Ballantine Burton Makes a Return

This is the second of the Ballantine recreations Pabst has done. You can read a description about the recreation of Ballantine IPA here.

We have some serious historical unpacking to do. Late last year, Pabst Brewing, which owns the Ballantine brand, decided to do another recreation--this time of what we might call the original whale, Ballantine Burton Ale. That beer has its own fascinating background, but it is based on a strange style that dates back more than three hundred years.

The original Burton ales came from Burton upon Trent, that city in the English Midlands synonymous with pale ales. The precursor style was not pale, though. It was brownish, very sweet and strong. The main audience for the beer lived abroad in Russia, where they apparently liked their beers very strong and sweet. It was a stable market lasting decades until, in 1822, everything collapsed when the Russian government enacted a tariff on British goods. Export Burtons were weird beers, and descriptions of them don't sound appetizing. The British thought they were weird, too, and so Burton's breweries needed to retool the style to make it attractive to a local audience. The second generation of Burtons, which lasted from 1822 until about the middle of the following century, were still very big beers and still sweet but somewhat less so on both counts, and they were balanced by a whopping dose of bittering hops. (In truth, these don't sound very appetizing, either.)

Burton's English-directed Burton ales were, by the time the Ballantine company decided to start making them just before Prohibition, already antiques. There's not much record of that pre-Prohibition stock, but they became famous when, after Prohibition, the company made these special, long-aged beers that they gave to employees and honored friends of the brewery. That practice lasted until the early 1960s, when the last of the Ballantine Burtons were made. (There are still a few bottles kicking around, and people have documented them online and in video.) As you can see in the photo below, they were so special as to be ceremonial, with many bottles bearing the name of the recipient. Their rarity made them treasured heirlooms, which is why you still find them floating around more than fifty years after the last ones were made.

Pabst has taken a serious interest in this history and put brewer Greg Deuhs, master brewer in charge of innovation, to the task of recreating them. Unfortunately, when Ballantine collapsed in the early 70s, the historical record was lost. Falstaff bought the brand, shuttered the Newark brewery and then a few years later it was acquired, the start of a long decline that ended in 1990, after all the brewing facilities were closed and Pabst swept in to buy up the brand.

(When I asked Deuhs what had happened to the old brew logs and records, and he had a pretty good idea, having seen Pabst go through its own inevitable collapse. “Someone took them home. Same thing that happened to all the Pabst recipes when they closed the brewery in Milwaukie. They were told by the old-timers in Milwaukie that they went in and did some midnight raids and took some of the stuff home, and it’s in the basement of someone here in town—but I’ve never actually seen it.”)

The brewery sent me a couple bottles and then I spoke to Deuhs about making the beer. The current vintage, the only one now available, was aged six months in the tank and then two more years in the bottle before shipping. It is a booming 11.3% abv.

Making Ballantine Burton

What follows is an account by Greg Deuhs, from an interview I conducted in mid-December. I have posted it mostly intact and have added just a few comments along the way. I want to credit Pabst for undertaking this project, which they've done with the same kind of fidelity to the beer and history you'd expect from a craft brewery. There's no guarantee these experiments will continue, but it's heartening to see a bit of America's brewing legacy make an even brief reprise. And who knows, maybe the brand can find an audience.

Deuhs began by giving a bit of history. “Peter Ballantine started this brewery in the 1800s, and I have seen one bottle that appears to be turn of the 1900s—not in their special holiday packaging that they used [starting] in the 30s. So I do believe they made it at some level before Prohibition.”

“Every year they would select certain tanks to either blend or package a tank as is. On the label they would post the brew date as well as the packaging date. Normally the packaging date was November 11th of every year. There were beers that were brewed in the forties and packaged in the sixties. The last Ballantine Burton Ale I had was brewed in 1946 and packaged in ’64.”

The early batches from the 1930s were only five or so years old, but later vintages might have been aged up to 20 years before bottling. It seems that the brewers just looked at their stock and decided what to package. “They were wood tanks; some were cypress and some were American oak. They were not lined with pitch, no. And they used the same tanks for IPA, which they aged a year.”

I then asked how he went about reconstructing the beer. He said, “The only thing we did know was: we did know the color, and we had a good idea on the alcohol, and when we did the research on the Ballantine IPA, we did talk to a lab manager of the brewery in Newark that told us what he thought the Burton ale was. He thought it was a stronger version of the IPA.”

Deuhs also added that having the brew logs may not have helped much. I've seen old logs and I know what he means. He explains: “You don’t really glean very much information from the brewing logs because it wasn’t really until the 50s that they cared about the variety of the hops and IBUs and such. The recipes that I have that go back from 1900 to 1930 of Pabst products, they have x amount of pale malt and x amount of corn and 20 pounds of Yakima hops and 30 pounds of import hops. So they didn’t call out any varieties by names. We have a hops supplier who’s very knowledgeable in this area, and they told us the hops that were most likely available for the hops when the beer was made. We knew that Ballantine liked using Brewers Gold, so we used Brewers Gold in it, and most likely Clusters. When we compared the 1946 brew with the 2015 brew, the color was almost exactly the same and some of those malt characters were very close.”

The original Ballantine tanks were "squat and horizontal." Pabst brews its Ballantine line at the Cold Spring Brewery in Minnesota, a contract facility that dates back 125 years. That was good because, “at Cold Spring they looked similar.” They were, however, metal tanks and wouldn't contribute any of the oxidative or wood character of the original. “So then we filled the bottom of the tank with wood staves from the barrel mill. We used the medium toast. And then we put in a bunch of hops with the beer, plus right before packaging we put in some hop oils.” Deuhs conditioned the beer for six months at 50 degrees, then bottled the beer and let it sit in bottles at 40 degrees for two more years. That's why the vintage released this year was 2015.

What's the beer taste like? “There are some oxidation notes, but it’s not papery/caramelly, but it’s more toffee/burbony. The hops and malt character have mellowed to the point where there about even.” I would add that it's very low carbonation, but not quite still. it's a heavy, thick beer with a pronounced caramelized sugar note, almost burnt. The wood impact is heavy, giving it both a tannic structure and a strong vanilla note. This was purportedly the inspiration for Anchor's Old Foghorn, which in turn became the inspiration for a generation of American barley wines. It is therefore familiar to me and I think would be to any American who dabbles in the occasional December snifter of barley wine--a strange cycle of causation.

Deuhs already has 2016 and 2017 batches brewed, but the volumes are tiny--around 3,000 cases. “We have enough that we get to keep a little of each year behind so maybe we’ll do a variety pack of four or five vintages. That’d be kind of cool—but that’s just me talking out loud. Each vintage is a little different. The 2016 has a lot more hop character and it’s a little bit drier. The 2017 is a little bit different, too. I did that intentionally so people would seek out the different vintages, kind of like Thomas Hardy.”

I suspect you won't have a lot of luck finding this beer, but it's worth paying attention to, mostly because it might suggest a way large breweries can nose their way back into the specialty market with some flair and authenticity. And, with luck, future vintages will be available for the quick and alert.