I was introduced to IPA with Ballantines IPA about 1974 or 75ish. I don't think my palate was sophisticated enough to pick out the wood from the massive amount of hops (for those days), and strength of the beer (for those days). I have also read that the tanks were lined with pitch. What is the truth?
From what I've gathered, the barrels were originally unlined. After each successive move from brewing site to the next, they began lining with different agents to phase the wood character out, until the barrels were lined with wax and the beer had no oak prescence whatsoever.
My experience with the IPA began in 1969 (2 years before the Newark brewery closed). Suffice it to say that despite the fact it was rather expensive compared to mainstream beers, I consumed quite a bit of the original brew and also the successor brew after its first move when Newark closed. It was, hands down, my favorite beer.
The wood quality was unmistakeable in the beer, born out by the fact that surviving bottles tasted today (as well as the Burton ale they made) still
carry a very distinct note of oak. As far as the hop character, it was distinctly bitter not only by the standards of the day but also by present
day standards and the aroma component of the beer far surpassed the hop aroma of any
beer I've tasted in recent years. That homemade aroma hop oil was heavy duty, and they definitely didn't scrimp on its use.
At Newark, from what I could gather from first and secondhand accounts, the massive
aging tanks (not mere barrels) dating from the 1800's were unlined, which makes sense given the definite oakiness in the beer after its year-long aging. The long aging beers recieved regular lab testing to make sure they weren't undergoing any undesirable wild ferments during the long time in wood. I don't think that the phasing out of the wood character in the beer was a conscious effort to do so; when the brew moved from facility to facility after Newark closed, the aging tanks did NOT follow in the move. The initial move to the Narragansett plant in R.I. brought very little change to the beer; they continued to distill hop oil for the Ballantine products and already had wooden storage tanks in place for aging of the IPA (the Burton was never made outside of Newark). After the brand moved out of the 'Gannnsett brewery on to a Falstaff plant in Indiana, the brew started to become very 'dumbed down'...the ABV and IBUs were reduced, and the hop oil addition was eliminated, as was any trace of real wood character (even though the corny new packaging still touted it as being 'aged in wood'). The aging time was reduced to eight months, then six months, and I suspect finally for 3 or 4 months before the brand disappeared altogether.
By that time, I had stopped buying the IPA since it had become completely unrecognizeable as a result of its reformulations and production shortcuts, and since there were now alternaives. Their XXX ale however remained at least somewhat true to its original character until Pabst took over the Ballantine brand.
It's still so ironic ...the original Ballantine IPA brew (and the XXX too, for that matter) would stand up quite well next to anything
brewed today (and the IPA would surpass
a good many brews made today). Too bad the old Newark plant couldn't hang in there a few years longer...I really believe that their products would have found a following with the new, growing audience for top shelf old world quality specialty beers.