Pre-WWII US IPA and a Euro-Mashup

Smuttynose/Stone Cluster's Last Stand and BrewDog/Weihenstephan India Pale Weizen.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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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