5 Old-School Beers We Wish They'd Bring Back
Contrary to popular belief within the craft community, America's love of beer didn't begin when President Jimmy Carter lifted the national ban on homebrewing during the 1970s and breweries such as New Albion and Sierra Nevada started springing up and dumping trailer loads of hops into their kettles. While it's true there were only 80 breweries in America in 1983, and six of them accounted for 96% of the beer Americans consumed, it wasn't as if everyone was happy about that fact.
Despite Prohibition cutting the number of working breweries in America from more than 2,000 in the late 1800s to zero from the 1920s into the early 1930s, there were 750 breweries in operation across the country by 1936. Regional brewers were everywhere and breweries such as Ballantine and Sons in Newark even produced porter, stout and a product it called India Pale Ale, which was somewhat less hoppy than today's IPAs but bitter enough to serve as a direct ancestor.
When we wrote in April about 4 Beers We Wish They'd Bring Back, we ended up hearing from a lot of long-time beer drinkers out there who still lament the loss of their beloved labels. While our story singled out more recent departures such as New Albion and Pete's Wicked Ale, the names that popped up in the comments field were some of the pillars of American beer history.
The one that caught our eye, and inspired us to look into what happened to some of the favorites mentioned, was Ballantine. In full disclosure, I'll let it be known that my family's ties to the beer industry begin and end with my great-grandfather, who worked at the Ballantine brewery in Newark, N.J., for several years. Newark was a center of regional brewing activity when my grandfather was with Ballantine, with Newark's Gottfried Kruger Brewing giving America its first beer can on Jan. 24, 1935. Ballantine was Newark's biggest name of all, however, serving as the nation's fourth-largest brewery at its peak -- eventually buying Kruger's brewery after its brand was sold to Rhode Island-based Narragansett in 1961. The Borromean rings of the company's logo were a fixture in my grandparents' basement bar and original promotional items such as steel serving trays and lighted, moving signs still serve as family heirlooms.
As it turned out, there were more than a few folks out there who remembered Ballantine from its heyday from the 1940s through 1960s, when its partnership with the New York Yankees led to famed announcer Mel Allen calling home runs "Ballantine blasts." It also turned out that there were more than a few of these stories from around the country. The overwhelming majority of them, however, end with Pabst Brewing. During the 1970s and 1980s, brewing magnate Paul Kalmanovitz made a habit of buying up struggling breweries, slashing them to the bone and selling off just about everything but the brand name. It's how he came into possession of Ballantine, Stroh's, Pabst, National Bohemian, Rainier, Olympia, Pearl, Lone Star, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Blatz, Stag, Schmidt's, Schaefer, Old Style and a host of malt beverage brands.
Pabst has since been producing most of those brands in cans and bottles that resemble the originals but in styles that bear little likeness to the beers those labels' owners once produced. In recent years, however, the company has been slowly undoing some of the damage. In 2005, it sold the Narragansett brand to a Rhode Island-based group that not only returned to the namesake lager's original recipe, but got it back in the stands at Fenway Park for Red Sox games and expanded its lineup to include more crafty selections, including a porter, bock and summer blonde ale. In 2007, Pabst reformulated Schlitz to its original, slightly maltier "Gusto" formula and trotted out some of Schlitz's old marketing items, such as lawn chairs and nudie pens, for the occasion. Since being bought by the Metropoulos family of owners in 2010, Pabst has begun building fan pages for regional brews including "Natty Boh" and Olympia and making commercials with Will Ferrell for Old Milwaukee.
While this opens the door for Narragansett-style revivals for Ballantine and the rest of the brands in Pabst's portfolio, there are more than a few legacy beers out there that may not get as lucky. We sorted through your beer stories and found a five-pack of great old brews that we agree should find their way back to taps and beer coolers soon: