Context Changes Everything, Usually – Part II

making-changeIn my post yesterday, I discussed how the image of a beer, wine or food can change when a smaller company is bought out by a larger one. I also pointed out that even without such a sale, longevity in the business or increased competition will alter public perceptions over time, except when they don’t for magic circle products like Coke or Heinz Ketchup.

Today I want to raise an aspect often overlooked in these discussions, which is that something vital is often lost when a small company is sold to a much bigger one. It’s not that the products purchased will change over time (although they may). But the products will be integrated in the company’s existing range, usually as a specialty line or in a separate division. Former management may stay on for a few years, but in time will depart. The specific vision and mindset they had which, had the company remained independent, might result in the adoption of new products or positive changes to existing ones, are unlikely to exist in a large company staffed by professional managers which reports financial results to public shareholders.

In the last 10 years or so, the core products of an acquired small brewery are usually continued – this is unlike the typical pattern of brewery takeovers in previous generations. Indeed, the same or a similar standard often is maintained. Ontario’s Creemore Lager, say, tastes as it always did despite being made for 10 years now by Molson Coors. To be sure, new Creemore beers have been added since the purchase, including pilsener and keller (unfiltered) versions. In my view, these are very similar to Creemore Lager itself though. There is also a darkish altbier, although its background taste (to me) is very much “Creemore”.

Had Creemore not been bought 10 years ago, might the brewery have issued completely different new products? Maybe a line of English-style ales, or an IPA, or a Belgian range, or a pumpkin beer or sour beer? I think this is likely, whereas in the hands of the current owner, the brand line is fairly static. There are pros and cons in this of course. Creemore has much wider distribution than when its founders ran it. You can buy it in Quebec. It’s available in hundreds of bars and restaurants across Ontario, when at one time it could be hard to find.

But something vital may have been lost.

Take Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of the great successes of the craft brewing revival. It has remained independent for over 35 years and is still controlled by one of the founders, Ken Grossman. After many years of sticking to the original product line, it blossomed some years ago with a range of creative and interesting styles. Some bear only a tangential connection to the original line-up of Pale Ale, Stout, Porter, Celebration Ale and Bigfoot. There’s the Ovila Belgian-style range, a reconfigured Celebration Ale, numerous collaborations, a fine red IPA, etc. Had Sierra Nevada been sold 20 years ago, would this further range of beers and tastes have graced the public market? I doubt it. I think the same is true of Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams Lager and an almost countless number of other beers. Had Boston Beer Company been bought 20 years ago by mega-brewing, there might be two or three of its products only in the market – maybe only two, Sam Adams Boston Lager and the light version.

Innovation and new products or line extensions seem order of the day in Chicago at Goose Island Brewery, taken over by Anheuser Busch InBev a few years ago. Maybe small-company flexibility and creativity can continue at large shops, too. There is an exception to almost everything in life. But it remains to be seen if this trend will last.

It should be said too that a large company focused on the price or mass-market segment can spontaneously adopt small company ways: this happened when Pabst finally re-issued Ballantine India Pale Ale. Unfortunately, the company missed the mark regarding the palate of this product, in my opinion, but that’s another issue.

In general from what I’ve seen, large companies think differently than small ones. They are not as good at certain things and better at others. In a perfect world, I’d rather see all small companies continue for generations and stay family-owned unless sold to key employees. But the world is not perfect. Small companies need access to capital, and good distribution to expand and even (sometimes) survive. A founder may take sick, or want to retire, and not find someone suitable to continue the business. When small breweries are sold, some of that risk is reduced. But something is often lost, too.


Note re image used: The image, entitled Make Change, is in the public domain and was sourced here.

Context Changes Everything – Usually

Ontario beer writer Jordan St. John, in this posting, raises toward the end an interesting issue, whether a change of context such as sale of a craft brewery to a mega-brewer changes perceptions of a beer.

The answer is clearly yes.

This is not peculiar to takeovers of hitherto mom and pops by large, publicly-traded entities. Even where a well-regarded brewery retains independence, increased distribution and availability of its beer and of course competition by new entrants tend to ratchet down its amperage over time.

No one regards Anchor Brewery of San Francisco, or California’s Sierra Nevada Brewery, with indifference much less derision. Still, the magical aura surrounding them twenty and thirty years ago has largely dissipated. Ditto for the Belgian white beer, Hoegaarden, the Belgian Trappist beer, Chimay, and the Imperial-type Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka (a former British colony under a different name) – all lauded decades ago by the peerless beer critic Michael Jackson. Countless other beers fall in this category.

pink-elephant-peanutJust the other day, I was struck by a signboard in front of a pub advertising the strong Belgian specialty beer, Delirium Tremens. The pub was not a beer haven as such, but this distinctive beer was available there – an example of its success in getting into the wider market. Today it’s another import, one of almost an endless number available…

The answer is, and this applies to wine, whisky, a restaurant’s cuisine, or a cheese, to assess them strictly on merit. One must try to abstract out all other considerations. It’s not always easy. Assuming no significant production changes over time, a classic is still a classic whether sold by a community of cloistered monks or a multinational behemoth.

Some products seem to resist changes of context, they have a beguiling power which ensures that familiarity will never breed contempt. Champagne is like this, or Coca-Cola, or Heinz ketchup. In beer, Pilsner Urquell occupies this territory, and two others at least: Heineken and Guinness. They have preserved the mystique they acquired early on, whether that is deserved is another question. (I think it is for the first two, not for Guinness). Various factors play into it. Urquell was the first blonde pilsner beer (1842) and took Europe and then the world by storm. Even the long Communist interlude in the former Czechoslovakia could not shake that.

Heineken was the first European import to reach American after Repeal in 1933, and acquired an ensconced position it never lost in American bourgeois and haute circles. Guinness soldiered on long after porter and stout almost died out in their homeland of England, and shone by being “the” widely available black beer when most were blonde or amber.

Sometimes superstars of long standing do burn out, this has happened in my view to Budweiser (not the Light) and also to Coors Banquet (not the light version again).

The takeaway: use your own judgment. Be swayed neither by trends nor common perceptions unless you are a brewer or a retailer of liquor products, if so then it’s different. Maybe*.


*Note re image used: The image above is entitled, “Pink Elephant, Peanut”, and is in the public domain. The source used is here.

Reflections On The Wallace Gastropub, Toronto

As an always-enjoyable respite for a quick one, The Wallace Gastropub in the Davisville area of Toronto is hard to beat. (Davisville is midtown, a mixed use area, but the towers surrounding are getting ever higher).

I only get there occasionally, but always enjoy it when I do.

The Wallace has an excellent draft beer selection, not quite like anyone else’s. It has a number of fine craft local beers, some great imported ones including the impressive Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Draft Pale Ale, and Rogue (varying brews) in Oregon, and a clutch of interesting European imports. The latter include some top British and German names, plus the Czech Pilsner Urquell.

In a profession noted for amiable proprietors, majordomo John Pirathap is second to none.  Last night he threw his annual guest appreciation party, the first I’ve been able to attend. The food and the beer were first rate. I enjoyed Side Launch Pale Ale, one of the best Anglo-American bitter ale styles in Canada, and the awesome Muskoka Harvest Ale. If one is having both, they are useful to drink in that order as reversing would risk losing the more subtle but flavoursome notes of the Side Launch.

roast-pig (1)John’s generous finger food included slices of a medium-size pig roasted whole – it was displayed early in the evening and made quite a sight. I must have been so taken I forgot to capture it on my phone, but it had a golden crispy look and was done to, well, a turn*.

It was not long off the spit as the slices came hot and fresh with that great crispy skin. A hoisin-type sauce was served with it. I suspect Chinese methods were used in general to prepare the hog, as it tasted great and the Chinese are masters of pork roasting in this way. John’s pakora-type triangular pastries were superb too, in this case with beef and I believe there was a vegetable version as well.

The place was very busy, not just with invited guests, it was a bustling pre-Black Friday night.

The location was originally (years ago) the Bow & Arrow, which had its own charm – Sussex meets Canuck, one might say – but I like it as much now; it is both the same and different.

One should never take for granted expressions of amity and generosity as occurred last night, they come at bottom from the heart of the man who makes everything happen there, John. His excellent staff should be mentioned too, all pros in my experience.


*The image shown is in the public domain and the source is this link back.



Bourbon and Friends

IMG_20151114_165525Some good friends at – the world’s best bourbon site – have said nice things about this blog. I want to return the favour by putting up a bourbon whiskey review unadorned: no beer, no food history, no ten dollar words.

The bottles pictured were bought on my recent trip to New York (Manhattan). Bought in New York, yes, but it’s all genuine Kentucky Bourbon.

They are all in the “price” category, inexpensive. Having been involved in the bourbon renaissance since, well, forever, and with since 2002, I recall times when fine bourbon and U.S. straight rye went for a song. Yes, we had it good. But times change. Due to the buzz caused in part by groundbreaking forums like, bourbon, particularly aged bourbon, became more scarce in the market. Today, one can pay double or more to what was asked 8-10 years ago for the same bottle… It’s the price of success.

In fact, even if one ignores the price difference, many brands still on the market from then (some were withdrawn) aren’t the values they were since the whiskey is not as old as it was. The glut then – from barrelled bourbon sitting long in warehouses when it wasn’t a fashionable drink –  has disappeared, in other words.

I tend therefore today to look for values, and some can still be found.

One reliable brand, Four Roses Yellow Label, goes for $27 (CAN) or so at LCBO and is an excellent product: soft and reminding of certain yellow fruits.

Of those pictured, Very Old Barton at six years old expresses the vigorous palate of the true whiskey taste of Bardstown, KY. It’s got lotsa wood and lotsa taste, it’s not that refined but it ain’t chemical moonshine either, not by a long shot. It mixes well, especially with Coke, but goes down on the rocks or with a splash just fine.

The Zackariah Harris bottle is a litre of good times for only $15 (U.S.), and that’s midtown prices in N.Y.C., it’s even less in the regions. This is what the straightbourbon crowd call a NDP brand – non-distilling producer. A merchant bought the whiskey in bulk from an established distiller, put a cool name on it and put it on the market. Many of these are variable in quality but Zackariah Harris is a winner. Although it is, according to the neck label, only 36 months old, this is mature, very palatable bourbon. (Sometimes the whiskey in the bottle, or part of it, is older than the claimed age).

It’s excellent sipped straight with a soft feel on the tongue and no off tastes of cleanser, soap or raw corn as you sometimes get in young whiskey.

The Evan Williams bourbon is a classic from famed Heaven Hill distillery, also of Bardstown KY (spiritual centre of distilling in old Kentucky). It’s got a strong, clean taste with a little caramel, and while not as old as it once was, has plenty of old-time whiskey character. And it is under $20 a bottle for the regular 750 ml size.

All bourbon is good except the young corny or chemical stuff. I will hardly knock the great bourbons aged from 8-21 years, I’ve had almost all of them in my time. They offer charming experiences peculiar to the distillery which made them or NDP who sold them. And your Knob Creek from old Jim Beam of Clermont, KY, at 9 years old (or it was last time I looked) is very sound by any measure.

But good American whiskey doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. When I took that first sip of the Zackariah, it immediately brought back those first visits to lovely Bardstown, before the days of the celebrity distiller and master bartender. Before the time when the names of great whiskey writers were on the tongue of hipsters haunting the aisles of liquor stores.  It was just the taste of the country south of the Mason-Dixon: a little smoky, sweet/maple-like, reminding one of good times talking with feet up on country porches and a wood fire going near by.

I am not drinking any now, but I’ll make an imagined toast to the good friends I made in Bardstown, KY all those years: to Jim Butler, Bettye-Jo, Cliff, Jeff, Thad, Paul, Joe, Scott, Cam from Australia (yes), the late Tim Sousley, John Lipman, Randy, and many, many more. They are more important than the whiskey ever was.



Craft Beer – Once More With Feeling

One of the questions which regularly preoccupies many who write about beer is the meaning of “craft beer” and whether the term is still useful. Craft beer, as an expression, has become standard to describe the kind of beer that arose in the last generation in reaction to mass-market light beer or other well-known “commercial” brands. This alternative beer was rich-tasting and often hoppy from generous quantities of bitter or aromatic hops. Since the small businesses associated with the beer revival often made this kind of beer, and small meant hands-on and one of a kind, the term “craft beer” arose (20 years ago or more) to describe the kind of beer they made. The term then became generalized to describe the good stuff.

This was always a simplification, but business and culture need simplification to facilitate sales and the spread of information in a coherent fashion. There is nothing wrong with that.

An initial spate of talk ensued about the craft beer definition when large breweries, concerned by the market rise of the little guy, started to make their own craft-type beers.

Now that a growing number of craft breweries have been bought out or are taking heavy investment by mega-brewers, concern arises again what craft beer is and whether the term is still useful.

Add to this that brewers’ trade groups often have their own classification (or not) of the industry, and the consumer beer media have editorial policies how to describe beers and breweries in their publications.

Just today, beer writer Stan Hieronymus revisits the definitional issue and links some recent writing of interest.

Since starting up here over the summer, I believe I haven’t written on this issue, although I’ve opined for years on it before that on others’ blogs, so I’ll add this now.

In 1982, all these beers functionally occupied the space “craft beer” does today: Chimay Trappist Ale in Belgium, Ballantine India Pale Ale (U.S.), Ind Coope Burton Ale (England), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (U.S.), Anchor Steam Beer (U.S.), David Bruce’s Firkin beers in England, Cooper’s Sparkling Ale in Australia, Pilsner Urquell (the then Czech Republic).  I could add a few hundred more.

Some of these were made by large (national) companies, some by old-established regionals, some by boutiques, some by quasi-boutiques such as Anchor Brewing.

Some were pasteurized, some were not, some were all-malt, some were not.

A beer was recognized as valid by its inherent quality, of taste that is. Today, in the semi-post-craft beer era, we are slowly but surely returning to that state. This is salutary, because that is where it began and the criteria applied then by the small knot of world beer fanciers have never been improved.

There were, of course, arguments whether a beer really rated in the league-table, some thought e.g., Labatt IPA qualified, some didn’t, same for Yuengling Porter. Same for the unpasteurized Coors Banquet Beer. By the same token, numerous microbrewery beers of the time, as they were generally called then, were pretty dire: often oxidized, yeast-infected or otherwise poor quality. Just because they were from small independents didn’t mean they were truly craft, a term that always implied a certain quality level. Thus, the term had an inherent ambiguity from the beginning, but this has grown recently due to the acceptance of craft beer as a permanent part of the market and the acquisition trend lately manifest.

Quality of flavour and fidelity to style, or if you are going to create a new style, then the inherent interest it offers, are all that matter to the question of good beer. The rest, e.g., what a trade association says, or the editorial policy of a consumer beer magazine, may be of interest but are not determinative of the quality issue for a consumer.

Because quality of flavour is subjective and there are many beer styles out there (some of which offer a fairly bland taste), there will never be agreement what constitutes a great, middling or bad beer. I know what I think about it, though. And so do you, the informed beer person reading these notes. And that’s all that matters.


In Praise of Pumpkin Ale



With American Thanksgiving nigh and the Canadian just passed we may regard the season for pumpkin beer as roughly between the two.

Pumpkin ale is a perennial of the beer scene in the last 10 years or so, justifiably as well-made pumpkin beer ranks high in the Malt Firmament. Some people view it askance, thinking it a gimmick. This is far from accurate, as pumpkin beer has an old history, and when well-made again has a fine taste.

Numerous sources attest that it was known in Colonial times, eg. this 1892 article in American Notes and Queries. The Colonial Magazine and East India Review of the 1800s discloses a bottled “Texan Pumpkin Ale“, of which no production details survive.

In modern times pumpkin beer was revived in California by “Buffalo” Bill Owens. Owens, a craft brewing pioneer (and before that, an award-winning photo-journalist) is now devoted to craft distilling trade matters. He sold his brewpub about 20 years ago, to an employee who had worked with him since 1987. The famous beers pioneered by Owens carry on including his influential pumpkin ale.

As Owens recounts the story he decided to brew a beer with pumpkin, taking inspiration from a recipe of George Washington’s time. He mashed pumpkin flesh with barley malt, but after the starches converted to sugar found little “pumpkin” flavour. So he added a can of pumpkin spices found at a grocery store, the kind you use to make pumpkin pie, hence comprising nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace – that kind of mixture. The result was an immediate success and set the tone for the modern style of pumpkin beer which shows no sign of abating although the “craze” has lessened somewhat. A side-effect of Owens’ foresight is the tidal wave of pumpkin-flavoured coffees, teas, wines, muffins, and what-not in the market recently.

A debate which has much exercised the brewing world but seems to have died down is whether actual pumpkin should be used in pumpkin beer or just Owens’ can of pumpkin spices, or both. I say both. In a good pumpkin beer you can taste the gourd, a characteristic earthy taste that doesn’t completely disappear in brewing. But adding the spices – a light touch – adds a pleasing complexity and taste.

Flavoured beers in general are popular today. They use a wide range of spices and fruits, also coffee or tea, in fact virtually anything under the sun. This too is historical in the sense that before the hop became standardized in brewing brewers added a wide variety of flavourings to beer, to preserve it or improve the taste. The field is again wide open in this sense. I don’t favour the taste of coffee or chocolate in beer, though. By my lights in fact, malt and hops for beer is a complete code. Still, pumpkin beer has its place. Pumpkin porter, a subset of the pumpkin beer family, is one of the finest beers you can have when made right, but it’s all down to what’s in the glass and what you like.

Beeretseq considers the following essentials for good pumpkin beer:

  1. Hops must be used: pumpkin beer that avoids hops, a la the old gruit or herb beers, doesn’t work.
  2. The best hops for this purpose have a fairly neutral bitterness and clean, earthy taste. Too much citric or tropical effect ruins the effect.
  3. Pumpkin spices, whatever the blend or brand used, must be used with discretion. Too many pumpkin beers overdo the spicy taste. The spices should support the malt, hops, and pumpkin taste, not dominate it.
  4. The flesh of the pumpkin is necessary to add the vital gourdy note, but it shouldn’t be too prominent either as this can lend a raw, acerbic note.

Commercial brands I like include the one shown above, from Great South Bay in L.I., New York; Pumking Beer from Southern Tier Brewery in lower state New York, which has an appetizing pumpkin puree flavour; Wellington Brewery’s pumpkin beer in Ontario, which I’ve seen only on draft, seemingly ginger-edged; Ste. Ambroise’s rich Pumpkin Beer in Montreal; and Weyerbacher’s heady Imperial Pumpkin Ale, from Pennsylvania. One of the great beers of the last decade, Southern Tier’s Warlock combines characteristics of its Pumking Ale and a velvety black Imperial Stout. It deserves all the stars a Michelin would award if the French arbiter of gastronomic taste turned its attention to la bière.

Consider too the following: A pumpkin beer too intense in spices or sweetness often blends perfectly with a good porter or stout, 2:1 or even 3:1, porter to pumpkin beer. Or blend the pumpkin beer with a pale ale or IPA, this may bring the two into perfect equilibrium. If the balance of a pumpkin (or any) beer isn’t right for you, don’t discard it, use it in home blending.

Taste Note: The beer pictured above has a fully, spicy but soft and sweet palate. Very drinkable indeed.

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale

I’ve bought this off and on for years in this season and it never fails to disappoint: rather dull, “neutral” in taste, despite the advertised “whole-dried Fuggle and Golding hops”. Not sure what whole-dried means, flowers vs. pelletized hops, perhaps. It’s pleasant enough, reminds me of a 1980’s-era English pale ale (bottled), but that’s about it.

Compared, say, to Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale or any craft beer, English or American, of similar style, it just doesn’t make the grade, IMO of course.

I think the reason is the pasteurization of the beer and relatively modest use of the (fine) hops mentioned. I don’t know why they don’t sell this bottle-conditioned and double the amount of the hops: that would be a great beer.

I never really enjoyed Samuel Smith’s beers, even the cask – unpasteurized real ale – versions in England. They always seemed rather pallid in taste.

The great and shining exception is Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, the one beer in the line you rarely see in Ontario. 🙁

Oh well, England has made so many great contributions to the brewing arts, past and present, one can’t tarry over the ones that are just middling.


Ballantine India Pale Ale, Then And Now


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.


New York City Beer Jottings

IMG_20151115_170618Returning from a few days in NYC, I find the beer scene relatively stable in town. The variety of the last few years continues, with cider on the upswing and pumpkin beer less in evidence. “Sours”, variations on European originals such as Flanders red ale, are still big, and gose and Berlin wheat beer too. Various smoked beers are still seen too. These are arcane European types I don’t favour personally although many obviously do. Flavoured beers are still prominent, e.g., using coffee, chocolate, various fruits or tea in addition to hops and malt.

What is notable in the last two years is more craft beer everywhere, it is just more present, including in places which don’t specialize in beer as such. It’s the same thing on retail shelves. True, some of that is Goose Island, owned by giant Anheuser Busch InBev, or other brands now owned by big brewing, but that’s okay, it is still craft beer in the taste. If anything, my sense was IPA and more characterful beer are pushing out the Blue Moon (owned by MillerCoors) that was once ubiquitous.

A rare spotting of a California Common style from the area’s Barrier Brewing disappointed since the beer was heavily soured and had obviously gone off in the keg or the line. In a time when sour beer is considered a staple part of any good bar’s inventory, it is bootless to complain about this since the staff think the sourness is normal. Trying to explain that steam beer aka California Common Beer isn’t and never was sour is like thinking a waiter mid-town will appreciate your custom as much if you don’t tip him. Barrier is generally very reliable, so another time.


IMG_20151115_165707I will list the beers I thought were the best on this trip, in no particular order since they differ by style:

  1. The super-fresh and creamy draft Pilsner Urquell in the huge handle glass at Nelly Spillane’s on 33rd, next to Rattle ‘n Hum. Equal to the best draft I had in Prague. Craft beer before there was craft.
  2. The bottled Harvey Christmas Ale at the Cannibal and Beer counter in the elegant-hip Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. This is Harvey’s from Sussex, England. Whatever most brewers think they know about beer, Harvey’s probably forgot, but suffice to say it had a spicy treacle character with rich malt and good hop underpinning – all achieved in the good old English way with top yeasts and the right hops.
  3. Great South Bay Pumpkin Ale from the area. It’s a soft-textured beer which managed to show the squash in the mash as well as the typical pumpkin pie spice in a very drinkable way, not an easy act to achieve.
  4. Southern Tier’s (NY state) phenomenal Warlock Imperial Pumpkin Stout. This has the trademark “pumpkin puree” of the brewery’s renowned pumpkin beer but with a luscious porter character added. It’s velvety and spicy and the height of the brewer’s art pretty much. In pure gastronomic terms, easily the equal of the great classified growths, sauterne, vintage port, etc.
  5. Tres Equis lager from Threes Brewing in Gowanus, a delicious, clearly all-malt lager which is probably how a lot of American lager tasted when the style was first brewed here in the mid-1800’s. I happened to have part of a Miller High Life later that day, not by design, and the two were like night and day. One is thin and dominated by corn, the other generous in the malt yet with a firm neutral hoppiness in support. Tres Equis deserves to be widely known, it is a real winner.
  6. The old school-new school Sierra Nevada Stout, on draft at The Gingerman on East 36th Street. It is still the best medium gravity stout in the U.S. or just about anywhere. The rather more venerable Carnegie Porter from Finland, of which a 2014 brewing (bottled) pleased, was as good perhaps, with a molasses note the other didn’t have. I brought home a bottle of Founder’s Porter from Michigan and will be interested to see if it comes close to the Sierra Nevada. Generally, I find beers from newer, fashionable craft breweries aren’t as good as Sierra Nevada’s beers (where an equivalent is made of course). The reputed local, Other Half’s, stout, tasted in a flight on the same occasion, didn’t approach Sierra Nevada’s IMO notwithstanding the buzz attending this brewery.
  7. The Oktoberfest beer at Paulaner’s brewpub on Bowery at Houston. Rich and spicy in the way a real marzen rarely is in North America. Its wheat beer was second best. The blonde and dark lagers were a little thin I thought.  All these were tasted in a flight, sometimes I change my mind when I have a full glass, so I reserve the right to re-taste in a half liter. 🙂

IMG_20151115_142827The Gingerman is still the best beer bar in Manhattan. I visited some newish ones, e.g., Albion on 2nd Avenue, and Village Pourhouse, but none come close to the temple of beer that Gingerman is. I stopped by a number of others including the worthy Pony Bar, just to look at their list but didn’t sample anything. One always misses things on any trip, a pub devoted to all-draft Guinness looked interesting, but it didn’t open for an hour. A Belgian Beer Bar near our hotel looked ditto, but it was never the right time…

Gambrinus always looks forward to the next trip though, good beer is always in memory but always in prospect.



MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Co.’s Crosscut Canadian Ale


This beer, from two brothers with impressive credentials (engineering, graduate degree at Heriot-Watt in Scotland), shows just how good beer can be when expertise informs the result.

It is a deep gold, with a rich but clean maltiness and a firm bitterness that is more English than anything else. It pours almost clear from the can without a single of the faults that sometimes attends new releases (no oxidation, no acidity or flabbiness of body, everything right).

I’ve had one or two of their beers including the Wild Peppermint Stout, and each is an excellent, well-made product.

One to watch.