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COURSEY: The holy grail, 10 ounces at a time

The smell of wort wafted on the morning breeze, and a bright winter sun warmed the crowd that gathered Tuesday morning on Fourth Street.

Passersby wondered what could draw so much attention on an otherwise ordinary day. If they didn't know, they probably also didn't recognize the distinctive aroma of malted grains, water, yeast and hops being turned into beer inside of the Russian River Brewing Co.

But more than one of those standing in line voiced the sentiment of the crowd: “I love the smell of wort in the morning.”

If that makes no sense to you, then standing in line for hours for a taste of beer probably doesn't make any sense, either. But thousands of beer lovers are doing just that this month as Russian River doles out its once-a-year limited-release ale with the funny name – Pliny the Younger.

It's a heady mix of fine craftsmanship and marketing genius. Pliny the Younger, an intense triple-hopped India Pale Ale with an alcohol content of nearly 11 percent – double the typical craft brew, has drawn a cult following and become a cultural phenomenon. Users of the BeerAdvocate web site have repeatedly named it the best beer in the world.

But pub owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo only make a small amount of it each year – it's an expensive, time-consuming process, they say – and they dole it out 10 ounces at a time in early February until the kegs run dry.

Thus the line. And the buzz. It's enough to turn a normally line-averse cynic like me into an alcohol acolyte, waiting patiently on the sidewalk Tuesday morning and joking with line-mates about the “Soup Nazi” episode of “Seinfeld,” hoping that we wouldn't somehow offend the bartender and miss out on our tiny ration of beer.

The guy at the door said even with the crowds, working as a bouncer during the Pliny release is a piece of cake. When he worked at another pub down the street, he said, he'd be challenged to fight five or six times a night. “Here, nobody wants to cause trouble. Nobody wants to get kicked out after standing in line for two hours.”

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