Between a takeover battle in China and the emergence of a new top global brewer, mergers and acquisitions have added froth to the beer industry this year.

In SABMiller's annual report, CEO Graham Mackay laid out his view of beer industry consolidation, in which the first phase -- where dominant players snatch up underperforming local brewers -- was essentially complete, and the next phase -- mergers of equals between the established brewers -- was under way. You could argue that SAB's purchase of Miller Brewing Company from Altria (NYSE:MO) in 2002 was the first of these mergers, with Adolph Coors' (NYSE:RKY) bid for Canada's Molson being the most recently announced.

This year's biggest deal, by far, was Interbrew's purchase of Brazilian brewer AmBev, as the combined company outfoxedAnheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD) while snagging the title of world's largest brewer (by volume) from the St. Louis company. Anheuser-Busch may still generate more sales in dollars than AmBev, but losing its undisputed grip on the top spot must have been a blow to the king's psyche.

Yet despite the dominance of large brewers, the beer industry remains extremely fragmented, with local beers still comprising roughly 80% of worldwide sales. In many countries, especially in Europe, beer is primarily a local tradition, and mass market brewers have struggled to introduce their top sellers to international markets. Recent results from Coors and Anheuser-Busch depict U.S. and Western European beer markets that are fully saturated and stagnating, making international acquisitions an important source of growth for the top beer makers.

As the former communist country develops its taste for recreational activities, China will weigh heavily on the big brewers' minds. China has already surpassed the U.S. in total beer consumption, and the market is growing at up to 8% a year, compared with growth of about 1% here at home. China's beer market really came into focus earlier this year, when Anheuser-Busch bested SABMiller for Harbin Brewery in the first hostile takeover attempt of a mainland company. I suspect that SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch, both of which have significant presence in China, are the early favorites to win there. AmBev, however, is a strong international competitor that dominates the youthful South American market.

Although it hasn't been an issue yet, Anheuser-Busch's growing debt load, and habit of returning all of its earnings to shareholders, could put a crimp in its international ambitions. At one time it looked as though nobody could dethrone the king, but now it's impossible to predict who will ultimately win the battle for global beer-brewing supremacy.

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Fool contributor Chris Mallon owns shares of Anheuser-Busch and Altria through his private investment partnership.