Several decades ago, beer drinkers often were stereotyped as Neanderthal brutes only slightly smarter than the cans in their clenched fists.
Wine drinkers, then as now, were portrayed as more sophisticated and urbane. But with the rise of microbreweries and craft brews produced on a relatively small scale, the image of the beer drinker is changing.
Nowhere is that more evident than at the annual Battle of the Brews, now in its 18th year, which has become a gourmet celebration to rival many winery events.
Last year, the Battle drew a crowd of 2,000, and this year's event is expected to bring a record number of beer fans to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa on Saturday, March 29.
"Our ticket sales are way up this year," said Brian Sosnowchik of the Active 20-30 Club No. 50 of Santa Rosa, the event's sponsor.
"I think that's a testament to the craft beers we get. With the number of breweries expanding significantly in this area, great craft beers have become so much more accessible," he said.
Participating breweries range from nationally distributed Sierra Nevada to Petaluma-based regional titan Lagunitas and the Third Street Aleworks pub in downtown Santa Rosa.
Sosnowchik, 34, grew up in Ohio and now works as a research and development engineer with Agilent Technologies. He offers himself as an example of the audience drawn to the Battle of the Brews.
"There are plenty of individuals like myself who have grown out of what we were drinking in college and in our 20s," he said. "If I'm going to have a beer, I want it to be high-quality."
Battle of the Brews is divided into two parts: The VIP Craft Cup and the Main Event.
The VIP Craft Cup, with certified experts judging entries from some 50 craft breweries and cider makers, runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Final winners of the home brew competition also will be announced. Preliminary rounds were held last weekend.
Simultaneously, more than a dozen restaurant chefs will compete in the 'Wich Hunt sandwich contest, and the Pat Jordan band will perform.
Attendees will be able to taste the food and drink, and stay for the Main Event that follows.
The Main Event runs 4-8 p.m., with beer and cider tasting, food from local restaurants and live music by Cover Me Badd. Beer and cider taps will close at 7 p.m.
Proceeds from Battle of the Brews will benefit Challenger Little League of the North Bay, a baseball program for children with disabilities, Sosnowchik said.