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Highlights of the year in beer

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In the past year, we too often have focused on what divides and too seldom concentrated on what could unite us. In a convivial spirit, here are some highlights of the year in beer.

North Carolina now holds its own in the craft beer world, an unheard-of possibility a decade ago. At the nation's largest domestic beer competition in Denver, Colo., Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem won coveted gold and bronze medals, and newbie LoneRider of Raleigh claimed a gold.

Here in the Triangle, three new breweries opened—Roth Brewing Co., Fullsteam and Mystery—bringing our area total to nine. Durham's Triangle Brewing Co. joined the small club of American specialty brewers to offer craft beer in cans. And Asheville toppled Portland, Ore. (known to its residents as "Beervana"), to win the title of Beer City USA 2010 in an online poll. Portland is itching for a rematch.

We probably have to retire the phrase "craft beer revolution," now that the founders of the modern craft beer era are, themselves, retiring. In the summer, Fritz Maytag, who rescued the failing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco in the 1970s, sold his company to a beverage investment group. Under Maytag, Anchor revived indigenous American steam beer, brewed the first modern India pale ale and resurrected traditional porter and spiced holiday beer. He also created the first American barley wine, made the first American wheat beer since Prohibition and created the first "archaeological" beer based on evidence from ancient artifacts. The new owners shoulder a mighty legacy.

Maytag and four other craft beer pioneers (Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman, author Fred Eckhardt, home brewing hero Charlie Papazian and historic microbrewer Jack McAuliffe) marked the 30th anniversary of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. by brewing four limited-edition collaborative beers. The craft beer movement has seen so much change in three decades that not one of the commemorative brews could have been imagined when Sierra Nevada opened.

The year demonstrated that we're not done yet with super-strong beers. BrewDog, a maverick Scottish micro, released Tactical Nuclear Penguin at an implausible 32 percent alcohol by volume. A German brewery responded with a 40 percent super-bock. BrewDog cooked up Sink the Bismarck, promising to "crank the speakers up" to 41 percent. Then they outdid themselves with The End of History. Only a dozen bottles of the 55 percent ale were produced, each one inserted into stuffed roadkill: seven stoats, four squirrels and one hare, taxidermically prepared and tastefully dressed in a range of outfits including a kilt and a top hat. It sold out at a price of £500 per bottle.

For all its hype, BrewDog at least claims to be interested in the flavor of its high-test beers. Not so two fast-growing new brands—Four Loko and Joose—that combine high alcohol, high caffeine, soda pop flavor and low price. Attorneys general around the country are rushing to invent ways to ban the brands. By next year, partiers seeking a cheap, alert drunk may have to revert to Red Bull and vodka.

Anheuser-Busch, now owned by Belgian/ Brazilian InBev, this year started to shed properties to help pay for InBev's $52 billion takeover deal. Goodbye to three SeaWorlds, two Busch Gardens and five other parks. And even though the worst fears of animal lovers did not come to pass, an appearance by the iconic Clydesdales will now set you back $2,000. The horses have been a part of A-B promotions since 1933, when a team of Clydesdales delivered the first post-Prohibition beer brewed in St. Louis.

When Prohibition ended, it became legal to make wine at home. But the legalization of home brewing beer didn't happen until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. This year, Oklahoma joined the ranks of states to OK the practice. Home brewing is still illegal in Alabama and Mississippi.

The founding fathers were quite at home with beer. George Washington has left us his recipe for porter, firebrand Sam Adams was a maltster, and colonial taverns fomented revolution, as well as fermenting beer. Modern politicians are distinctly queasier when it comes to alcohol, with some exceptions: Pete Coors of Colorado ran for the Senate, and Sen. John McCain benefits from his wife Cindy's family ownership of a beer distributorship.

This year, however, a member of the craft brewing community ascended to high political office. John Hickenlooper, the smart and affable mayor of Denver, is now the state's governor. Hickenlooper founded the Wynkoop brewpub in downtown Denver, an anchor for the revival of LoDo (lower downtown) neighborhoods.

What to look for next? At the edge of the envelope, fans are drawn to beer styles that are deliberately sour and to strong beers aged in wooden barrels for added nuance. But the emerging beer style of 2010 has got to be the oxymoronic "black India pale ale," or black IPA. It combines the roasty, rich qualities of a dark stout with the assertive bitterness of an IPA. It's not to everyone's taste, but, as 2011 seems sure to be a year when we ask competing elements to work together, this might be a tasty way to get started.

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