ADVENTURES IN BEERLAND
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The Real Ballantine IPA??
The challengers were placed next to each other. Each was then asked one simple question “What is your name
please?” The first challenger, in a firm, confident voice, replied, “I’m the real Ballantine IPA.” The second, sincere
and unwavering said, “I’m the real Ballantine IPA.” What? Obviously, only one was telling the truth. Now the time
has come send one packing and one to the Beer Hall of Foam.
No, this scenario is not a segment from the old TV game show “To Tell The Truth” , it was rather the opening
statement in a showdown between two beers both claiming to be the 2014 recreation of the legendary (and long
defunct) Ballantine IPA. It was decided by the powers that be (translation – the one paying for the beer) that the
fairest possible way to do that was with a blind taste test. The judges in this monumental duel to the finish were the
highly respected Mr. Brian “The Beer Poet” Lynch and yours truly. Wait, I need a title to counteract prestige of
anyone officially called a poet. Hmmm, maybe “the Bozo of Beer” would work. No, that would only have gravitas in
the clown community. Forget it; let’s get back to the beers.
Ballantine, founded in Newark, NJ, is generally acknowledged to be the first brewery in the United States to make a
true India Pale Ale. The year was 1878. I know that’s true because that is the date printed in gold on the bottle’s
label. And for the record when it comes to credibility I’ll take a beer label over Wikipedia every time. And double if it’
s printed in gold. The beer itself was quite strong for its day, weighing in at 6.9 – 7.9 % ABV , with about 60 - 80
IBUs (no one really knows), and a smell of hops that was stronger than Grandpa’s 25 cents a gallon cologne.
Interestingly, two craft beer legends, Fritz Maytag at Anchor and Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada, both cite
Balantine IPA as the inspiration for each of their most famous brews, Anchor Liberty and Sierra Celebration.
While every beer fan has heard of and most likely imbibed both Liberty and Celebration it’s likely that few today have
ever heard of Ballantine IPA and fewer still remember drinking it. Makes sense since the heyday of Ballantine was
the late 1950’s and 60’s when it was one of the four largest breweries in the USA. Then, as Americans began to
embrace colored water, ah, I mean light lagers, instead of serious brews, the appeal of Ballantine faded. An attempt
was made to "modernize" the formula and flavor, a euphemism for, sadly, less flavor, more adjuncts. Brewing to the
lowest common dominator didn’t work so ownership decided to get out since losing a lot of money was better than
losing everything. Enter an investment company which thanks to their great beer and marketing savvy promptly
began to lose even more. By 1972, the red ink was nearly a $1 million per month. These pseudo beer barons
quickly dumped Ballantine off to Falstaff for a reported $4 million. This is the same Ballantine that three years earlier
was worth $16 million. Ouch. I guess that means I should apologize to my broker; he’s not the worst that ever
lived. Eventually, in 1985 the Ballantine brand was bought by the darling of the hipsters, Pabst. And there the name
sat only seen in beer store coolers in its XXX Ale incarnation. The real Ballantine IPA was just the stuff dreams were
made of. Until now.
There’s was only one, just one, tiny, small problem facing Ballantine (Pabst) and its lone competitor, Smuttynose,
when they both independently decided to bring back this famous IPA – no recipe existed. To be fair Smutty says
their formula is based on a salvaged recipe they found on decaying bar napkins hidden in a rusted chest found in a
town called Parts Unknown, a place inhabited almost exclusively by professional wrestlers. Ballantine, on the other
hand, opted for a bit more formal research. They guessed at it.
Actually Ballantine did talk to old malt suppliers, investigated the hops used, and feverishly tried to determine if the
original beer was really aged in wood tanks. Eventually they finagled what might have been the hop profile by
adding some modern varieties to the Cluster and Bullion Hops that most beer historians felt were in the classic
formula. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
Ballantine obviously was the only company that could legally call their brew “Ballantine IPA” but that was not a
problem for their erstwhile competition. When Smuttynose teamed up with Stone’s founder Greg Koch to create their
version they slyly named thei brew “Cluster’s Last Stand”. They touted it as a “right-after-Prohibition Ballantine IPA”
as highlighted in Stone’s brewmaster Mitch Steele’s book on IPAs. Actually, Cluster’s Last Stand, might just be more
historical accurate one since it incorporates a variety of antiquated hops such as Brewer’s Gold and East Kent
Golding for flavoring, Bullion hops in the dry hop state, and, of course Cluster hops for bittering. Smutty wasn’t
tweaking anything,they were recreating. Take that Ballantine.
In the annals of Beerland a match like this is rare indeed. So much so that the crack BeerNexus Research
Department went on a hunt to find a place that was serving both beers at the same time. They reportedly visited 14
different bars in their quest, enjoying the regular offerings at each, but not once finding the elusive special duo. If
you’re wondering why they didn’t just Google it you’re missing the point of the group’s motto: “we can’t drink what we
can’t find, but we always drink what we do find.” Then fate stepped in. Brian Lynch wandered into the Cloverleaf
Tavern in Caldwell, NJ. Eureka – they had both beers! I made the half hour drive there to join him in 7 ½ minutes.
The Cloverleaf is obviously not a typical neighborhood watering hole. Hanging over the bar is a huge banner that
proudly proclaims: “Named #1 Craft Beer Bar in the Northeast – for two consecutive years!” No wonder since they
claim to sever “over 600 different craft beers in a year”. Impressive, but now we could care less about the other
598. Only two mattered.
I checked my watch to dutifully record for beer posterity the time of this grand encounter – 11:43 AM. It might be a
touch early in the day for some but remember, we’re professionals, so please don’t try it at home folks (unless you
want to.) Our seats at the nearly empty bar were directly in front of Cluster’s tap handle, an excellent choice by
Brian. The shorter the serving line the fresher the beer. I then looked around for the Ballantine tap handle. It
wasn’t there. Brian hurriedly pointed to a small sign artfully tacked to the bar’s back wall – “Featured Bottles”.
There, listed third from the was Ballantine IPA. We both shrugged; the beer battle of the century will have to be
fought with somewhat different weapons. It will have to do, history awaits so full speed ahead; don’t drink till you see
the whites of the beer’s head; hazard zet forward.
We ordered the beers.
Matt, our savvy bartender, immediately understood our mission. He first brought out an overly chilled Ballantine IPA
bottle so it could warm up to the same temperature the draft of Smuttynose Cluster would be. Next he gave us each
two short, identical, clear, logo free glasses. Finally he pour two filled pints of the Cluster, setting one in front of
each of us. I could almost hear iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer saying “for the few people in attendance and
the millions around the world who drink beer, let’s get ready to rumble!”
We each carefully poured the same amount of liquid in each of the short glasses; Ballantine on the right, Smutty on
the left. Our plan was simple. One of us would turn his back while the other shifted the glasses around in a two
glass version of a three card monte shill shuffle, only without the shill. First we would pick the better of the two and
then try to identify it. To protect our tasting from any hint of impropriety or collusion we asked Matt to turn off the
security cameras, give us each a pair of painted over sunglasses, a blindfold, a deep sea diving helmet with the
faceplate covered, and an isolation booth formally used in one of the non-fixed episodes of To Tell The Truth. He
told us to stand behind the pole in the corner and keep our eyes closed. Fair enough.
We drew straws to determine who would go first. I suggested drawing landscapes or portraits but Brian pointed out
that would take too long. Fortunately my drawing was better proving those months of study at the Connecticut
School of Matchbook Cover Design weren’t wasted. I confidently went to the pole. After what seemed like enough
time to fill and drink a growler, Brian called for me to return. I carefully looked at my two glasses. Each had a large
white, snowy head majestically sitting over a golden, translucent, slightly hazy body featuring more than enough
bubbles. The first sip from each shouted hops though one seemed to have more citrus notes and the other more
pine. Another long sip and I noticed that one left a resiny film on the tongue with a hint of wood while the other was a
touch more complex and finished with a light bitterness. Also both were wet.
“They are very, very close to each other but I like the one on the left just a bit better” I proclaimed. “In fact, having
read the literature from both companies, talked with those who decades ago actually drank the original Ballantine
IPA, and having once made my own homebrew clone of a clone of a clone Ballantine IPA, I can say without hesitation
that the beer on my left is Cluster’s Last Stand, the one on my right is the Ballantine!”
Brain paused to take in my profound declaration, nodded, and in a most impressive voice said: “Wrong”.
I tried to save face by quickly identifying the beer in the pint glass as Cluster’s but Brian wasn’t buying it. However
being a gracious individual he allowed me a second chance. I went back to the pole as the beers were again
shuffled. Then it was back to the bar for my chance at redemption. “Ballantine left; Smutty right.” The old
intentionally get it wrong the first time just to impress with the right answer the second time trick worked! I was one
for one. Now it was Brian’s turn.
As Brian was about to begin his journey to the pole I noticed that he had stealthily placed a beer mat under one of
his glasses. Ah, it seems the fix might be in. But I had a remedy for Brian’s maneuver. All I have to do is divine
from what I know of him: Now, a clever man would put the coaster under the Ballantine goblet, because it would make
a ring and the Ballantine symbol is three rings. But only a fool would not know that. I am not a great fool, so I clearly
cannot leave that glass on the coaster when i shuffle. But he must have known I was not a great fool, he would have
counted on it, and so I can clearly see I shouldn't switch glasses. No, he will not see me become the victim to one of
the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less
well-known is this: "I've got it! I've got it! The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the
palace has the brew that is true!” No, wait; I’ve got my movie lines mixed up . Remind me not to watch this year’s
Princess Bride meets The Court Jester marathon on TCM. I finally decided to just put the coaster in my pocket.
Let the shuffling begin. I moved the glasses back and forth, side to side, over and up, inside and out. There was no
way Brian would have been able to pick one from the other even if had been watching. I called for his return. Brian
studied each glass all the while showing incredible discipline by not to asking where the coaster was. He smelled,
sipped, and repeated the process – three times. He then said, “the Ballantine is on my right.” A silence gripped the
bar. I paused, as the tension mounted. “Well?” asked Brian. I stalled for time. I had shuffled so effectively I forgot
which glass was which.
Thinking quickly, I said in a clear, firm though empathic voice, “you’re wrong”.
After much further discussion we agreed both were outstanding IPAs and really hard to tell apart. We also agreed to
go to on the only person we knew who had the palate, history, and knowledge to be the final arbitrator of the matter,
BeerNexus’ top writer, Dan Hodge. Within days we brought him a bottle of Ballantine and one of Smutty. No
instructions or blindfolds were necessary. Taking a sip of the Ballantine he stopped. “Don’t have to taste the other.
This is the real deal. It’s exactly as I remember it when I first drank it forty years ago!”
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