Won’t You Be My Ballantine?
However, if I could bring one brewery back from extinction, Frankenstein-like, my choice would be the original Ballantine brewery in Newark, NJ. Ballantine was one of a very few American breweries that didn’t develop a phobia against hops in the post-World War II era. “At our peak we held 80-85% of the ale market in the country,” remembered John Brzezinski, former technical director for Ballantine. Besides its regular ale, Ballantine brewed a superlative India pale ale measuring 7.5% ABV and 45-60 IBUs. Ballantine IPA was dry-hopped with whole-flower hops; aged in mammet-lined oak casks an entire year; and dosed with distilled hop oil just before filtration and carbonation. At breweriana shows, I’ve uncapped bottles that were at least 25-30 years old, and found the sprucey/resiny hop bouquet to be hardly diminished with time.
“They were probably the most fastidious bastards in the business,” remarked Lee Holland, an industry veteran who’s worked for suppliers like Froedtert Malt and served as executive director for the Brewers Association of America. “They selected the top grade of everything, even more than Anheuser-Busch.”
Ballantine closed in 1972 and the brands passed first to Falstaff Brewing Co., then to S&P Co. (parent corporation of Pabst). Production was shifted first to Cranston, RI, then to Fort Wayne, IN, and finally to Milwaukee. Ballantine IPA lost a little bit of its character with each move, but remained a very respectable brew until the company discontinued the brand in 1996. Now, with Pabst reported to be on the sale block, maybe we can entertain a faint hope that someone will buy the label and try to resuscitate this classic beer.
Ballantine made an even headier brew, the legendary Burton Ale, from select batches of IPA. At around 70 IBUs, the Burton might be considered the great-uncle of today’s imperial IPA style, with one notable difference. Most modern imperial IPAs are meant to be drunk young, to experience the full brunt of the hops. Ballantine Burton Ale, however, was aged for up to 20 years in wood. Every year around Christmas, the brewery would blend well-aged beer with younger vintages and package 800-1,200 cases for friends of the brewery and VIPs. (“I can tell you that Dwight Eisenhower was sent two cases and he returned them,” noted Brzezinski.)
At some time in the early 1970s, Fritz Maytag obtained a bottle of the Burton Ale that had been brewed in the 1940s and packaged for the Fish, Fur and Feather Club, a sportsmen’s club in Chicago. In an interview ten years ago, Maytag called the Burton Ale “the best beer I had ever had up to that point.” It inspired him to research British brewing techniques and release his own dry-hopped ale in April 1975 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. Later that year, a second batch became the first edition of Anchor’s holiday seasonal, Our Special Ale. Eventually, the recipe entered the regular product line as Liberty Ale.
Liberty Ale, with its American hop character, was not a clone of Ballantine but the progenitor of an entirely new style of pale ale. However, I find it interesting that the ember of a dying East Coast brewery helped ignite a mighty conflagration out West.