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."

Those two-hour lines had stretched around the corner on D Street over the weekend, but our wait on Tuesday morning was only about 40 minutes. The guys in front of me were from the South Bay; three who had made this pilgrimage before and a fourth who was getting his first taste. The two guys behind me both work in downtown Santa Rosa and were debating about whether to drink their 10-ounce Pliny and head back to the office, or stay for lunch and enjoy some of the pub's other brews. Inside, I stood at the end of the bar with a fellow named Paul trying to catch the attention of one of the bartenders, who have to be the hardest working guys in Sonoma County this month. Paul sympathized, saying he works as a "mixologist" in Florida and schedules a business trip to Sonoma County each February so he can get his fill of Pliny the Younger. He bought me my beer, along with several others for a table of his friends, shrugging "expense account" as we parted ways.

It's hard not to get caught up in the excitement that surrounds Pliny the Younger. As I inhaled the flowery aroma of hops before my first taste, I prepared to be transformed by the experience of tasting what one excited drinker called "the holy grail" of beers.

I sipped. I rolled it over my tongue. I swallowed.

It was good. Very good. It reminded me, in fact, of Pliny the Elder – Russian River's "double hopped" ale that is one of my favorite beers and is available there every day of the year without rationing.

But that's the thing. Nobody would stand in line for Pliny the Elder. Nobody has to.

If you want the Younger, though, you have to work for it. Or at least wait for it. Wait until February. Stand in line to get in the pub. Stand at the bar and wait to be served.

As I sipped, I looked around the packed pub and saw nothing but smiling faces. I saw people not just enjoying a good glass of beer, but also pleased to be part of something special.

It must be special, right? Otherwise we wouldn't have waited in line.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.