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Beer festivals can feel like open-air carnivals — held at outdoor fairgrounds, they feature thousands of attendees, live bands, food booths and long tasting lines.

Santa Rosa's Battle of the Brews, which drew a record 2,275 people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday, has been trying to grow in recent years by standing against tradition, giving attendees a chance to pay more to hobnob with the beermakers and owners from dozens of world-class breweries.

Now in its 18th year, the event has become a favorite of beer drinkers who take their hobby as seriously as wine tasters.

"It's easy to get lost in some of the bigger events," said Ryan Fabian, 35, of Santa Rosa who came with his wife, Laura. "The VIP experience is important if you're into beer, which most of the people here are."

The event, which is sponsored by the Active 20-30 Club No. 50, and raises money for charities that help underprivileged youth in the Santa Rosa area, is split up into two parts, with the smaller, high-ticket VIP Craft Cup, held from 1 to 4 p.m, drawing twice as many attendees as last year.

"We want to move in this direction, to the smaller, more intimate setting," said Brian Sosnowchik, co-chairman of the event. "I am thrilled beyond words with the turnout that we got this year."

More than 600 people paid $95 for a ticket to taste beers and talk with brewers as certified experts judged entries from about 50 craft breweries and cider makers. There was also the 'Wich Hunt sandwich contest with restaurants from all over Sonoma competing.

Heretic Brewing Co. of Fairfield won Best in Show for its Shallow Grave porter, while Fall River Brewing Co. won a vote of the VIP attendees. Greg Rasmussen won a competition for the best home-brewed beer.

The Main Event, which cost $40 a ticket, ran from 4 to 8 p.m. and featured beer and cider tasting, samples from local restaurants and the cover band Cover Me Badd.

The VIP event drew praise from the craft-brew fans who attended.

"I've been coming here every year since about 2009," said Danielle Noble, 37, of Santa Rosa. "I think they are totally going in the right direction."

Noble said she was especially excited about the double IPA unveiled this year at the event by Santa Rosa's Fogbelt Brewery.

"When I heard about that, I knew I had to be here," she said.

University of Washington grad student Rachel Anderson, 26, who grew up in Windsor, said she made a special trip from Seattle to be at the event.

"It's great exposure for local breweries," she said. "They've gotten really well organized. It's not too crowded or too crazy like other events."

It's exactly what co-sponsor Peter Bjorklund wanted to hear.

"Beer drinkers are into beer just like wine drinkers are into wine," he said. "The elite event gives them the opportunity to talk to other beer lovers and to taste and compare notes."

Alicia and Ben Wolf made their first trip to the event, bringing a friend, John Strostaroba, with them this year — and Alicia's father, Jim Krause.

"I brought my 72-year-old father here," said Alicia Wolf, 37 of Santa Rosa. "My mom is home baby-sitting my 3-year-old so we can come here and drink beer."