Roger Olson was a much younger man when he helped plan the Fall Extravaganza, a fundraiser for the Active 20-30 Club that was the precursor to Battle of the Brews, held Saturday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Olson, a former president of the club, recalled the Extravaganza as a “free-for-all” featuring a steak and baked potato dinner and lots of “Jack Daniels.”
Contrast that with Saturday’s setting, in which thousands of paying customers sampled craft brews and ciders, noshed on meticulously crafted sandwiches from the likes of John Ash & Co. or even gleaned tax advice at a booth staffed by employees from H&R Block, one of the event’s sponsors.
“It’s become a lot more professional,” Olson, 72, said of the event, as he and his 23-year-old daughter, Kelsey Olson, listened to a live band.
Having turned 19 Saturday, Battle of the Brews, which raises money for charities that help underprivileged youth in the Santa Rosa area, seems to have mostly outgrown its awkward and rowdy adolescent stage.
During the high-ticket VIP Craft Cup, for instance, guests enjoyed three hours of almost unfettered access to 49 craft brewers and cider makers and to food purveyors.
“I like the VIP area because it’s not crowded,” said Amber Tobler of Santa Rosa.
The mood changed after 4 p.m., when people who paid $40 in advance for the Main Event, or $50 at the door, were allowed into Grace Pavilion, which got a lot more cozy and loud in a hurry.
“I give into beer pressure,” stated one man’s T-shirt. “Wish you were beer,” read another.
The line outside Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s CouchTrippin’ VideoBooth grew long, and the empty space in front of the main stage was taken over by dancers.
Security personnel also could be seen cutting wrist bands off people determined to be beyond the acceptable limits of tipsy.
At that point, it was more like a scene from Battle of the Brewskis, as consumption seemed to take precedent over craft. By 7 p.m. the taps were shut off and it was over by 8.
Brian Sosnowchik, co-chairman of Battle of the Brews, said about 2,300 people attended the event and that tickets sold out at the door for the first time.
“I’m confident this is the most successful year we have had in the 19-year history. I’m excited about that,” an exhausted Sosnowchik said late Saturday after the event was over.
As for the competition, judges awarded an imperial stout called Naughty Aud from 101 North Brewing Co. in Petaluma best of show in the craft brewing division. FoxCraft in Santa Rosa took top honors in the cider division with its pear offering.
Anthony Turner, assistant brewer at 101 North, said the best of show award felt “pretty impressive” because the brewery hasn’t been operating long. The brewery also earned top honors for Best IPA and Best Stout.
At the other end of the spectrum, members of the Sonoma Beerocrats Homebrewing Club seemed happy to just be there and to have people interested in what they had cooked up.
Club member Steve Brainerd debuted El Simcoe, an IPA he named after a hop varietal. Pouring some into a cup and inhaling the aroma, Brainerd said the light-colored beer contained hints of citrus, mango, blueberries and “blah, blah, blah.”