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The idea of a beer aficionado used to conjure images of a guy playing poker or kicking back at a party with his buddies.

But a plethora of world-class beers on California's North Coast and the growth of craft beers nationwide are drawing a growing pool of fans and more women into the mix.

"I love trying new beers that maybe I can't try at a regular bar," said Haley Fess, 27, of Santa Rosa, who works in advertising and marketing. "I'm not scared of the fact that only boys drink beer ... Having Russian River Brewery in my own backyard really opened my eyes."

Her friend, Tamara Russell, 25, of Santa Rosa liked the chocolate and toffee flavors in a beer from Ballast Point.

Fess and her girlfriends were among an estimated 2,000 attendees at the 17th annual Battle of the Brews, an event at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday that featured selections from more than 40 craft breweries. The event, organized by Active 20-30 Club of Santa Rosa, was a fundraiser for local children's charities. It has raised nearly $1 million over the years, said Craig Worthen, co-chairman for the event.

Regional favorites Lagunitas Brewing Company, North Coast Brewing Co. and Anderson Valley Brewery were pouring samples alongside industry heavyweights like Heineken and MillerCoors.

"I think it's a younger crowd, but also I think we've seen a lot more fathers and sons come out, or even mothers and daughters, whole families," Worthen said. "There's always been a lot of women; it's a nice, safe, fun event."

About 30 breweries entered a "Craft Cup" competition decided by professional beer judges, and all were a part of the "People's Choice" contest.

Russian River Brewery, the Santa Rosa beer lover's mecca, was not a part of the festival, disappointing a number of fans in the crowd.

"If they were here, trust me, there would be no competition," said Tony Ortega, 25 of Santa Rosa.

"Everybody goes there after here anyway," said his friend Cal Ferrere, 30.

Cloverdale's Ruth McGowan's Brewpub drew a long line of dedicated drinkers waiting for a pour. Nearby, co-owners of 101 North Brewing Co., which recently began brewing in Petaluma, poured samples of its Heroine IPA.

"Women really like this, because it's not overly hoppy," said John Lilienthal, sales manager for 101 North.

Meanwhile, the server in the Heineken line wasn't too busy pouring.

"It's surprising that they're serving the regular Heineken," said Scott Brown, 32 of Windsor. "You'd think they'd serve something new."

Jack Van Stone, a sales representative for Lost Coast Brewery, milled through the crowd carrying an orange surfboard advertising the Great White brew. He said that although craft beers are exploding, there will always be a crowd that loves Budweiser and Coors.

"There's so many breweries opening so fast," Van Stone said. "As a consumer, I love all the types, all the styles coming out. When you're in sales, it makes it more competitive."

Lost Coast is planning to open a second location in southern Eureka and will be breaking ground later this spring, he said.

The crowd picked Lagunitas Brewing Co. as the best beer in the show, and Ace, made by the California Cider Co. in Sebastopol, was picked for best cider, according to Worthen. In the professional competition, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. won for best in show for its Union Jack IPA.

How to attend

The Russian River Rodeo resumes Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., at 23450 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills.

Admission is $12 for adults, $7 for those 60 and over and $5 for children 12 and under.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz @pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @cbussewitz.

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