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Last call in Steel City

About 30 years ago, you could walk into just about any self-respecting saloon in America and get the same response to a word-association game matching beers and the towns that made them famous.

Such as: Schlitz — Milwaukee, WI, Iron City — Pittsburgh, PA, Rheingold — Brooklyn, NY, Rolling Rock — Latrobe, PA– and so on and so forth.

Not any more.

This week, the historic red-brick brewery in Pittsburgh that has been churning out Iron City beer since 1861 will produce its last few drops of the Steel City’s favorite golden liquid.

The brewery, which survived the Civil War, two World Wars and a Great Depression, is closing—but Iron City will not disappear. It soon will emerge from the taps at a brewery in Latrobe, PA, that used to produce Rolling Rock.

Rolling Rock is now produced in Newark, NJ. And the last time we checked on Rheingold, the long-defunct New York staple was briefly produced at Schmidt’s Philadelphia brewery (although they still attempted to market it as a ”great New York beer”).

Confused? Well, here are some sobering statistics that may clear things up for you.

In the mid-1990s, the Iron City brewery cooked up about a million barrels of suds annually. According to reports, this year’s output at the Pittsburgh landmark will total less than 171,000 barrels.

By comparison, industry titans like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Miller each put more than 50 million barrels of beer on the American wall every year. For several decades now, about two dozen large regional breweries have waged a valiant fight for survival against these giants, who pour out an ocean of industrial-strength lager each day at 20 mega-breweries throughout the U.S.

But the continued dominance of the national beer icons is not putting the final nail in the coffin of our favorite local brands. This is being hammered home by the emergence of the craft beer and microbrewery business, which has grown exponentially throughout the country.

According to www.beertown.org, there now are more than 1,500 craft breweries operating in the U.S., including 65 small regional breweries, 446 microbreweries and 990 brewpubs. A craft brewery is an outlet that produces less than 2 million barrels annually (with at least 50 percent of its volume malt beer); a microbrewery produces less than 15,000 barrels per year (with 75 percent or more of its product sold offsite); a brewpub is a restaurant/brewery that sells 25 percent or more of its beer on site (i.e. — the beer is brewed primarily for sale in the restaurant or bar).

The Beertown site reports that output of U.S. craft breweries increased to nearly 8.6 million barrels in 2008, compared to about 8 million barrels the year before, while output for non-craft regional breweries remained, well, flat. The craft brew industry is generating more than $6 billion in annual revenue, growing 6 percent by volume and more than 10 percent by dollars annually. Within the craft suds sector, microbreweries are proliferating at an even faster rate.

So don’t waste too much time crying in your last mug of ”authentic” Iron City, beer fans. While some of the great old names are going the way of the dinosaurs, these are being replaced by a kaleidoscopic universe of new labels and flavors. We’d give you a breakdown of the mindboggling number of choices now available, but we’re getting thirsty.

However, before we head out to hoist a few, we will serve up one heady factoid that absolutely knocks our socks off –

It turns out that the state with the greatest per capita number of breweries in the United States is—you may want to sit down before you read this –VERMONT. That’s right, the Green Mountain State has a brewery for every 32,698 citizens. The runners up are Montana, Oregon, Maine and Colorado.

Wait a minute. We just received a challenge from the great state of New Jersey. A guy in Kearny, NJ, claims his town has more bars per street corner than any city in America. He wants a recount.

In the interest of fair and balanced journalism, this calls for a thorough investigation.

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