I blog primarily over at "geosciblog" (http://geosciblog.blogspot.com), I am doing this one for fun. It is inspired by 30+ years of beer can collecting and having tried more than 3,000 different American beers during that time. “. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton

Monday, March 02, 2009

To Most Folks, This is Not the Holy Grail,...

but to American beer historians/connoisseurs, it is. Here is but one story about Ballantine Burton Ale.

Ballantine Burton represents a unique bit of American beer history. It was produced by the Ballantine Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ and given away to sports celebrities, TV personalities, and other folks of influence as Christmas gifts. That in-and-of itself is not that unusual, but the way Ballantine Burton Ale was handled is unique. By enlarging the second photo, you can see that it was bottled especially for Bruce McGorrill, who was eulogized briefly in this obituary, in this way:

"Bruce McGorrill, 74, who climbed the ladder from announcer at WCSH-TV to chief executive of Maine Broadcasting Systems, March 28 in Portland. The Bowdoin College graduate moonlighted as a public speaker and Down East humorist."

You will also see that this particular batch (one of only two or three) was aged for 14 and 1/2 years. So one can surmise that Mr. McGorrill squirreled away at least a couple of bottles from the presumed case that he received as a gift. From time-to-time, full bottles of Ballantine Burton Ale appear on eBay as collectibles, if the labels are in good condition, they generally go for around $100 or more. Other factors not withstanding, the longer a beer/ale ages at the brewery, the longer it will last, if protected from light and excessive temperature variations.

The condition of the label, aside from influencing its collectible value, it an indicator as to how the ale has been "handled". Excessively faded labels suggest the bottles may have been exposed to too much light - if exposed on a shelf or mantle, perhaps. Light is not good for beer.

My friend Paul found this particular bottle at a recent beer can show in VA and paid $90 and my friend Neal and I each paid $30 for a 1/3 DI (Drinking Interest, to modify an oilfield term). That DI may be modified to 1/4 as Paul's dad (who worked for Ballantine and tried samples of it in the early 1960s) wants to try it, too. So when the four of us can get together, we intend to share this experience. Paul thought about buying a second bottle at the show, but $90 for a second 12 oz bottle of ale seemed a little too rich. This is to perhaps be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not a habit, as the supply of full bottles is ever shrinking. Ballantine was purchased by Falstaff in 1967 and Burton Ale was never brewed again. For years, other Ballantine products were brewed at the Narragansett Brewery in Cranston, RI, then when that brewery closed, production was shifted to the Falstaff Brewery at Fort Wayne, IN.

More from the first link, a description of the vaunted brew:

..."Ballantine Burton Ale pours to a beautiful, bright, ruby red color with no head and no carbonation. I was amazed how bright this beer poured. When mailed to me they were quite hazy, but I cold stored them, the yeast settled to the bottom of the bottle and poured bright. I was also very careful when I poured to make sure the yeast sediment stayed in the bottle. The nose on this beer shocked me. I was expecting lots of oxidation, but I did not get that. Very pronounced aromas of oak, sherry, and alcohol flooded the nose. This beer matured in oak for 20 years, and is one of the reasons this beer has held up so well. The palate was full on the tongue, with flavors of oak, and a surprising amount of estery fruit flavors of plum and apple, paired with a nice back drop of caramel maltiness. Ballantine Burton Ale finished with more oaky and fruity flavors up front, and ended with a peppery, soothing, warming burn that lit a fire in the belly."...

Years of jalapeños, salsa, and picante sauce may have damaged my taste buds to the point of not being able to pick up all of these flavors. If the bottle survived well, I may just say "Wow".

[On a side note: A few years ago, Neal (aka mytmalt) tried a bottle of Ballantine Brown Stout, from around 1936 and he reported that it survived well. Aside from higher hop content and long aging, higher alcohol contents also help in the preservation process.]

This ain't a football beer, you would treat it more as a sherry or a port, with reverence for the history contained within. If we can scrounge up enough tulip glasses, those are best for this sort of adult beverage, similar to what you would use with Samuel Adams Triple Bock or Utopia. I will be satisfied with having tried it, Paul and Neal will probably flip a coin over who gets to keep the empty bottle and the "loser" will get the bottle cap (both are collectibles, too). We will probably chill it to around 50 to 55 degrees to enjoy its flavors.

So, second to waiting for my grandson to be born, I am awaiting this experience, too.

BTW, Ballantine Ale - now contract-brewed by Miller - is still available in select markets and it is still a decent brew, though having been separated from Newark from 40+ years according to mytmalt.

Some might consign such a treasure to a "tontine" status, wherein the last surviving member of the "three brewsketeers" would enjoy the bottle (if you remember that particular episode of MASH), but I would rather share the experience with appreciative beer connoisseur friends.

This was cross-posted yesterday at geosciblog.
That was a cool history on Ballantine. I've always seen the 22 oz bottles growing up at the corner store, right next to the Olde English, Colt 45, St. Ides, Steel Reserve and an assortment of really vile stuff. Who knew the stuff had such a rich history? Pretty cool.
Ballantine was a powerhouse for its time.

There are collectors that specialize in collecting only Ballantine items.
To follow up, if you haven't tried the Ballantine Ale in the 22 oz. bottles, you might give it a try.

I do miss their IPA, which I don't think has been made since Falstaff closed their brewery at Fort Wayne, IN.
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