Resurrecting a Legend

ballantine ringsBallantine IPA would be a good choice for the greatest and most enduring American brewing triumph of the early- and mid-20th century.

—Fred Eckhardt

Fred should know. The legendary Portland, OR, homebrewer and beer writer—born in 1926—has experienced the entirety of American brewing since Prohibition. He wrote one of the first modern homebrewing books a decade before the hobby was legalized in 1979, and his The Essentials of Beer Styles, published in 1989, laid the groundwork for guidelines later adopted by the Beer Judge Certification Program and Great American Beer Festival. Fred_EckhardtDuring his life he has witnessed the rise of Ballantine IPA, its subsequent decline, its eventual demise, and its recent resurrection last September by Pabst.

I’m not quite as old as Fred. Ballantine IPA was not available in my neck of the mid-Atlantic when I was growing up. I had heard of it, had wanted to try it, but was never able to locate a sample before brewing was discontinued in 1996. Most millennial beer enthusiasts are too young to remember it, much less to have drunk it. Even its name is only dimly recalled. I recently overheard a 20-something drinker order a “Bal-an-TEEN IPA,” inadvertently assigning a French or Belgian origin to the brand founded by Scottish immigrant Peter Ballantine.

Purity, Body, Flavor

At a time when most American brewers were making lager, Peter Ballantine started an ale brewery in Albany, New York, in 1833—moving it to Newark, New Jersey, seven years later. By 1879, P. Ballantine & Sons was the nation’s 6th-largest brewer, producing nearly twice as much beer as Anheuser-Busch. When it emerged from Prohibition, it was one of the few ale breweries still left in the U.S. (though it also brewed lagers).

Ballantine’s heyday spanned the 1940s and 50s; for a while, it was the nation’s 3rd-largest brewery. As the first TV sponsor of the New York Yankees, its iconic three-ring logo (“Purity, Body, Flavor”) was among the most recognizable in America, and like the great Yankees teams of the time, Ballantine IPA was in a league of its own.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Weighing in at 7.5% ABV and featuring a stunning 60 IBUs, the original Ballantine IPA was massive, even by today’s standards. It was hopped with an intense oil distilled from Bullion hops and aged in pitch-lined, oak casks for an entire year. Not surprisingly, it retailed for nearly twice the price of other premium beers like Bud and Schlitz.

But Ballantine’s once greatest asset (rich flavor, robust body) became a major liability, as Americans increasingly turned to lighter, thinner, less flavorful brands. The company’s market share plummeted in the late 1960s, and in 1972, the Newark, N.J.-based brewery sold its brands to Falstaff. Over the next two decades, Ballantine IPA, America’s last great strong beer, would gradually, then thoroughly, lose its legendary character.

Trail of Beers

Barrel-aging was the first thing to suffer: shortened from 12 months to 9 months, then to 5 months after production shifted to the Narragansett Brewery in Cranston, Rhode Island. Next, waxed cypress barrels replaced the original oak barrels, remembers Bill Anderson, Narragansett’s head brewer in the early 1970s. When the brand moved to the old Berghoff Brewery in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, wood lost out entirely to stainless steel tanks. And after Pabst purchased the brand in 1991—concentrated hop oil infusions gave way to pedestrian pellets. Although its potency had slipped to 6.4%, it was still one of the strongest beers brewed in North America. (Only Haffenreffer Malt Liquor, at 6.6%, was stronger.)trail of beers

Hop character and alcohol content continued to decline as the brand kicked around the Pabst “empire.” According to Greg Glaser, in a 2000 story in Modern Brewery Age, Ballantine IPA’s final itinerary included stops at breweries in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Tumwater, Oregon; San Antonio, Texas; the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania; and possibly the old Heileman brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where a few batches were rumored to have been brewed. Stripped of its original robustness, complexity, and intensity of flavor, the brand was mercifully put to rest in 1996. But as one strong beer died, dozens—even hundreds—were rising up.

Return of Strong Beer

In 1995, the Supreme Court, in Rubin v. Coors, struck down the ban on alcohol content labeling of beer that had been in force since the repeal of Prohibition, unleashing a competition among American brewers to fill the alcoholic beverage void between 5% premium beer and 12–13% table wine.

Prior to the court’s decision, an analysis of alcoholic strength made by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station indicated that only nine (6%) of the 147 beer brands sold in the state had alcoholic contents greater than 6%. And only two—both imports—were stronger than 7%: Carlsberg Elephant Malt Liquor (7.1%) and McEwans Scotch Ale (9.5%).

Today, a large percentage, if not a majority, of the beers in most craft-brewers’ portfolios exceeds 6%. An informal survey at a liquor store in my suburban neighborhood revealed 42 percent of the varieties on sale were stronger than 6%, and nearly one in ten beers had an ABV of 10% or higher. In this environment, the recently resurrected Ballantine IPA (7.2% ABV, 70 IBUs) fits comfortably into the upper range of contemporary IPAs—bigger than most, but still slender compared to imperial-strength hop bombs. If tasted blind, I would never have believed that it was contract-brewed at a 140-year-old “smokestack” brewery in the Midwest.

Billy Beer

During Ballantine’s sad odyssey from one failed brewery to another, during the last quarter of the 20th century, it never fell quite as low as the Cold Spring Brewery, abkegle brauout an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis. In its mid-20th century prime, Cold Sprinorth star 2ng was best known for its Cold Spring and Kegle Brau premium beers and North Star and White Label budget brands.  But with industry consolidation gaining steam, the regional White Labelbrewery found itself depending more and more on contract brewing. During the 1970s, Cold Spring was one of four brbillybeercaneweries to make Billy Beer for then-president Jimmy Carter’s younger brother. Cold Spring Export, a hoppy all-malt lager brewed for Merchant du Vin in the 1980s, was a high point. But as the century came to an end, Cold Spring was reduced to churning out novelty swill like Elvira’s Night Brew and an assortment of hard lemonades, non-alcoholic juices, and energy drinks.elvira

“We were an old brewery known to make kind of crappy beer,” recalls Doug DeGeest, vice president and general manager of Cold Spring Brewing Company. “We could have brought the beer gods into that facility and they would’ve failed to make great beer.”

DeGeest eventually persuaded new owners to build a new $14 million state-of-the-art brewhouse—good enough to attract new craft-brewing clients such as 21st Amendment, Lift Bridge, Tallgrass, and now the newly resurrected Ballantine IPA from Pabst Brewing.

The Russians Are Coming

One of the oldest and most prestigious names in American brewing, Pabst’s sales declined precipitously during the 1980s.Pabst-blue-ribbon Its signature Blue Ribbon beer was demoted to budget-brand status; sales of the other brands in Pabst’s portfolio continued to decline, and many, such as Ballantine, were discontinued altogether. In 1996, the company shuttered its Milwaukee brewery and became exclusively a contract brewer.

In the first decade of the new century, PBR enjoyed an improbable renaissance as the hipster’s beer of choice. That success caught the attention of billionaire turnaround artist C. Dean Metropoulis (the man who saved Twinkies), who, in 2010, purchased the Pabst portfolio of iconic brands for $250 million. After boosting sales of PBR by nearly a third, Metropoulis sold the brand this fall for a nearly $500 million profit.

Pabst’s new owner is a multinational drinks conglomerate based in Cyprus that operates breweries in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. [Insert “brewski” joke here.] The company’s chairman, however, is an American citizen and former Stroh executive named Eugene Kashper. One of his first directives was to position Pabst in the craft brewing segment. For chief Pabst brewer Greg Deuhs, this was a no-brainer: reintroduce Ballantine IPA.

Deuhs and his team have not attempted to recreate the historical mid 20th-century version but have instead formulated the beer as they think it might have evolved over the past two decades. Rather than age the beer in expensive oak casks, they now circulate it through oak spirals. They’ve also updated the hop profile to include modern varieties like Cascade and Columbus, giving it a contemporary dank, citrusy aroma. The palate has a robust resinous character, equal parts floral and piney. The oak flavor is either too subtle for my debauched palate, or perhaps I’ve just not allowed the beer to warm up sufficiently. Bold, richly flavored, and substantial, Ballantine is as satisfying as any IPA I’ve drunk this year.

For Whom the Beer Tolls

20141202_154845You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. But I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish.

—Ernest Hemingway

America’s most literary fish and game enthusiast was no fan of watery, wimpy beer. And though the above quote was from a 1951 ad for Ballantine’s XXX Ale (at 5.6% ABV, one of the strongest brewed in the U.S. at the time), I have no doubt than Hemingway would have shilled just as enthusiastically for XXX’s bigger brother, Ballantine IPA. Later in the ad, he declares: “The test of an ale for me [is] whether it tastes as good afterwards as when it’s going down.” hemingway1Sounds like a guy who was afraid of neither sharks nor bitter, hoppy aftertaste.

With the reboot of Ballantine IPA, American strong beer has come full circle. The legendary IPA was the last strong beer to survive the post-WWII era; now it reenters a market crowded with similarly potent brews.

At 7.5% ABV and 60 IBUs, the original Ballantine IPA was a giant among pygmies. The recently resurrected Ballantine IPA (7.2% ABV, 70 IBUs) is more of a small forward competing against 7-foot-tall centers. Which is actually a good thing: Small forwards usually score more points. Ballantine IPA sits comfortably in my “sweet spot” for IPAs (7.0–7.5% ABV): not too weak, not too strong; not quite a session beer, not quite a sipper, but fully satisfying.

Unlike Hemingway, I don’t have to reel in a thousand-pound marlin to deserve a strong beer. I can enjoy one whenever I choose, especially now that the air is cooling and the nights are lengthening. But this is a relatively new freedom. For much of history, strong beer has been prohibited, restricted, or priced beyond the means of most drinkers.

SalvatorNot long after followers of St. Francis of Paola built a monastery at the foot of the Bavarian Alps in 1627, they were fortifying themselves through the Lenten fast with an unusually potent brew known as Salvator, or “savior.” But whenever the brothers attempted to sell this seminal doppelbock to local villagers, widespread vandalism, rowdy behavior, and public drunkenness would force officials to suspend sales. Sales continued clandestinely, but it wasn’t until 1780 that feudal authorities allowed this strongest of lagers to be sold openly. And then, only during Lent.

The English strong ale tradition enjoys a similar legacy of scarcity and exclusivity. The brewing season of such high-alcohol beers was already limited by the dreary and unpredictable English climate, which limited their brewing to a narrow window in October or March when ambient temperatures would remain moderate enough, long enough, to fully ferment a high-gravity wort. Politics only compounded the issue.

Elizabeth
“Dobble-dobble.”

Queen Elizabeth I, an early advocate—and enthusiastic drinker—of “modern” hopped beer, worked diligently to wean her countrymen off the sweet, potent unhopped ale that had nurtured the British Isles since Roman times. A particular target of her reform was “dobble-dobble” ale, whose immense strength and profitability helped support the comfortable lifestyles of brewers of that era. To encourage moderation, she initiated what would become a longstanding tradition of heavily taxing and restricting strong beer and ale.

Strong ale would make a comeback a century later, when prohibitive taxes on French wine forced the English upper class to switch to barleywines and stock ales of 8–11% ABV to accompany their meals. Typically aged for 1–3 years, such libations were beyond the financial reach of most drinkers.

In the U.S., the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 effectively prohibited the production of high gravity beer for 30 years by forbidding brewers from labeling or advertising the strength of their beers. But by the late 1960s, brewers began to successfully market potent malt liquors by substituting metaphors for ABVs. A brand menagerie of bucking broncos, raging bulls, menacing cobras, and other symbols of strength and potency slipped past federal regulators but scored a direct hit with its intended target: alcoholics, the homeless, unemployed, working poor, and underaged drinkers. The fallout from such predatory marketing practices delayed craft brewers’ full exploration of strong beer styles until 1995, when the Supreme Court, in Rubin v. Coors, struck down the prohibition against alcohol content labeling as a violation of free speech.

Today, when I enter a liquor store, I am still not entirely immune from the adolescent urge to purchase the most potent beer available. Mad Elf (11.0% ABV)? Hell, yeah. And then there’s a friend whose love of Flying Dog’s Double Dog (11.5%) began to affect his marriage and work. Since his wife cut him back to Raging Bitch (8.3%), though, he’s been much better. Does strength matter? Hell, yeah.