Review Date 4/20/2015 Last Updated 8/27/2015
Hey there, America! Welcome to bruguru.com! Pull up a chair, why don’t you, and let me pour you a glass of history in the form of Ballantine IPA, a beer recently revived by the Pabst Brewing Company. To be fair, Pabst is not known for its craft beers, but let’s give them their due: they not only hit a homerun with this beer, but they knocked it right out of the park to boot. That is refreshing indeed in this day when megabrewers tend to do things in half measure when they take a stab at craft beer.
The history of the Ballantine Brewing Company is storied indeed. Founded in 1840 in Newark, New Jersey by a Scottish immigrant, the company rose to prominence as one of America’s largest brewers by the mid-20th century. It was acquired by Falstaff in the 1960s, and that is where my story intersects with that of Ballantine.
Falstaff purchased Narragansett Brewing of Cranston, in my native Rhode Island, in the sixties as well, and Ballantine Ale was brewed there for a time. By the time I got my first taste of Ballantine Ale in the early to mid-eighties, Falstaff had closed the Cranston brewery, but the quality of Ballantine Ale had been preserved. It was soft and malty, very drinkable and had a distinct hop fruitiness that separated it from the pack.
Ballantine IPA, though also brewed in Rhode Island, eluded me in those days (I did try a bottle of the legendary Ballantine Burton Ale brewed in the 1930s however). I did sample Ballantine IPA brewed at the Falstaff facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana, though, and reflected on that in October of 1998:
Sadly, I never had any of the RI brewed Ballantine IPA, by the time I began to appreciate beer the brewery had already closed. I did drink the Ft. Wayne brewed IPA in the mid-eighties, though, and can attest that it was great stuff for the time. If the RI brewed Ballantine was equal to that, it must have been good indeed.
Regrettably, I have no tasting notes on the Ballantine IPA that I tried in the 80s. Fortunately, the beer seems to have made quite an impression on legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, and he references it in many of his books.
From the 4th edition of his Pocket Guide to Beer:
(On Pabst): The Milwaukee brewer now produces another item of American nostalgia, Ballantine Ale, with its characteristic hint of geranial hop character. Likewise the hoppier Ballantine IPA.
From The New World Guide to Beer, 1991:
The regular Ballantine Ale has both sweetness and hoppiness. Among the old-established, golden-colored ales of America, it is the hoppiest. However, the Ballantine name is at least as celebrated for its copper-colored India Pale Ale. The I.P.A. is markedly hoppier in the finish, and stronger. The Ballantine ales are fermented in open wooden vessels, and begin their maturation there. They are dry-hopped.
From The Beer Companion:
Ballantine also produced what it called an India Pale Ale, matured in wood for as long as a year. This beer, also amber-red, carried a claim that it was “aged in wood,” and the sales material referred to the tradition of the style being matured in casks aboard ship.
In Newark, in the early 1960s, this was said to have a gravity of around 1070 (17.5 Plato) and 60 units of bitterness. At that time, the brewery used the slogan, "with the flavor that the chill can't kill." I sampled a Ballantine IPA at the brewery in Rhode Island in the late 1970s; it had a gravity of 1078 (19.5 Plato) and 45 IBU. It was said to be dry-hopped, and to have been held in wood for five months. The beer had a very hoppy nose; a firm, full body; soft carbonation: and a lasting bitterness.
In the late 1980s, I tasted the beer again at the Fort Wayne brewery. By then it had a gravity of 1054 (13.5 Plato) and 35-40 BU. It was being fermented (still, I was told with the original yeast) in coated wood, dry hopped, and matured in metal tanks for four to six weeks. It still had a good hop character, especially in the finish, but I seem to have decided to quit while I was ahead. I have since tasted a moderately characterful Pabst version, but not at the brewery.
Ballantine IPA, of course, long predates the versions that either I or Michael Jackson tasted. As the bottle label states, this is truly “America’s Original IPA since 1878”. More from the label:
First introduced in America in the late 1800s, Ballantine IPA was a beer for connoisseurs. It has been credited as an inspirational influence for the present day craft beer revolution in America. Handcrafted by our master brewers, this delightfully hoppy brew resurrects its deep heritage and storied past to embody an IPA worthy of the original Ballantine name. For well over a century, the interlocking Borromean Rings showcased on our label have come to signify Purity, Body, and Flavor, just like the delicious Ballantine India Pale Ale inside. We hope you enjoy it.
Pabst does not list the hop varieties used in Ballantine IPA on their website, but in an article about the beer All About Beer magazine quotes Pabst brewer Greg Deuhs as follows: “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.” Bullion hop oil is also used, and the beer is exposed to oak during aging.
To my taste, it is the English hop varieties that define Ballantine IPA. Certainly, the versions from 1878, 1964 and 1985 would not have used Magnums and Columbus, but be that as it may Pabst has done much to resurrect the character of the original version. Pabts claims they could not locate that original recipe although, interestingly, Smuttynose Brewing in partnership with Stone Brewing claims to have found a post-prohibition recipe for Ballantine IPA and used it to make their Cluster’s Last Stand IPA, which they brew with Cluster, Brewers Gold, East Kent Goldings, and Bullion hops. The two beers are quite similar, and both are remarkably delicious.
Ballantine IPA has an alcohol content of 7.2% by volume with 70 IBUs. It is brewed under contract by Pabst in Cold Spring, Minnesota. It runs for around $8.99 a six-pack and is also available in 750ML bottles and on tap. Distribution is limited at this time and the beer is not available nationwide. It is not sold in Georgia, but the very generous Erik Bierbiker brought me a bottle on a recent visit.
Ballantine IPA pours to a beautiful copper orange color with a thick creamy head of unruly foam and an amazingly vibrant herbal grassy hop nose. I could literally just sniff the wonderful aroma of this beer all day and be happy. Well, almost. A thick layer of Brussels lace forms on the sides of my glass and follows the liquid all the way to the bottom of my glass. Taking a sip, there’s a good amount of chewy caramel up front followed by very herbal, minty grassy hop aroma and flavor. Indeed, this beer is simply bursting with Earthy English hop goodness and at the last all is followed up by a very long and lingering dry puckering bitterness.
Ballantine IPA is nicely balanced between malt and hop, in that you get to enjoy both in this beer. It’s not thin and one-dimensional like many of today’s India Pale Ales. It really is a glass of history, and its amazing English hop character recalls a day before today’s “tropical fruit” hop hysteria; indeed, it’s even a refreshing departure from the classic “4C” (Cascade/Columbus/Centennial/Chinooks) resiny-grapefruit” hoppiness. I do realize this beer is made with two of those 4C hops, but their famed aroma is really not present.
I was surprised to see this beer with just a 3.5 star rating on Untapped, although Ratebeer and Beeradvocate put it in the high 80s. I don’t usually take much stock in these herd mentality ratings, as I think this beer loses points there for not being like the fruit loopy IPAs of today. Not that those are not good beers, but really, Ballantine IPA is worthy of the highest possible rating and in my estimation is one of the finest India Pale Ales in America, if not the world. This is likely what IPA was like when it was invented my friends.
Truly a beer not to be missed.
Update July 1st 2015: Ballantine IPA has arrived in Georgia! Six-packs of cans are now available at Total Wine for $9.99. I couldn't be more ecstatic, and this beer will certainly now be a staple in my beer fridge. How about yours?
Update 8/27/2015: I was so excited to see Ballantine IPA on the draft list at my local Taco Mac! When I did, I actually saw it on their website and I made a beeline to get a mug. This resiny, piney blast of an IPA was wonderful with an order of Taco Mac's famous hot wings. Fairly priced at just $6 for a full mug pour, too.
And remember, try a new beer today, and drink outside the box.
*Pricing data accurate at time of review or latest update. For reference only, based on actual price paid by reviewer.