THERE'S GOOD news for Baltimore beer lovers. First, there is word that National Bohemian, known as "Natty Boh," is being rejuvenated. After years of lagging sales, G. Heileman Brewing Co. last month announced that it will try to boost sales of the brew by producing new varieties such as "Red," a version that's colored by hops.
Second, we learn that the number of small breweries in the state has grown steadily in recent years. These small breweries usually are run by restaurant or bar owners who are licensed to produce small quantities for sale to patrons or other establishments. Among the state's small breweries today are: Oliver Breweries Ltd. on Pratt Street, Baltimore Brewing Co. on Albemarle Street, Sisson's on East Cross Street, Oxford Brewing in Linthicum, Brimstone Brewing in Towson and Wild Goose in Cambridge.
Some local small brewery brands are: Pale Ale, Porter, Christmas Ale, Irish Red, Scottish Style, Sisson's Wheat, Stockade Amber Ale, Edgar Allan Porter and Oktoberfest.
Today's small brew masters are reviving an art that thrived in Baltimore from the 1800s to the 1950s when the public -- lured by advertising campaigns -- turned to major national brands.
The most memorable of beer brands with roots in Baltimore is, of course, National Bohemian, which is still brewed at its Halethorpe plant; it's the last large brewery in an area that used to be filled with breweries.
National Bohemian probably owes its long popularity to its intense and ingenious promotion. Who can forget Mr. Boh -- the one-eyed, mustachioed waiter created to promote the brand in 1936. Mr. Boh sang the praises of the "Land of Pleasant Living." Also, there was the skipjack Chester Peake, which for 13 years cruised the bay under its amiable captain "Commodore" Frank Hennessey. Hennessey did live broadcasts, celebrating the land of pleasant living, along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
But "Natty Boh," for all its dominance, arrived late on Baltimore's beer scene. Before this century, breweries were located throughout Baltimore, particularly in Highlandtown. Among the local brands that were well-known even before the turn of the century were: Steill's, Bach's, Claggett's, Staub's, Brehm's, Von der Horst.
This century, Baltimore's popularly marketed brews have included: Free State, Gunther's (which sold to Hamm's in 1959), Arrow ("It hits the spot!") and American.
Gunther soared into prominence when it provided the Orioles in the old Oriole Park (Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street) "the largest and most advanced scoreboard in all of baseball." Stripped across the top of the 95-foot wide scoreboard was the ad line: "You'll find Gunther's Dry Beery beer is smoother going down."
But it wasn't just the larger number of breweries that helped give Baltimore its reputation as a beer-drinkers' paradise. It was, too, the proliferation of beer (and steamed crab) "gardens" in the metropolitan area: Muth's Riverview Park, Carlin's Park, Seeger's, Beck's, Prospect Park. The mostly outdoor beer gardens were complete with wooden picnic tables and benches, and plenty of crabs and beer.
We can only wish the new small brewers well. But they must remember that they have some tough acts to follow.