An old favorite's back

Blast from the past: Teetotaler William Donald Schaefer hoists a National Premium beer, which ailing Frederick Brewing is hoping will revive its business.


April 29, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Beer and ham were served at the Inner Harbor yesterday, as state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer played to the cameras to pitch the reintroduction of National Premium beer.

The struggling Frederick Brewing Co. announced at a news conference during the Baltimore Waterfront Festival that it has bought the rights to National Premium, which was one of Baltimore's better-known beers from 1934 until 1996.

The brewer also bought rights to National Premium's mascot, the monocle-wearing Mr. Pilsner.

The beer's new slogan is "The Beer With a Past." The first person to taste it was a man with a past, Schaefer, the former governor and longtime mayor of Baltimore.

"I'm just going to take a sip," Schaefer said as he stood behind a podium with an emblem of Mr. Pilsner holding up a bottle of beer.

A company official hoisted a pitcher of the dark golden lager and poured a huge mug with a thick head.

"Oh my God!" Schaefer said, acting as if he'd never seen so much beer.

He was an ironic choice as a beer pitchman. He said he hadn't drunk alcohol -- other than wine at religious services -- in 31 years. He noted, however, that he used to enjoy National Premium before he stopped drinking in 1968.

Schaefer drank a slug, pursed his lips and screwed up his face.

"Oh my, it's even better than the original. I wish I could drink more," he said, staring at his glass.

"Well, maybe I'll have another drink," he said, gulping down another mouthful.

Frederick Brewing President Marjorie McGinnis said she hopes the reintroduction of the beer will help her 6-year-old company out of a financial slump.

Her business, which calls itself the largest craft brewing company in the mid-Atlantic region, makes 23 beers, including Blue Ridge, Wild Goose and Hempen Ale, which is brewed with hemp seed.

"We have been experiencing some very difficult financial times," McGinnis said. "We hope this should take a nice big bite out of our losses."

She added that her company is negotiating to buy another beer that sells a million cases a year in 47 countries, but she refused to say which beer.

National Premium, an upscale beer decades before the term became popular, grew out of Baltimore's history in the last century as a city filled with German immigrants who supported dozens of local breweries.

National Brewing Co. was founded in 1885, 16 years before the birth of the Baltimore Orioles.

In 1934, the company introduced National Premium as the fancier version of "Natty Boh," a blue-collar beer that was a best-seller in the city for decades.

After the Orioles left Baltimore for New York to become the Highlanders and later the Yankees, the brewery's owner, Jerold Hoffberger, was one of a group that brought the current Orioles franchise to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954.

National Bohemian and National Premium beers sponsored Orioles broadcasts for years and were featured on Orioles score cards. National Brewing boosted the popularity of its brands by creating an advertising campaign that identified Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay as the "Land of Pleasant Living."

In 1975, National Brewing Co. merged with Canada's Carling Brewing Co.

Four years later, Carling National Breweries was purchased by G. Heileman Brewing Co., a Wisconsin brewer. The new owners stopped making National Premium in 1996 and sold the name to Stroh Brewing Co., which in January sold a license to the Frederick Brewing Co.

Turkey Joe Trabert, the former owner of a Fells Point bar called "Turkey Joe's," said National Premium was a "marvelous" beer with a frothy head that was popular among older drinkers until its quality went downhill in the 1970s.

Al Spoler, a wine and beer critic who was co-host of the WJHU-FM radio show, "Cellar Notes," said he found it surprising that a small craft brewer like Frederick Brewing Co. would reintroduce a mass-market beer of the kind microbrewers rail against.

"I think the beer market right now is incredibly crowded," said Hugh Sisson, who, with Spoler, owns the competing Clipper City Brew Co. "Their strategy must be to take advantage of whatever brand loyalty still exists for the beer. Although it was a good beer, unless you are 35 years or older, the name National Premium doesn't mean anything."

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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