Rebuilding a Legend: Ballantine IPA
The contours of history are shaped by retellings, and over time, we begin to believe them. We have repeated the story of American craft brewing so many times it’s almost a mantra: “Fritz Maytag bought ailing Anchor Brewing in 1965 … Jack McAuliffe founded New Albion in 1976 … ” Beware single-origin histories, though—there’s always a predecessor, however hidden. In the case of strong, hoppy American ales, it was Ballantine IPA—and modern ales still bear a fair amount of its (largely forgotten) DNA.
It’s weird how completely Ballantine has vanished from the public record. As recently as the mid-1960s, it was one of the largest breweries in the country, and its IPA had been around for decades. There’s no doubt it influenced early craft brewers—indeed, Sierra Nevada’s super-popular “Chico” strain of yeast, used by tons of ale breweries now—is widely believed to be Ballantine’s. Although early craft breweries didn’t make IPAs like Newark’s finest, the similarity to beers like Anchor Foghorn and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is surely not casual. If craft brewing had come along just a little sooner, Ballantine might well now be considered as the grandfather of craft brewing.
Instead, investors acquired the brewery in 1969 and passed it along to Falstaff a few years later. Falstaff shut down the old Newark brewery and moved it to Rhode Island, began mainstreaming it in the seventies, and then merged with Pabst in 1985. When Pabst shuttered its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, Ballantine IPA finally departed the earth, though it had been just a thin echo of its earlier self for decades by then. It has languished only in memory for a generation.
A couple years ago, Pabst’s master brewer, Greg Deuhs, started wondering about that beer. The brand is still owned by Pabst, but that doesn’t mean anyone knows how Ballantine IPA was made. “With all the acquisitions related to Ballantine, none of the records made it to me. All the records you’d expect just aren’t there; no one handed me a couple boxes and said, here are the recipes.” He was still intrigued by it, and researched it the best he could through the fragments of information that still exist. Eventually, he started five-gallon test batches to see how hard it would be to rebuild from memory, educated guesswork, and incomplete records. A couple of months ago, Pabst launched a new-millennium version of Ballantine IPA, and I spoke to Deuhs to find out how he’d reconstructed it.
There doesn’t appear to be a single formulation for the pre-70s Ballantine. Deuhs has seen references for a strength of everything from 6.9% to 8%. Bitterness units weren’t cited until fairly recently, when they ranged from 65 to 80. (In many of the references I’ve seen, they were pegged at 60.) Descriptions of the beer’s color and brewing process were well and consistently described, though. It was deep golden to amber in color, was aged in large pitch-lined oak tanks for a year, and both dry-hopped and dosed with hop oil. It was invariably described as a huge, impressive beer.
Deuhs began by talking to maltsters about what the grist might have looked like. “I’m pretty sure the recipe was pretty simple,” Deuhs concluded. “Pale malt, caramel malt, and Munich malt. Maybe some black malts for color adjustment.”
It’s an IPA, though, so the critical considerations revolved around the hopping. Hops raised an important philosophical question that framed the entire project, too: should Pabst try to recreate a museum piece, or brew a version of Ballantine that appeals to drinkers in the 21st century? “In the back of my mind, I thought if Ballantine as a brewery were in business today, which hops would they be using?” Deuhs wondered. “Would they have evolved to newer varieties, or a combination of new and old.” He opted for a combination, which seems like the right call. Breweries constantly update their beer; it’s difficult to imagine Ballantine trying to survive with a Bullion-and-Cluster-hopped beer in a Mosaic and Meridian world.
“[Old] boiling hops are not readily available,” he said. Instead, he experimented with hops that might have the character of older hops. He tried Galena, a relatively old “modern” cultivar from 1968, but it was too harsh. Cluster “didn’t give the flavor we wanted.” In the end, he used a blend of old classics and newer varieties. “We ended up with Magnum as the main bittering hop. Then we dosed a combination of Columbus, Brewer’s Gold, Fuggles, and then we did use some Cascade.”
The most intriguing thing about Ballantine was the use of hop oils. Mitch Steele described their process in his book, IPA:
“It used Bullion hops, a variety very hard to find now, and ground them into a fine powder, added water, and cooked them in a vacuum process that effectively distilled the oils from the hop material. The oils were collected and added to the beer, which gave it an intense, distinct presence unlike anything else available in the United States at the time.”
Unlike hop extract, which is used to bitter beer, hop oil is just the essential oil of the flower. It’s purely about the aroma. Deuhs decided not to make his own, but found an English manufacturer that still makes hop oil. He chose a blend of two of their products. It goes in just as the beer enters the bright tanks. For good measure, he dry hops the beer with two pounds per barrel of Cascade and Columbus.
The final touch is a nod to history—oak. Before Ballantine left Newark, the IPA was aged for a year in 800-barrel wooden tanks. This shouldn’t have changed the flavor much—they were pitch-lined. Yet still people felt they could taste wood. Deuhs wondered if there were some exposed staves that accounted for this—he speculated that perhaps 5% of the beer might have been oak-influenced. Drinkers, aware of the process, may have conjured the flavor themselves (reports vary from “little or no wood character” to “a lot of wood,” according to Deuhs’ research), or the flavor may have come from another source, like the rough hops, but it is part of the legend. To add a suggestion of oak, he created an “oak spiral torpedo” that goes into the bright tank and adds “a bit of oak nuance.”
They use the “Chico” strain to ferment the beer, natch—it really is the best bet they have for the original strain. The beer is made at Minnesota’s Cold Spring Brewery because, as Deuhs amusingly put it, they could do “very small production runs” of 75-barrel batches. (When you’re making mass market lager, a 75-barrel brewhouse looks like a nano.) Deuhs is in the planning process for Ballantine’s legendary Burton, a massive beer that the brewery vintage-aged for years before release. He won’t age most of it that long, but may begin salting some lots away to build up a library of aged Burton.
So, what’s the new Ballantine IPA taste like? You get a sense of what you’re in for with the pour; it comes out like treacle, viscous and foaming. I poured out two glasses from a 750 ml bottle, and both built these dense heads, sticky as cotton candy, that outlasted the beer. The aroma reminded me of a barley wine, with heavy, leathery malts, spiky plumes of alcohol, and something reminiscent of mole sauce. It tastes like a barley wine, too. The hops are surprisingly bitter despite the presence tongue-coating, syrupy residual sugars. The malts are neutral to caramelly, and the alcohol—just 7.2%—is pronounced. It isn’t obvious until later, but a peachiness emerges that helps add a touch of drinkability.
It’s not a modern IPA by any stretch. Craft breweries have figured out ways to make even very strong, very bitter beers moreish. Ballantine IPA is a snifter beer. It reminds me of descriptions I’ve read of old British beers like October beer and Edinburgh ale. Something to get you through the cold nights of winter.