How Pabst Brought A 136-Year-Old Beer Back From The Dead

How Pabst Brought A 136-Year-Old Beer Back From The Dead

Once upon a time there was a beer. A beer with bold flavour and character. A beer that was supposedly America’s first IPA. But then the 1970s happened. The tastes of the masses changed, and not for the better. A tidal wave of flavourless lager rushed in. And this unique, legendary beer was washed away in the tide. Until today.

Ballantine IPA is back.

It’s Sunday, you’ve made it through the long week, and it’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to wasted.

What is Ballantine IPA?

Legend has it that Ballantine was the first India pale ale (IPA) brewed in the United States. It was certainly the first made by the Peter Ballantine & Sons Brewing Company of Newark, New Jersey, dating back to 1878. It was one of the few breweries to outlast prohibition and continue making IPAs for decades after.

While it doesn’t have much name recognition today, in its prime Ballantine IPA was extremely popular. In fact, in the 1950s Ballantine was the third-largest brewery in the US and the fourth-largest in the ’60s. At one point it was the main broadcast sponsor of the New York Yankees. But more than street cred, the IPA had a very unique flavour. It was a strong beer, at 7.9 per cent alcohol, and it was a good deal more bitter than the other popular beers of the day. Rumour had it that the beer’s distinct character was thanks to a special hop oil was used in the brewing process, and a year of ageing in special oak tanks.

But then we screwed up. Toward the end of the 1960s American tastes gravitated toward lager, which meant macro-breweries started pushing the little guys out. By the time 1971 rolled around Ballantine was in such dire financial straits that it had to sell itself to the Falstaff Brewing Company. That was the last time Ballantine IPA was made at the original Newark brewery. Falstaff didn’t fare much better; in 1985 it was bought by the Pabst Brewing Company.

During the time that Falstaff and Pabst were responsible for producing Ballantine it bounced around between many different breweries, with the recipe changing a bit each time. It remained on shelves as late as 1996, but as Pabst Master Brewer Greg Deuhs told us, “By that time it was a shell of its former self as an IPA.”

It would live on in the hazy memories of old timey drinkers, and it would even be immortalised in the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ High Plains Drifter (“Ballantine quarts with the puzzle on the cap / I couldn’t help to notice I was caught in a speed trap,” but by the late 90s, Ballantine IPA was dead.

How Pabst Brought a 136-Year-Old Beer Back From the Dead

Ballantine lost

Flash forward to 2012, when Pabst (you know it for its PBR) was looking for a new master brewer. One of the challenges that the company put to the interviewees for the position was how could Pabst get in on the burgeoning craft brewing market. Greg Deuhs, a third-generation brewer who had previously served tours with some of the country’s most prominent breweries, had an answer.

“I put together a presentation and said, ‘Hey look, you’ve got the answer already: It’s Ballantine IPA,'” Deuhs told us in a phone interview. “I showed them the history of Ballantine and why it makes sense to bring back that unique beer.”

There was just one problem: Nobody had a recipe.

As it turns out, in that the period of time from 1971 to 1996, while Ballantine production bounced around from brewery to brewery, it lost its character. It had been “dumbed down” along the way (as Greg put it) to try to align with contemporary tastes. Bringing the last iteration of Ballantine back would be like bringing back a pigeon when you wanted a velociraptor.

Deuhs rightly wanted to resurrect the 1960s version, when the IPA was in its prime. Unfortunately, nobody had bothered to keep track of the original recipes.

It’s not entirely surprising. At the time, the economy was so bad and so volatile that sometimes you’d walk into a long-abandoned brewery and it was as if everybody had just stopped what they were doing and left, with papers scattered everywhere. Deuhs suspects that the true recipe must be lying in a dusty cabinet in somebody’s basement somewhere, but so far nothing has turned up.

The question then became: How does one faithfully recreate a beer that nobody has tasted in more than forty years?

How Pabst Brought a 136-Year-Old Beer Back From the Dead

Working with what you’ve got

With no official recipe to be found, Deuhs had to rely on a few important clues.

“We had to go back and look through everything we could find, both in texts and on the internet, as well as talk to people who did taste the original beer. One person we have on the Pabst staff is Alan Kornhauser, who is the general manager of brewing in Asia. He was a big supporter Ballantine IPA and recreated a version of it at Portland Brewing in, I believe, the late 1980s. He remembers the beer, so I’ve gotten some information from him. I’ve also gotten a lot of information from people like Mitch Steele and his book IPA, and just all of the homebrewers that were around when the original Ballantine IPA was available.”

Those are all great resources, but it goes without saying that human memory is fickle at best. How well do you remember the flavour of something you used to eat or drink? Now, how about if the last time you had it was 45 years ago? Luckily, there were a few documented facts about the beer on record. Deuhs explained:

“From our research we knew some of the attributes of the beer. We knew the colour was about 16 SRM [ed. that’s Standard Reference Model, a metric by which a beer’s colour is objectively measured], we knew the alcohol was 7.2% ABV by the 1960s, and we knew it had at least 70 IBUs [the International Bittering Units scale]. We also knew that it had a very unique process of dosing with hop oil to give it that aromatic and hoppy finish.”

Finding the right ingredients

From all of that research, Deuhs and his colleagues knew roughly where they needed to get, but the hard stuff had only just begun. Ingredients have changed a lot over the last four decades. This sent them on a sort of scavenger hunt through time. Deuhs detailed the process for us:

“I went back and talked to some malt suppliers and said, ‘OK, what kinds of malts were available [back then]?’ Because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible, and there weren’t the thousands of speciality malts that they have today. There were some, but we think it was a pretty simple recipe in the 1960s, so we incorporated of course Pale malt, and then Munich malts, and then two Crystal malts, as well as two other malts we put in at a very small percentage to give it the colour and nuances that we wanted.

“For hops it was a different type of challenge. Of the hops from the 1960s the only real one that’s still available right now is Cluster. They probably did use some Cluster, but I’m thinking moreso they had the Bullion Hops, and they also had Northern Breweres and English hops like Fuggles or Brewer’s Gold. So we incorporated some of the new hops that are available today that have pedigree that go back to those 1960s hops, as well as some of the old hops that are still around.

“For the hop oil, we were able to find a hop grower in the United Kingdom that produces hop oil, and they produced two different types of hop oil for us. One is very citrusy, and one is very pungent and flowery. We combined them to try to mimic what the Bullion hops oil was of the old Ballantine Brewery.”

After all of this, there was still more work to be done.

How Pabst Brought a 136-Year-Old Beer Back From the Dead

Recreating the process

With the closest analogous ingredients finally in place, the PBR team set out to recreate some of the processes Ballantine used in the ’60s and before that helped imbue its distinctive flavour.

“We brew it up just like any other IPA, and then we dry hop,” explained Deuhs. “We do traditional dry hopping with almost two pounds of dry hops per barrel. Then, when we go to centrifuge, we add hop oil. So the hop oil is added toward the end of the process, on the way to the break tank.”

We asked if, as they did with the original beer, PBR were resting the beer for a year in wooden barrels, but it turns out that Ballantine barrels are the source of some controversy in the beer world. Deuhs again:

“At our partner brewery where it’s being made, we really don’t have the space to store that much beer. Plus, of course, we wanted to get it to market. But we wanted to get some the wood character that some people claim was in the Ballantine. If you go back and look at Peter Ballantine and Sons Brewery in Newark, they just had wood tanks. So they didn’t have stainless steel tanks like we use today. So all the beer may have had a wood character but that’s a little bit debatable in a number of circles.

“Some of the old brewery workers say the tanks were lined with brewer’s pitch, which is almost like a wax, so it would have been protected from the wood. I also know that brewer’s pitch can run very thin, and in those cases the beer was probably exposed to some wood. So we do have a little bit of wood essence in there. What we’ve done is we’ve taken a stainless steel cylinder and packed it with American oak, and we run the beer through the cylinder and circulate it through so that every drop of beer touches American oak, and I think you can taste just a bit of that wood character in the finish.”

When everything was said and done, it had taken Deuhs and his team two years and more than two dozen different five-gallon batches, made at his home near Milwaukee, before he felt like they nailed it.

How Pabst Brought a 136-Year-Old Beer Back From the Dead

The results

Pabst sent me over a six pack of Ballantine IPA in unmarked silver cans, which I sipped as I spoke to Deuhs on the phone. I fully admit to being an IPA snob, and I also fully admit that my expectations for an IPA coming out of Pabst were about as low as they could possibly be. To my surprise, this stuff was delicious.

The beer is hoppy, but it doesn’t just bludgeon your tongue with hops like a lot of West Coast IPAs. It’s extremely well-balanced. There isn’t too much bitterness and there isn’t that cloying sweetness you sometimes get from too much malt. It has a really lovely finish with no funky aftertaste. In fact, it’s excellent all the way through. It’s a very smooth ride, but it has a ton of character.

What really surprised me was that I was expecting something old timey. It assumed it would lean on the malt. I figured the bitterness would be there, but I wasn’t expecting any pop. I was completely wrong. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it came out of a modern microbrewery. It’s every bit that fresh and alive. It’s right in alignment with what’s happening today in the contemporary beer scene, and it seems there’s good reason for that.

“What I think is fascinating is here’s this brewery that was doing things in the ’50s and ’60s that today craft brewers think is latest revolution,” Greg told us. “Things like extended ageing in wood, aggressive dry hopping. Really it’s something that’s already been done by Ballantine and other brewers in the past, so it’s come full circle again.”

Everything old is tasty again. We asked Deuhs how and when in this two-year journey he and his tasters know that they didn’t just have a good IPA, but that they had Ballantine IPA.

“In my opinion we knew we had a pretty faithful recreation when we got the alcohol and colour about right, and we got the Munich and the caramel malts where they should be,” said Greg. “The hops are probably pretty close, especially with the special hop oil that we use. It might be a little on the citrus side versus the floral side, but that’s also a reflection of today’s tastes.”

In the future, Greg and his team hope to play with ageing Ballantine for up to a year (like the original) to see what other flavours they can bring out. There are other old Ballantine beers he hopes to resurrect, too, like the bock, the brown stout, and legendary Burton Ale, which was aged for up to twenty years. Pabst has 70 active brands in its stable as well as another 70 inactive brands in the vault, and Greg said there are number of them that they would like to “bring back as the true retro beers that they are.”

Ballantine IPA will be launching in the first few days of September in 12 ounce six-packs, and then in limited 750ml bottles. At first it will only be available in the northeast U.S,. but if it proves popular it might expand across the rest of the country. Let’s hope it does. I slowly demolished that six pack they sent me over the course of the last week and I’m already thirsty for more. There’s a particular satisfaction in drinking a beer that is both new and, at the same time, something your grandfathers might have enjoyed half a century ago.

How Pabst Brought a 136-Year-Old Beer Back From the Dead

Top art: Tara Jackoby. Inline photos: Brent Rose