A city is crying in its beer Decision to brew Boh in Pa. leaves its legions unhappy

October 19, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Mr. Boh leaving the Land of Pleasant Living after 111 years?

Unthinkable and insulting. The notion that National Bohemian beer will no longer be brewed along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay is such an affront to Baltimore's civic integrity that Patrick "Scunny" McCusker is convinced only one man could be behind such a plot.

"Irsay!" he declares.

Though no doubt capable of such a deed, the man who sneaked the Colts out of Baltimore isn't responsible for the latest bit of egg on the city's face.

The decision to close the metro area's last major brewery -- announced by the Stroh Brewing Co. on Thursday with the news that 430 jobs will be lost -- was simple corporate pragmatism. A necessary move, says Stroh's, to remain competitive in today's tough market.

That's what you hear every time a conglomerate kills off a little piece of a community's heart while putting people out of work. And while Boh sells poorly in the town of its birth, the logic behind the decision doesn't make it feel any better.

"It's like somebody coming in to take away all the duckpin bowling alleys," says McCusker, whose Nacho Mama's restaurant in Canton is a shrine to National beer and Mr. Boh, the one-eyed little man with the mustache whose status here over the years has evolved from mascot to icon.

L Says McCusker: "We're going to have to wear black armbands."

While Stroh's affirmed yesterday that it plans to continue brewing "Natty Boh" -- albeit at a plant near Lehigh Valley, Pa. -- it was hard for some to bear that Mr. Boh will lose its local roots.

And who can say how long a beer with a fraction of the market will survive?

Didn't they already kill off Boh's highfalutin sibling, National Premium?

This is a product that loses customers when the price of a case goes up from $7 to $7.50, whose supporters tend to be guys in their early 20s mining a retro vein of hip for a cheap buzz, old-timers who were drinking it when Truman was president and street drunks able to scrape up a $1.59 for a 40-ounce bottle.

One local woman says she can't testify to the taste but swears by it as a fine way to kill garden slugs.

"It's terrible," says Tony Della Rose, whose family owns a pub by the same name on Belair Road. "I think they should have did something to make it the No. 1 beer like it used to be."

Used to be is a long time gone for National Boh, which enjoyed a golden age in the 1950s and '60s when it was the standard beverage at baseball games, football games and crab feasts, accounting for about half of all beer consumed in the Baltimore area.

The 100,000 barrels a year now distributed locally is almost nothing compared with giants like Coors and Budweiser, which would not give out sales figures.

"This stinks," says Hugh J. Sisson, who runs the Clipper City microbrewery less than a mile from the 36-year-old Halethorpe ,, plant that Stroh's will close a week before Christmas.

"I'm a native Baltimorean and I'd like to be the biggest brewery in Baltimore, but I didn't want to get there this way," says Sisson, whose plant has the capacity to brew more than 50,000 barrels. "It's sad because Boh is the original local beer, and I remember when it was the dominant local beer."

A glimpse of the brand's faded glory can be seen on the side of a Fallsway building just south of Gay Street where a mural of the National logo peels away from the bricks under the legend: "I love it!"

Mark Tewey owns Brimstone Brewing, a microbrewery that operates out of National Boh's original bottling plant off the corner of Conkling and O'Donnell streets in Canton.

Once crowded with beer meisters, the area used to be known as Brewer's Hill. Now, Tewey runs a 2,000-barrel-a-year operation while a demolition company guts the huge brick plant next door where National was brewed through the 1970s.

Tewey asserts that what is now passed off as the Boh enjoyed by Baltimoreans after World War II -- a fine elixir by all accounts -- is "bogus." The only thing that differentiates one industrial brand from another, he says, is a label and the amount of water added to the mix.

And if bad comes to worse and Stroh's decides it can no longer afford to keep Mr. Boh on tap, Tewey has a plan.

"I'd love to get a movement together to save National Boh for Baltimore as a microbrewery," he says.

"People laugh because micro-brews are so expensive, but you could do it if you brought back the original formula and put the old red and black label on it. I know a lot of people who remember it as a good beer."

Pub Date: 10/19/96

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