On a Saturday morning each February, the sidewalk outside Hops & Pie on Tennyson Street fills with the beer faithful. Suds-loving pilgrims travel from far and wide, and they line up outside the pizza restaurant as early as 8 a.m.—often braving cold winter temperatures—to guarantee sips of a legendary ale. One guy named “Fritz” is always first in line, while another regular comes to lift a glass in her late husband’s memory. And they’re not the only familiar faces; many of the customers who snake along the sidewalk congregate every year, greeting friends they’ve made around an annual ritual. But make no mistake: These beer geeks are on a mission. They know that getting in line before the restaurant opens at noon ensures they get a taste of the seriously hopped-up Pliny the Younger.

First brewed in 2005 by the Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma County, California, Pliny the Younger is perhaps the most sought-after beer in America—and certainly the most hyped. Its cult status is without rival in the beer world. As the first-ever triple India pale ale, the beer expanded upon the brewery’s already popular double IPA, Pliny the Elder—only the Younger packed in more hops, malt, and ABV at 10.25 percent. The well-balanced, triple IPA instantly became a hit, and over the ensuing years, thanks to its scarcity, Pliny the Younger’s reputation reached a mythic status.

Russian River only produces limited amounts of the microbrew, and the brewery limits the distribution of kegs to five states outside of California, including Colorado, which has about 40 bars and restaurants that currently receive kegs. And while demand has always been high, this year could be even more intense because it’s Pliny the Younger’s 20th anniversary release.

The line to enter Russian River Brewing Company during Pliny the Younger’s 2014 release in Santa Rosa, California. Getty Images

That has Hops & Pie’s Drew Watson, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Leah, excited. Their pizza joint on Tennyson will be the first place to tap a keg of Younger in Colorado this year, on February 10. “Russian River have been kind enough to give us that honor,” says Watson.

But while Hops & Pie has been receiving Younger since 2011, Watson is quick to point out that his restaurant wasn’t always first on Russian River’s distribution list. “That was an honor that used to be bestowed upon Falling Rock Tap House and [its founder] Chris Black,” Watson says. And to understand how Pliny the Younger developed such a following in Colorado, you have to trace the story back to Black. “He’s the legend and the king,” Watson says. “And if it wasn’t for [Black], the rest of us wouldn’t be here.”

The King Gets Younger

For beer geeks in Colorado (and beyond), Chris Black needs no introduction. For 24 years, Black and his two brothers owned and operated Falling Rock Tap House in LoDo, which not only served as the unofficial headquarters for the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), but was a year-round destination for stellar artisanal beers. Falling Rock closed in 2021 for a variety of reasons, but its influence on Colorado’s beer scene remains undeniable. Black’s relentless pursuit of high-quality brews—and his championing of the breweries that produced them—helped local craft beer producers get off their feet, as well as introduced Coloradans to many out-of-state beers.

That included Pliny the Younger.

5280 recently caught up with Black, who says he had the honor of trying the very first batch of the triple IPA in 2005. Black had by then befriended Russian River’s owners, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, after they’d made trips to Denver for the GABF. And after watching Vinnie have success with Pliny the Elder, Black began hearing about a new, supposedly game-changing batch that his friend at Russian River had cooked up.

Not one to miss out on the action, Black convinced an acquaintance in the industry to get a growler of Younger at its first release event in California and overnight it to Colorado. Black still remembers his first sip. “I thought it was absolutely mind blowing,” he says. For such a high-ABV beer, it was remarkably balanced. And come 2009, patrons at Falling Rock were about to get a taste themselves when Black received the very first kegs of Younger in Colorado.

Chris Black pouring Pliny the Younger from a tap.
Chris Black pouring Pliny the Younger at the now-closed Falling Rock Tap House. Photo courtesy of Chris Black

Black remembers the frenzy. Russian River had sent him a few half-barrel kegs of Younger, and Black decided to open one per day. On the first day, Falling Rock was busier than usual. By the second, every single seat in the bar was full.

“You know, this is a keg with 15 and a half gallons of beer, so I’m thinking I can get about 270 pours out of that,” Black says. “And I’m sitting there, looking and counting heads, thinking, Whoa, we’re going to be really close here.

So Black made an announcement: “I said, ‘Okay! We’re about to see how many people here learned what to do in kindergarten and how to play nice. So, everybody’s going to get one beer, and if everybody just takes one, everybody in the room can get a beer.’”

Black saved the very last pour for himself and had to laugh. It was almost all foam.

After 2009, the annual Pliny the Younger tappings only got crazier. On the days Black opened kegs, lines started at Falling Rock, spilled out towards the sidewalk, and then stretched around the entire block. Black knew he needed to put some kind of system in place. “We started issuing tickets in line, and we would go up through 260 tickets,” he says. “People drove in from Omaha, and one couple would fly in from Virginia every year.”

After a few years, Black called the Cilurzos about expanding beyond Falling Rock. “I started talking to Vinnie and Natalie about getting them to send some more kegs out,” Black says. “[I wanted] to spread some of the love around to some people up in Fort Collins and in Boulder.”

One benefit of sending more kegs around Colorado was that it’d raise more for charity. Since the beginning, Black says, all the Younger tappings in Colorado have benefited a nonprofit called Sense of Security. The Denver-based charitable organization provides financial assistance to breast cancer patients, including helping them with expenses like housing, transportation, and groceries as they undergo treatment. Russian River’s Colorado distributor, Elite Brands, also donates its profits from distributing Younger to Sense of Security.

“I was always very excited because Falling Rock each year was able to donate about $6,000,” Black says.

In 2011, the Cilurzos agreed to expand distribution of their small-batch triple IPA in Colorado, which is when other bars like Hops & Pie started receiving small kegs—and hosting their own fan-frenzied Pliny the Younger tappings. All bars and restaurants have followed Falling Rock’s lead and continue to donate all or most of their profits to Sense of Security. In deference to Falling Rock, though, the LoDo bar got to tap the first kegs until it closed in 2021. Black always loved the annual tradition. “We usually got Younger right around my birthday,” Black says. “So I used to tell people, ‘I get younger on my birthday.’”

Kidding aside, Black continues to seek out Younger every year. “I love to see what Vinnie’s doing with the beer,” Black says. “Because it’s always very similar, but what’s really neat is that it’s just gotten better and better and better.”

This Year’s Tappings

A glass of Pliny the Younger by a pizza.
A glass of Pliny the Younger at Hops & Pie. Photo courtesy of Hops & Pie

For the 20th anniversary release of Pliny the Younger, Elite Brand’s John Sliter says the California brewery is sending 16 half-barrel kegs and 30 sixtels (1/6 of a full keg) to Colorado.

Elite has published a full list on its website of where you can find Pliny the Younger in the Centennial State. It includes about 40 total bars along the Front Range—including such Denver establishments as Fire on the Mountain and Finn’s Manor—as well as bars in mountain towns such as Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs.

But one release event you can count on? The first tapping at Hops & Pie after the restaurant opens at noon on February 10.

For newbies, Hops & Pie’s Drew Watson has a few words of advice. “First, make sure you’re in the first 70 percent of the line,” he says. Provided you get into the restaurant, the tapping of the Younger keg will probably happen around 1 p.m. If you want another beer before then, Watson advises to order a Pilsner. “Don’t go in heavy and destroy your mouth beforehand,” he says.

Finally, go in with a good attitude and make some friends. You’re about to share in a special experience, and for just this one day a year—as Chris Black likes to joke—you’re about to get Younger.

Chris Walker
Chris Walker
Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as 5280.com.