The Late, Great, Ballantine


Ballantine Brewing/Ballantine XXX

Written by Greg Glaser for chowhound.chow.com

The real story of the greatest of the traditional American ales.

Mention the name Ballantine to beer lovers, especially beer lovers with more than a few flecks of gray in their beards, and more often than not they will begin to rhapsodize rapturously about this famous ale. You’ll hear stories of old bottles mysteriously and wondrously discovered and tasted; tales of long-discarded techniques employed by the original brewers; accounts of the slow, steady decline of the beer’s greatness as it passed from brewery to brewery, the result of corporate takeovers.

Beer writers often praise Ballantine. Michael Jackson, writing in the August 1980 British beer journal, “What’s Brewing,” described Ballantine IPA as “wonderfully distinctive … an outstanding American ale unique in its fidelity to the East Coast tradition of Colonial ales.” More recently, in the February-March 2000 “Celebrator Beer News,” Fred Eckhardt wrote, “Ballantine IPA would be a good choice for the greatest and most enduring American brewing triumph of the early and mid-20th century.” Pat Baker stated in an interview, “Ballantine IPA was just such a beautiful looking beer. It had a deep amber color and a sparkling head. And of course the hops were just monstrous. It was one of those beer tasting experiences that just stays with you.”

Intrigued by such writings and comments, I decided to delve deeper into Ballantine lore and search out its history. This is what I discovered:In 1830 Peter Ballantine, a Scottish brewer from Ayr, emigrated to the U.S. Several years later, in 1837, he opened a brewery in Albany, New York, and named it Peter Ballantine and Sons. The brewery moved to Newark, New Jersey, in 1840, where it remained until purchased by Falstaff in 1971. (From 1879 to 1911 Ballantine operated a second Newark brewery, and in 1943 the company purchased Newark’s Christian Feiganspan Brewery and ran it as a Ballantine plant until 1948.) At its peak in the 1950s, P. Ballantine & Sons brewed five million barrels a year.

Production of all Ballantine beers (there were several) moved in 1971 to the Narragansett Brewery in Cranston, Rhode Island. Narragansett, which opened in 1890, was purchased by Falstaff in 1965 and closed in 1983. Falstaff, bought by Pabst in 1975, moved Ballantine production to their Ft. Wayne, Indiana, brewery in 1979, where the brand remained until 1991 when the plant closed. (This was the old Berghoff Brewery, purchased by Falstaff in 1954.)

From 1991 to 1996, Pabst brewed Ballantine in Milwaukee. There is a possibility that towards the end of this time Ballantine may have also been brewed at the Heileman Brewery in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, where some Pabst brands were made. During 1996 to 1999, Ballantine came out of Pabst breweries in Tumwater, Oregon, and San Antonio, Texas. Today the brand is solely brewed at Pabst’s plant in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, the original 1972 Schaeffer brewery that was later sold to Stroh in 1980 and acquired by Pabst in 1999.

Through all these moves, Ballantine ales constantly changed character. The brands most often brewed were Ballantine XXX and Ballantine IPA, the latter being the most widely loved and praised. In Newark, Ballantine IPA was a strong, 7.5% abv amber ale with great hop bitterness (60 International Bittering Units or IBUs) and a powerful hop aroma. This aroma came from hop oils distilled from Bullion hops at the brewery and added to the storage tanks. These tanks them-selves were unique, in that they were made of oak. Ballantine IPA was aged for a full year in the wood, a technique unheard of today except for the most artisanal microbrewery. The woody character found in Ballantine IPA was as important to the beer’s profile as were the hop oils. The Newark brewery also produced a special ale named Ballantine Burton. This extra strong beer, perhaps 10% abv, was aged an amazing ten years in wood and bottled sporadically as holiday gifts to brewery employees and friends. The labels created for these bottles would sta te the date the beer was brewed and bottled and the name of the recipient.

When Ballantine moved to Rhode Island, the IPA aging was first lowered to nine months, then six and finally to five. Oak barrels were replaced by wax-coated cyprus, according to Bill Anderson, Narragansett’s master brewer in the early 1970s. Hop oils continued to be used for a while, with a distillation unit on premises, but this process was later abandoned. Overall IBUs for the IPA dropped to 50, then 45. Bullion hops were used at first, but were later changed to a blend of Brewers’ Gold and American Yakima. The IPA was dry hopped in storage tanks after the hops were put through what Anderson called a hammer mill. “We ground them to a consistency that was a cross between corn flakes and sawdust,” he remembers. The strength of the beer remained constant during most of the Narragansett years, at 7.5% abv, but Anderson says this was later reduced to 6.7%.

In that same 1980 What’s Brewing article quoted previously, Jackson wrote of the Ballantine IPA: it had a “thick, rocky head, delightfully hoppy nose, powerful and lasting bitterness, extremely firm full body, superb balance and soft natural carbonation.” Alan Kornhauser, a Ballantine aficionado and brewmaster for Pabst Brewing Company, Far East Division, based in Zhaoqing, China, remembers the Rhode Island-brewed Ballantine IPA as, light and refreshing, with great hop aroma.”

Ballantine Burton was never brewed outside Newark, but XXX came out of Narragansett as a golden ale of about 23 IBUs and 5.6% abv. Another ale produced there was Ballantine Brewers’ Gold, a strong (7% abv), moderately hoppy (30-34 IBUs) golden ale. A lager was also made.

Once Ballantine production moved to Ft. Wayne, a decidedly different beer emerged. Gone were the wooden aging casks; gone were the hop oils. “It stopped tasting like Ballantine at that time,” recalls Kornhauser. “It must have been a different formula and maybe not even an ale yeast. And the hop aroma was gone.” Pat Baker remembers much the same: “The wood character disappeared and the hop character faded.”

I couldn’t find anyone to provide notes on Ballantine when it was brewed in Milwaukee, Tumwater or San Antonio, but I did speak with Dan Melideo, master brewer at Pabst’s Lehigh Valley plant, Ballantine’s present home. Melideo says that today Ballantine XXX, the only Ballantine in production, finishes with a strength of 5.45% abv (a far cry from the original) and is hopped to a bitterness of about 22 IBUs (again, much lower than in the past). And the hops have changed again. Melideo uses Cascade hops in the boil and also in storage to dry hop the beer. Aging in wood remains a thing of the past. Jim Walter, VP of Business Administration for Pabst, explains that Ballantine XXX is marketed primarily in the northeast corridor with some sales in the Mid West and West Coast. He says that in the future Pabst may also see a market develop for Ballantine IPA.

Before joining Pabst in China, Alan Kornhauser was a brewer at Portland Brewing in Portland, Oregon. While there he wanted to recreate the Ballantine he knew and loved from years ago, and to introduce this re-creation to West Coast beer lovers, unfamiliar with the old ale. He says he brewed the best version of Ballantine XXX he could in 1996. The beer, originally named Summer Ale, is now called Portland Pale Ale in some parts of the country, and Kornhauser’s Oast Ale in the Pacific Northwest, where it is available from April through August. Kornhauser wanted to use hop oils just as was originally done in Newark and Rhode Island, and he built a still to extract oils from Oregon-grown Brewers’ Gold hops. Not completely satisfied with the results, he sent a batch of hops to England where he knew of an established hop distillery. The hop oil returned to Oregon was blended with the oil he extracted and used in his ale. The result is a 4.7% abv ale with about 28 IBUs and a highly aromatic fragrance from the hop oi ls. In comparing it to his benchmark, Ballantine XXX, Kornhauser says that for flavor it rated eight on scale often, but for hops it was a perfect ten. “The burp after a few sips was all hop oil,” recalls the proud brewer. The Narragansett-brewed Ballantine IPA was the model Kornhauser used when he developed Woodstock IPA for Portland Brewing, a beer in year-round production. Woodstock is a 6.3% abv ale with 45 IBUs (no hop oil, but plenty of dry hops) and a noticeable woody flavor from Kornhauser’s “secret oak aging process.”

“These were two of my favorite beers in the world, Ballantine Ale and IPA, and I was very fortunate that Portland Brewing allowed me to try to recreate them as best I could,” says Kornhauser.

It’s safe to say that bottles of the old, original Ballantine IPA, the Newark and even the Rhode Island versions, are not to be found today. If any exist, the beer would have aged into something completely different, as have old bottles of Ballantine Burton. With regrets, none of us can taste this highly lauded ale. With Pabst’s Ballantine XXX being brewed so differently from the original, it’s hardly fair to compare it with the older version. The most that diehard beer lovers can do is read the reviews of the past, talk with any gray-beards they can find who tasted the original Ballantine ales and search out microbreweries such as Portland Brewing Company who brew hoppy ales. Those are our best chances of getting even the slightest handle on the late, great ale they called Ballantine.

Gregg Glaser is a beer writer and educator who makes his home in Wilton, CT. His writings are a regular feature in Modern Brewery Age.