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Pre-WWII US IPA and a Euro-Mashup

We tasted two beers from our end of 2014 wish list last night: BrewDog’s collaboration with Weihenstephan, India Pale Weizen, and a recreation of the fabled Ballantine IPA.

Well, sort of. The latter was not the recent effort released by Pabst, which we’re still desperate to try, but an entirely different beer produced as a collaboration between two US breweries, Stone and Smuttynose. Will it soon be possible to have a bar selling nothing but Ballantine clones? Possibly.

If there’s a theme to this post, it’s old meets new, and the idea of sliding scales. You’ll see what we mean.

India Pale Weizen

6.2%, 330ml, from Red Elephant, Truro; £2.60 at BrewDog’s own online store

With apologies to the ‘all that matters is the taste’ crowd, what got us interested in this beer was the idea of the Scottish upstarts BrewDog collaborating with the centuries-old German brewery Weihenstephan. Our assumption was that they would meet halfway and create the perfect beer for a pair of fence-sitters like us.

In the aroma, BrewDog won out: it smelled appealingly like one of those bags of dried tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, coconut) you get in health food shops. Most of that was coming, we think, from hops, but we’ve picked up pineapple from German wheat beers before, so perhaps the yeast played its part.

The first sips were not promising, bringing an almost overwhelming hit of TCP which might be the result of turning the natural clove character of the yeast strain ‘up to 11’. We persevered, though, and either it passed or we got used to it, at which point a moreish bitter lemon character took over.

It’s a brash beer but good fun and we’d drink it again. What it really made us long for, however, is something further along the sliding scale away from BrewDog and towards Weihenstephan, with the same level of assertive bitterness but far less hop aroma — Bitter Weizen rather than India Pale.

Cluster’s Last Stand

8.3%, 650ml, £9.73 from Beer Ritz online

In his excellent book IPA, Stone Brewing’s Mitch Steele describes Ballantine IPA as it was brewed in the 1930s — 7.4%, 60 IBUs, aged in oak vats, and dry-hopped with now-rare variety Bullion using a complex steam system to extract only the hop oils. He makes it sound delicious and underlines its place as the original big, hoppy American IPA, and a key inspiration for those 1970s and 80s craft brewers.

In 2013, Greg Koch from Stone visited Smuttynose in New Hampshire and brewed a batch of beer to Steele’s specifications, naming it Cluster’s Last Stand after an old American hop variety. This bottle is from a more recent ‘re-brew’, best before July 2015 and, at 8.3%, is stronger than any of the Ballantine recipes in Steele’s book.

The label makes no reference to the (somewhat) historic recipe, and those seeing only the names Stone and Smuttynose and the word IPA might be surprised or even disappointed by this beer, which does not have layers of delicate perfume at the top end. (Though perhaps it did the week it was brewed.) Our first impressions, in fact, were of toffee, fudge and sticky marmalade — not what many people look for in US craft beer.

The next most dominant characteristic was bitterness — an iron bar of it, slamming down on the tongue with every mouthful. It feels pleasingly austere — a beer of few words, jaw set and meaning business.

As we progressed, we detected a barely-there haunting off note in the aroma — a very faint reminder of earthy potato skins fresh from the field, or a damp cellar. That, combined with an equally faint suggestion of sherry-fication, ultimately only added to the sense of depth and maturity.

So, those sliding scales: Cluster’s Last Stand sits somewhere between the Goldings’n’Fuggles of more traditional British IPAs and the ‘whole fruit bowl’ approach more common in US-inspired brews — an under-explored space. Complex, subtly askew, old-fashioned but also refreshingly different, we suspect it might win over those who have grown weary of IPA’s attention-grabbing antics.

We liked this beer a lot: we’d pay £9.73 again, damn it, and that’s saying something.

6 replies on “Pre-WWII US IPA and a Euro-Mashup”

I’ve yet to try the Ballantine’s, but I’ve heard generally good things. I’ve seen a few references to the use of hop oil in pre-prohibition and early repeal brews. Amsdell brewery used it all the time at the turn of the century. My only issue with the Ballantine recreation is their claim to be America’s original IPA. I’d argue that most breweries in the US by the 1860s were making some kind of IPA, and that trend continued until prohibition. Some continued making IPA after prohibition as well.

Not to mention in the 1830s beers were being made with so much Cluster in central NY that the Brewers preferred the palest hops possible to avoid turning the beer green. Ballentine has a place in the middle of a direct continuum of US strong ales that is at least 200 years old:

I have a bottle in the stash bought a few weeks ago in Watertown NY. Tonight might be the night.

We used ‘original’ carelessly, you’re right, though Ballantine *is* probably source of that Sierra Nevada yeast strain, so there’s something in the claim.

I’ve had both the old Ballantine (70’s-’96), the revived one and Cluster’s Last Stand. Both the new one and Cluster’s Last Stand are IMO quite similar to the current crop of IPAs or even double IPA with their big fruit juicy and gerannial quality.

I recall Ballantine IPA until 1996 being quite different in style, more English, specifically.

They refer to themselves as “America’s Original IPA –1878” on their label. That’s what I was getting at, not your use of it.

Incidentally, Peter Ballantine got his start as an Albany Ale brewer, here in Albany during the 1820s, before moving to Newark, NJ in the 1840s!

Terry Fosters 1990 description is likely trustworthy:

“An impressive and highly individualistic U.S. example of this beer is (was?) Ballantine India Pale Ale. Supposedly made from an authentic 19th century English recipe, brewed to a high gravity, heavily dry-hopped and aged in oak casks, this beer has a very intense, complex aromatic character (or did have until the last few years or so).”

Very different from Sierra Nevada today but in the lineage.

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