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They come from near and far, the self-proclaimed "hop-heads" and folks who only half-jokingly proclaim, "Beer is my life."

Some fly in or drive to Santa Rosa for a whirlwind trip while others devise extended vacations around the release date — "a national holiday," one Santa Rosa man declared it.

But at the center of all the fuss and bother that had hundreds of people queueing up Friday morning outside a downtown Santa Rosa brew pub is a triple-IPA (India Pale Ale) released once a year in limited quantity: Russian River Brewing Co.'s Pliny the Younger.

Ultra-hoppy, with about 10.25 percent alcohol, the Younger draws beer lovers from around the country and the world, inspired by friends' delirious reviews and A-plus ratings on brew aficionados' websites.

"It's the best beer there is," said Peter James, 27, a resident of Shaver Lake near Yosemite who lined up with several dozen kindred spirits from places like Maryland, Grand Cayman, Pennsylvania and Scotland. "It's off the charts."

Russian River Brewing has six beers on the 2011 100-best list produced by Ratebeers.com.

Pliny the Younger is ranked third, behind a Swedish stout and a Belgian Trappist ale. Pliny the Elder, another Russian River India Pale Ale available year-round, placed eighth.

The Plinys were father-and-son Roman writers and historians of the first century A.D.

BeerAdvocate grades the Younger A-plus, world class.

Fans say Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo, who they mostly call simply "Vinnie," has done what no one else seems able to do. He's upped the ante on the hops, raising the alcohol and the hoppy flavor, and produced a brew that's both balanced and light.

"It's a unique flavor that nobody else has come close to duplicating," said Andy Olavarria of McCall, Idaho.

"It's what makes it unique and worth a six-hour plane ride," said Terry Kibbe, a Washington, D.C. political fund raiser.

"Usually, when it's released, and I've been somewhere on the West Coast, I've sought it out," said her husband Matt Kibbe, who is well-traveled as president and chief executive of FreedomWorks, a conservative public policy group linked to the Tea Party.

"But this is the first year we're consciously going to the source, so you can imagine this is an emotional moment for us," Kibbe said with a grin.

Ratebeer Executive Director Joseph Tucker, who was present for the release Friday, clearly remembers last year's Younger, though he's tasted thousands of beers.

This year's assessment: "Slightly less acidic, slightly less effervescent," but "it's just as good as last year," Tucker said.

Now in its sixth year, the Younger is a seasonal beer insofar as the brewery releases it in February each year because that's when people expect it, said Natalie Cilurzo, the company's co-owner.

It's made once a year, produced in limited quantities because it's time-consuming and expensive to make.

Small amounts are distributed to markets in the Bay Area, Southern California, Portland, Seattle, Colorado and Philadelphia. The remainder is sold on tap at the Fourth Street pub.

Consumers last year were permitted to purchase half-gallon "growlers" of Younger to take away, generating huge lines and prompting the beer to sell out in about nine hours.

This year it is available only in 10-ounce glasses, with a limited number of kegs to be rolled out each day in hopes the beer would last two weeks and more people and regulars would have an opportunity to try it, Natalie Cilurzo said.

Still, folks felt compelled to line up early Friday, with Sacramento State Criminal Justice major Domenic Devincenzi, 22, who drove back home on Thursday night, taking the first spot in line at 8 a.m.

The pub wasn't technically supposed to open until 11 a.m., but people were let in beginning around 10:30 a.m., with the first 100 in the door by 11, capacity of 206 reached before 11:30, and the line of about 150 still growing.

"We're plining up," one beer lover quipped.

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