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August 24, 2011

The Willow Wolf

It is but a passing reference in an ancient text. The commentary is terse and wholly dismissive: "may be rather termed amusements for the botanist than articles of food," reads the best known English translation of Naturalis Historiae (Natural History). It is barely a footnote in the life's work of Pliny the Elder — but for those who hold beer to be sacred, that footnote is scripture. Indeed, buried some fifty chapters into the twenty-first book of Pliny's lone surviving work is the first known allusion to and scientific classification of hops.

Pliny The Elder's Naturalis Historia

A lawyer, a government bureaucrat, and a Roman military officer by day, Pliny the Elder was an avid reader[1] and prolific author in those idle moments when duty did not take precedence. Some would argue that he was one of the earliest environmentalists. Few would dispute that his often lyrical 37 volume Natural History was one of the earliest prototypes for the modern encyclopedia. He was a man not only of knowledge, but of wisdom. For all his wisdom, though, he was hardly a prophet. His assessment of the utility of hops — lupus salictarius (literally the "willow wolf") as he called them — has certainly been proven wrong in the nearly 2,000 years since Pliny slandered the flavorful flower.

Of course, as errors in judgment go, failure to recognize what brewers would not yet discover for centuries to come is hardly Pliny's most egregious offense. No, Pliny's most fateful error in judgment would come on this day in the year 79 AD. A rumbling which eerily coincided with the August 23 celebration Volcanalia — a feast day in honor of the Roman fire god Vulcan — had by now become a full scale eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Safely witnessing the cataclysm from across the Gulf of Naples in Misenum, Pliny chose not to stay put; he chose not to flee. Rather, at first to satisfy his curiosity, and ultimately to lead a rescue mission, Pliny decided to set sail towards the volcano.

Map of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D.

With seas too rough for an immediate return to Misenum, rescuers and rescued alike made camp on the shores of Stabiae. It was there that Pliny the Elder met his demise. As his nephew Pliny the Younger explains in a vivid and comma-filled account of the Elder's death:

"My uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead."

Whether a martyr to science or a martyr to valor, Pliny the Elder could hardly have known that the willow wolf which he so briefly catalogued would weave its way so thoroughly into the course of history. Nonetheless, we honor Pliny the Elder on this fine day for a beer.

Russian River Brewing

To simply toast Pliny the Elder with the most readily available brew would not be a disservice to Pliny's memory. To truly venerate him on this anniversary of his death, though, there is but one choice — and that choice is obvious. Russian River Brewing's elusive Pliny the Elder is an eruption of flavor, single-handedly elevating hops from mere curiosity of nature to transcendent marvel. Evoking visions of the lava spewing from Vesuvius on this very date in 79 AD, this double IPA standard-bearer fills the glass with a deep orange hue[2]. A thick, white head rests upon it like the ash that buried Pompeii. And, at the heart of it all, the thunderous and unmistakable notes of hops. Big, citrusy aromas. Hints of grass and pine. Alluring like the plume that piqued Pliny's interest, potent like the fumes that stole his breath — and legendary in its own right amongst hop aficionados — this 8.0% abv brew is not to be taken lightly.

Treated with the proper respect, though, Pliny the Elder is generous with his wisdom. Savor that wisdom. Share that wisdom. And be assured, it's a fine day for a beer.

Pliny The Elder beer label


  1. More accurately, it seems, he was an avid listener. The reading was done by an attendant, while Pliny himself would take notes. "For every book he read he made extracts out of," writes Pliny the Younger of his uncle's routines. "Indeed it was a maxim of his, that 'no book was so bad but some good might be got out of it.'" This was, of course, centuries before the advent of the romance novel or the celebrity biography. Nonetheless, the advice is sage.
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  2. Ok, not exactly. Bright, fire orange this is not. Have a tangerine if that's what you want. Or an Orange Crush. Meanwhile, if some license is being taken here in the name of simile and metaphor, it is far less than the man himself took at times in the course of his 37 volumes. Be assured that you'll find some tinge of orange glimmering in your glass should you pour yourself a Pliny.
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