Beer lovers lined up Friday morning in downtown Santa Rosa for what has become an annual rite of February - the limited release of an ale named for a magistrate in ancient Rome.
By 10 a.m., an hour before opening at the Russian River Brewing Co. on Fourth Street, the line had more than 300 people waiting to taste this year's Pliny the Younger, a hoppy, potent brew that draws fans from across the country and farther.
"I'm a beer guy. I love what Russian River puts out," said Eddie Smith, 35, a sales manager from Denver who flew in Thursday for the occasion. "It's a limited supply. I got to come out and get it first-hand, on tap and fresh."
Pliny the Younger has generated a buzz since the readers of Beer Advocate named it one of the best beers in the world four years ago.
Since then, the thirsty have journeyed from as far as Canada, Scotland, Japan and Australia to sample the one and only yearly batch, available for two weeks at the pub.
"It's my favorite day of the year," said Chris Haigh of Santa Rosa, who waited in line for more than two hours. "It's hoppy, has some grapefruit in it, a little bit of caramel ... it is pretty much amazing."
"It has a big malty presence," said Matt Sager, a brewmaster with Creek Monkey Tap House in Martinez. "Citrusy."
Candi Conner of Santa Rosa, who waited in line for five hours, had a less analytical opinion.
"Best beer I have ever had ... it tastes like Jesus just walked in your beer," Conner said.
Sold by the 10-ounce glass for $4.50, it packs a boozy, 10.8 percent alcohol level, although its fans say that's not necessarily why it's sought out.
"It's the best-tasting beer in all the land," proclaimed Brian Montanez, 24, of Santa Rosa, as he waited to be let into the pub.
"It's so crisp, so smooth, refreshing," he said, trying to describe his reasons for getting up before dawn to get his place near the front of the line.
"It's got absolute premium, all top ingredients," added Lindsey Waddell, 60, of Santa Rosa, a high-tech consultant who likes to brew his own beer at home.
The line went down Fourth Street a half block to D Street, before snaking around another half block.
Some staked out their spots with lawn chairs or even stretched out on air mattresses.
The conversation was about the type of hops in this year's batch - varietals named Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook - that lend the distinct flavor and aroma to the triple-hop, copper-colored elixir.
Natalie Cilurzo, president of the brewing company, said the excitement over Pliny the Younger "happened very organically. We haven't done anything to foster this. We just do what we like to do - make really good beer."
Her brewmaster husband, Vinnie, added more hops to Pliny the Younger this year, she said.
Because of its limited release on the first Friday in February, the beer has more cachet than Pliny the Elder, a double hop beer available year round. It's named for Younger's uncle, a botanist who was killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.
This year's release of Pliny the Younger is the best yet, Natalie Cilurzo said.
"I think it's the best batch we've ever made," she said matter-of-factly.
(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)