If ever there was a beer in American brewing history that could be called a holy grail, Ballantine Burton Ale most certainly is it. This beer over the decades has gained an almost mythical status, and is a true icon in American brewing history. For those who know about this beer, the honor of drinking a sample of the legendary Ballantine Burton Ale is something they are willing to pay a heavy price for, and will give them serious bragging rights among beer geeks. Some bottles manage to go under the radar, and can be purchased for as little as $10 or $15 dollars. But more often than not, a bidding war will ensue, and the prices beer geeks are willing to pay for a bottle of Burton Ale, can go sky high. I once saw a 7 oz bottle of this beer go for over $100 on EBay, and there are beer geeks out there, that have been willing to pay up to $500 or more, just to get a sample of this legendary brew. So, you must be asking by now, what on earth makes Ballantine Burton Ale so special? A lot really, and in lies a tale...
Ballantine Burton Ale was brewed by P. Ballantine & Sons of Newark, NJ. Ballantine of course, is a familiar name to many America beer drinkers, the brand name Ballantine still exists to this day, but only as a label. The brewery in Newark has long since closed, when it was purchased by Fallstaff in the mid 1960’s, and the Narragansett Brewing Company of Cranston, RI took over brewing Ballantine beers in 1967. One beer however, was never brewed or bottled again after the brewery closed, and that beer was Burton Ale. Ballantine brewed some ales of distinction over its rich history, including another legendary American beer, Ballantine India Pale Ale, which up into the Mid 80’s was still a flavorful beer, and one American beer lovers held in high regard. But the most special beer Ballantine ever brewed was Burton Ale, and it without question, has become the holy grail of American beers.
See, Burton Ale, was NOT FOR SALE. The brewery only released this beer as special Christmas gifts to employees, associates, and friends of the brewery. Each bottle was labeled as a Special Brew: Not For SaleBrewed especially for: with that person’s name appearing on the label festooned with Christmas holly and wreaths and the words: Seasons Greetings from all of us at Ballantine. Ballantine Burton Ale was brewed in limited batches from the 1920’s-1950’s once a year on May 12th, and was then aged in huge oak tanks at the brewery. Vintages of Burton Ale could spend anywhere from 7 to 20 years in oak, before being bottled, and then given away by the brewery as gifts. Ballantine Burton Ale was brewed to be a high gravity, high alcohol beer, coming in at about 10-11% abv. Ballantine, who produced its own hop oils, used lavish amounts in this beer as well, to preserve it, and the high hopping, put Burton Ale at 60+ IBU (bitterness units). It was sedimented with yeast, making it a bottle conditioned beer, so further fermentation, and development could take place in the bottle.
And this is what makes Ballantine Burton Ale so special to beer geeks. Ballantine Burton Ale by style could be called a highly hopped barley wine, possibly the first example of barley wine ever brewed in America. Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter actually sampled a bottle of Burton Ale in the 1970’s that he described as:
"A strong, amber-red, well hopped Christmas brew aged for years in coated wooden tanks that were topped up like a sherry solera." His described the vintage he tried 25 years after it was brewed as a "very aromatic hoppy barley wine."
Burton Ale was brewed with the intent to be cellared and aged like a fine wine. It is very rare, and again, this beer was only brewed in very limited batches, it was not for commercial sale, and the last time a vintage of this beer was bottled at the brewery in Newark, NJ, was 35+ years ago. The number of vintages that are still in existence is unknown, but most speculate only a few hundred examples of Burton Ale have survived to this day. I was fortunate enough to recently win an on line auction, and was able to acquire three bottles of Ballantine Burton Ale. All three vintages were brewed especially for Hans Hinrichs on May 12, 1946 and bottled in November of 1964(one bottle) and 1965(two bottles). So my vintages of Burton Ale were brewed 56 years ago, and bottled 38 and 37 years ago. The world now has one less example of Ballantine Burton Ale, as I drank one of my vintages last night.
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.
I’m stunned. I was not expecting this beer to be in such good condition after all these years. I tasted an example of Burton Ale back in 1999, brewed in 1934 and bottled in 1941, and it was undrinkable. It amazed me, and my wife as well, who out of curiosity, had to take a taste, what high condition this 56 year old beer was in. It tasted as Jackson stated, an aromatic vintage barley wine. I believe the 20 years in oak really helped, as oak aromas and flavors were ever present in this beer. The bottles I purchased were kept in very good condition. The labels were not even worn, so I suspect, who ever had these bottles before me, stored them in a cellar, in a cool, dry place. Hans Hinrichs, were ever you are, I toast you. Thank you for not drinking some of your vintages of Burton Ale, and giving this beer lover, 37 years later, a chance to taste this unique beer. Ballantine Burton Ale is truly the holy grail of American beers, and it was an honor to drink a piece of American brewing history. And you can too. Check EBay, and other on line auctions, and you might just be able to find a bottle of this legendary beer.