spoiled brat so focused on wanting the new thing that I'm overlooking the legendary beer in my back yard. Even worse, I slung mud at it. Call this a data-induced Mea Culpa.