A “LONG READ” IN WHICH WE LOOK AT A LEGEND AND ITS PRESENT INCARNATION
A Brief Corporate History
Tawny amber Ballantine India Pale Ale is a famous brand in American brewing annals. It dates from the mid-1800s when P. Ballantine & Sons of Albany, NY and later, Newark, NJ, was expanding steadily.
Ballantine shut its doors when National Prohibition stopped legal brewing in America in 1919. The company started up again with Repeal in 1933. Two German brothers, the Badenhausens, seeing an opportunity, bought the brewery that year from the Ballantine heirs. As brewing had stopped from 1919-1933, a Scottish brewmaster was brought in to recreate the beers which had made Newark famous.
Ballantine was an outlier in the sense of continuing the Northeast’s original, English-inspired brewing tradition. The founder, Peter Ballantine, was a Scots immigrant and he followed the top-fermentation methods of his homeland. While a Ballantine “beer” (lager) was introduced before World War I, Ballantine carved a niche by sticking mainly to Anglo-Saxon beer types.
In addition to the IPA, these included a golden XXX ale, a brown stout, porter, and a long-aged barley wine, its “Burton ale”. The latter was never sold at retail but was given to valued customers and other friends as a rare specialty.
Ballantine was sold in 1969 to a New York investor group, which sold it in 1972 to Falstaff, a sizable national-scale brewery. Falstaff had done well post-war but was running into trouble in the raider era of the 70s. After the Falstaff purchase, the Newark brewery was closed. Brewing of the Ballantine labels re-commenced in Cranston, RI at the Narragansett brewery owned by Falstaff. The India Pale Ale had always been aged for about a year in large wooden tanks, and the practice continued at Cranston.
In 1975, Falstaff was sold to S & P, a company owned by Paul Kalmanovitz who amassed and was consolidating a group of breweries under the banner, finally, of the famous Pabst Brewery of Milwaukee. After his death, a charitable trust ran the brewery. Investor Dean Metropolous bought it from the trust and later sold it to a partnership formed by American drinks executive Eugene Kashper and a San Francisco-based private equity firm.
In the Pabst era, Ballantine IPA was brewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana from about 1980-1990, and finally in Milwaukee before being discontinued in 1995.
This timeline will be helpful to those who wish more detail on the business history.
Pabst owns, today, no breweries and contracts out production of its labels. MillerCoors produces the bigger-volume names, including Ballantine XXX and the cult brand “PBR” (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Smaller breweries are hired to make lesser-known, small-volume, or experimental brands.
The India Pale Ale
Early descriptions of the beer (circa-1900) speak of it being “light” (pale, not weak) and very bitter, which is typical of the India Pale Ales famous in England for a century. Ballantine India Pale Ale was probably similar to these, but may have had an American hop smack. American hops from the beginning were regarded as different to English and German ones. British brewers in the Victorian era described American hops as tasting of blackcurrant (funky vegetal) or pine. The main hop grown was Cluster, a hybrid of wild American hops and English or other European types imported to the new world. New York State grew a lot of Cluster until a wilt wiped out the crop early in the 1900’s.
Cluster, still grown, has a slightly off or “dank” flavour, to use the modern term. To my taste, it is quite different from the modern Cascade, Colombus and similar hops whose signature flavour is of grapefruit or tropical fruit. I would describe Cluster as mainly English-tasting – clean, cedar-like, a little earthy – but with “something different”.
Did Ballantine India Pale Ale in 1900 use Cluster or otherwise have a piney or “dank” flavour? We can’t know for certain, but I think likely it did. A 1930s brewing manual advised, for ales, either a mix of domestic and imported hops or just the domestic. It would make sense that this prescription came from pre-WW I practice. Domestic hops were often used in whole or in part in beers which underwent long storage. Ballantine IPA was of this type as it stood in wooden vessels for at least one year. Therefore, it probably had a slightly different character to the great English pale ales.
As for the post-Repeal era, no one knows for sure either: the original Ballantine brewing records have apparently been lost. It is known, however, that the recipe kept changing, probably to take account of the different breweries the beer was brewed in and different brewing materials available over time. Mitch Steele, in his excellent study of India Pale Ale, gives good background on Ballantine IPA, his book is linked below.
The fact that Pabst in 1995 discontinued the beer showed a remarkable lack of vision. Pale ale was being recreated by American craft brewers who took inspiration from English originals and Ballantine India Pale Ale itself as a rare surviving American exemplar. Beer writer Michael Jackson had lauded the beer, which added to its allure. Yet Pabst, whose focus was on the price segment and volume, felt this historic property and brand was not in its future. It is generally accepted that by the 1980’s and 90’s, Ballantine IPA was not what it was: not as strong, not as long-aged and not as hoppy, but it was still a good beer. I remember, as I often bought it in the 80’s and 90’s but first started drinking it in the 70’s.
In Mitch Steele’s book, two detailed recipes are given for Ballantine India Pale Ale (see pp 239-240). These are completely credible. They used hops known to have been available during the years in question such as Bullion, Cluster, Brewer’s Gold, Styrian Goldings. Most were English in orientation but sometimes with a new world kick. None had, IMO, a grapefruit taste. Other metrics of the beer are mentioned in Steele’s book, from the 1930s in this case, including ABV, original and final gravity, and colour. So a beer could have been put together from these sources with good credibility. Alternatively, a blending of known recipes would have been perfectly fine. But in the result, some hops were employed which didn’t exist prior to 1972. The palate attained is much more “IPA”, i.e., the IPA taste associated with the American craft revolution, than Ballantine IPA was in its classic era or indeed my taste memory suggests.
The Return Of Ballantine IPA
In 2014, Pabst finally re-issued the beer. It is brewed in Cold Springs, MN, at a smallish facility with an old history. According to credible-sounding information gleaned from the Internet, the hops selected for the beer include Magnum, Columbus, Cluster, Fuggles/Willamette, Cascade, Target and Brewers Gold. Of this group, four or five, as mentioned above, are varieties released since 1972, especially the citrus-tasting Cascade and Columbus. These hops offered new tastes, ones which helped power the U.S. craft beer phenomenon but which didn’t exist in Ballantine IPA’s heyday of 1800’s-1972. Neither did Magnum, a high alpha bittering hop, or Target.
Still, the decision was made to re-introduce the beer using such hops, plus some from pre-1972.
I find the smell and taste of grapefruit prominent in the blend. Numerous reviews of the beer online refer to this flavour. I do not recall the characteristic when I drank the beer from the 70s until 1996. I will be the first to admit that from at least 1982, the beer did use Cascade, together with Bullion. Here is the proof, see the entry for Ballantine India Pale Ale in the first program of the “Great American Beer Festival 1982”. However, the beer didn’t have a strong citric taste then, the Bullion must have predominated and perhaps Cascade was used for bittering, not aroma. The recreation which came out a few years ago of New Albion Pale Ale, a beer first brewed in 1976 using Cascade, didn’t particularly taste of grapefruit, which shows that the hop can be used in different ways…
As for Ballantine IPA in the 1970s, while memory is not reliable that far back, I don’t recall any citric taste. Nor do reviews in beer books published at the time refer to such a taste. They speak of the beer being pungent or aromatic, but don’t equate the taste for example to emerging craft beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Liberty Ale, Cascade-driven from inception.
My sense is, the Cascade and Columbus are too telling in the beer’s palate. In general, I don’t really see why so many hops are used, two or three should have been enough, Cluster and either Fuggles or Goldings, say, or Magnum with Styrian Goldings or Kent Goldings.
A “modern” hop blend was probably selected because the hop types available before 1972 are hard to source in commercial quantities. Still, other steps might have been taken: the requisite hops might have been contracted from a hop farm, or the beer released as draft-only.
Re-creating Ballantine IPA was a major event in American brewing history. One can only be pleased the beer exists again in any form. Still, I confess to being disappointed with the taste. I have no issues with the malt characteristics or the colour, or the lack of one year’s aging in wood – some kind of oak addition was made, fine – but the hop taste is not right. The beer resembles (in our view) hundreds of craft IPAs in the market, and the distinctiveness was lost.
The company has advertised recently that the equally legendary Ballantine Burton Ale will soon reappear. One hopes it will taste like a barley wine would have before the era of the new American hops.