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Archive for the ‘Ballantine’ Category

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As I was saying in the previous post: Ballantine XXX Ale became the standard setter for my beer drinking evaluations. I must admit though, the bulk of beer drinking in those early years consisted of cans of Bud, Schlitz, Pabst or local favorites Carling Black Label (“Hey, Mabel! Black Label!”) and Narragansett (“Hi neighbor! Have a ‘Gansett!”). However, when I felt the need to remember my beer drinking roots I sought out a six of XXX Ale.

As time went on I discovered Guinness Extra Stout. For those who equate Guinness to the draft version available now in tall cans or bottles there is a distinctly different brew found there. No, the Extra Stout was a strong, full-bodied, earthy ale. It was sold in four packs of  11oz bottles, later in 12 oz six packs. I stumble upon it every so often now and grab some.

This Guinness perfectly matched my expectations of earthy bitterness that Ballantiine  first awakened in me. The combination of the two makes a great Black and Tan by the way. In fact I got to the point of keeping a case of both on hand, drinking either one straight or mixing the two for variety.

In the early seventies up in Stillwater, Maine, I came across my first Narragansett Porter. Now here was a quiet sleeper! A great earthy porter for the low price of common ‘Gansett. The shopkeeper said he kept a supply on hand for some of the old timers – sort of a remnant of the stronger American brews that the lighter lagers of Budweiser and others had replaced. 

Well, conveniently, my wife worked for a local store and the owner agreed to order in cases of ‘Gansett Porter and Ballantine XXX just for me. They came in the returnable and reusable “bar” bottles and heavy returnable cases. This was way before bottle bills and recycling had surfaced. So now for a low cost I had as good a selection of brews as the later micro and craft breweries produced at premium prices.

Well, meanwhile in the background, the New England brewing industry was slipping away. Fallstaff had purchased both Ballantine and Narragansett, Carling had started its collapse, eventually closing  the Natick brewery. With A-B opening its Budweiser brewery in Merrimack, NH local beers slipped away. Now brewed by a Miller plant under license from Pabst, Ballantine and some of the other old labels still exist.

So after Budweiser ran all the old time brews out, the tables now turn again and Harpoon and Boston Beer (Sam Adams) are buying up other breweries and turning out high quality brews in New England. (Not that Budweiser is threatened, what with A-B and a few other national powerhouses holding 90% of the US beer market.)

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 ballentineSo after trashing Dogfish Head Fort the other night I got to thinking. Why did the three of us take exception to mixing raspberries with beer.   What in that combination or any fruit/beer combo turns us way off… like when someone buys a Sam Adams sampler and gets the Cranberry Lambic which gets slid to the way back of the fridge and left for that desperate night when  no cash, no beer, dark and rainy, and no nearby-open-store,  coincide to make us reach… reach past the partly used Ranch dressing, past the barbecue sauce from last summer, past the leftover slice of pizza and latch onto the Lambic. I think it is in the way  we enter the beer world.

If I open a bottle of beer, which I must clarify, I lean toward ale and am partial to stout, porter, IPA and that ilk, then I have expectations. When I first drank Flemish Sour Ale I thought something had gone horribly wrong in the brewery. Only when I prepared myself for the Sour was I able to appreciate its character. That doesn’t mean I then loved it… I appreciated what it was and I thought of the cold, damp, spring of Flanders and the Ale House, ancient and well loved by the local craftsmen talking about the bicycle racing season just begun on the cobbled farm roads and mud.

My first taste, the eye opening, permanently implanting memory of that remarkable fluid, beer, occurred when I was about eleven years old at a boy scout gathering of some sort. My father, my older brother and I spent that warm early summer day watching and enjoying various activities. A haze fills most of that day except for the clear, sunny skies, the smell of warm, spring earth and damp grass. My father stood at the horseshoe pitch with the other fathers. I tagged along, my brother was out of sight. The men had green bottles in their hands; I wish I could say for sure but I always thought of them as Ballantine Ale bottles. It was a common ale for the old timers. I might add that when I was eleven Ike was President of the US.

Nevertheless, my father – not particularly a beer drinker- handed me his bottle while he stood up to toss the old iron shoes. I remember the dirt, moist and dark, the smell of good earth like behind the Forsythia bushes down near the stone foundation at home. I remember the kahki work pants that my father and nearly all the men wore on Saturday, heavy and soft from wear.I remember the dungarees that I wore with the rolled up cuffs and broken-in feel, the feel of jeans that in those days came from hard use, not purchased that way. I remembered the cold green bottle that I grasped by the neck. And I remember holding it up to my lips and tilting, the fluid sliding down my throat. 

That taste, that day, stayed with me. A bitter, hoppy, strong after-taste ale. Ever after I measured beer with that first taste, the early Knickerbocker, Ballantine – the true gen, the GIQ’s of Pabst or Knick or Schaefer of my early high school years. They had to have that earthy strength, always reminding me of the damp earth of the early summer day with my father.

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