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Beer Review: Ballantine India Pale Ale

by Collin Keefe on Oct 13, 2014 in Beer

Long before craft brewers reawakened American’s thirst for beers of character and distinction, few lagers and ales rose above the seemingly endless ebb of pale, flavorless and fizzy mass produced suds quite like Ballantine India Pale Ale.

In its heyday, Ballentine amassed an impressive list of devotees and loyalists. Just as artist Japser Johns’ bronze tribute to it is on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the once iconic beer also turns up in the pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, notoriously hard-partying drummer John Bonham lifted the intersecting rings from Ballantine's label for his symbol on Zeppelin IV (aka Zoso).

You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more righteous endorsement than that for any beer today. But all that Gonzo and Bonzo reverence was for the brand’s flagship “ale,” which any contemporary beer drinker who can remember drinking it recalls for its telltale swamp-cabbage-and-skunk-piss aroma.

It was Ballantine’s long-defunct IPA, arguably the first truly American expression of the style, that was the darling of connoisseurs. Michael Jackson celebrated it as one of America’s last great “old-established Ales” in his immensely influential The World Guide to Beer, noting its bold hoppiness and its woody characteristics that were the result of aging in oak for a year before bottling.

With beer drinkers thirst for IPAs showing no sign of letting up anytime soon, Pabst Brewing Company, which now owns the Ballantine brand, has revived the long lost beer.

Since the original recipe went missing decades ago, Master Brewer Greg Deuhs only had anecdotal information and first-hand recollections to work with in reformulating the storied beer. Whether or not what he’s come up with is a close match to the legend remains to be seen. But what we can tell you is that it’s a worthy and welcomed entry into the already crowded IPA category.

Poured from a 750ml bottle into a pint pub glass, the golden-copper colored ale quickly forms a nice fluffy and slightly beige head that lingers and leaves lacing on the sides of the glass as you sip away at it. The hops hit the nose first with a fruitiness reminiscent of grapefruit and dried apricot that grows more piney and resinous as the beer warms up. There’s some bready and biscuit characteristics that join in on the olfactory party, as well as a distinct woodiness, likely the result of the oak “spirals” used to summon some of the the subtleties imparted from the old wooden tanks once employed at Ballantine’s Newark, New Jersey headquarters.

On the palate, caramelly sweetness mingles with more fruity citrus qualities and wisps of woodiness before closing out on a dry note with some lingering hop bitterness.

IPA aficionados will surely note the restraint exercised in bittering and flavoring this beer. True to the American sense of the style, its hoppy qualities are over-the-top compared to the more traditional examples like Samuel Smith's India Ale, but at the same time pale in comparison to heavily hopped examples like Founder’s Centennial IPA and Russian River Blind Pig. Those who prefer a more balanced approach, like a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA or Victory Hop Devil, may note something that’s close to perfection.

 


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