A classic Maryland beer bubbles with new life

May 05, 1999|By Rob Kasper

I SIPPED THE PAST the other afternoon, and it tasted pretty good. National Premium -- a locally made beer once considered among the classiest lagers in the land, only to drop out of production in 1996 -- is making a comeback.

The reborn beer was served last week at the Baltimore Waterfront Festival by its new owner, Frederick Brewing Co., the Maryland craft brewery known for its variety of small-batch beers, including one made with hemp seed.

Judging by the glass of National Premium I downed, the old favorite is off to a promising second start. The lager had golden color, a good head, thin body and a pleasingly bitter aftertaste. It came in at about 5 percent alcohol, according to its brewers, and contains Northern Brewer and Saaz hops. The distributors say it will sell for about $5 a six-pack and is scheduled to show up in area liquor stores by Memorial Day weekend.

The National Premium I tasted didn't have the rich flavors now found in several of Maryland's well-made craft beers. But it struck me as a good, middle-market lager. Nothing outrageous. Nothing distinctive.

Also, the sample I sipped at the harbor tasted better than the National Premium beers I recall sipping several years ago. There are probably two reasons why that was so.

First, most beer shows well when it is fresh from the brewery and served on draft, as it was at the harbor event. Secondly, most of the the old National Premium I used to drink came in cans, and suffered -- or so the local beer cognoscenti have told me -- from a change in the original 1934 recipe.

It is barroom wisdom in Baltimore that in the waning years of National Premium's first life, corn and other adjuncts were substituted for the more expensive malt originally used. It also is said that National Premium's traditional six-week lagering time -- when the beer sits in refrigerated tanks and develops its finishing notes -- was sliced back to 21 days.

Maura Conyngham and Darren Fehring, brewers for Frederick, told me that they are making National Premium the old-fashioned way with malt and a six-week lagering time.

Along with the beer, Mr. Pilsner also is returning to the scene. Mr. Pilsner is a monocle-wearing logo which bears a resemblance to "Mr. Boh," the monocle-wearing logo of National Bohemian, or Natty Boh, the once lightly-regarded sibling beer of the regal National Premium.

In their glory days -- the 1950s and 1960s -- both beers were brewed at the National Brewing Co. operation on O'Donnell Street in East Baltimore. The brewery was owned by Jerold Hoffberger, who also owned the Baltimore Orioles. Later, when National merged with Carling Brewinng Co., the beers were brewed at a plant near the Baltimore Beltway in Halethorpe.

The Beltway plant later was purchased by G. Heilman Brewing Co. Heilman then was acquired by Stroh Brewing Co., which stopped making National Premium in 1996. Last February, Stroh got out of the beer business, and Pabst Brewing Co. picked up many of its beers, including Natty Boh.

While the many changes in ownership figured in the demise -- or at least the three-year disappearance -- of National Premium, Natty Boh not only survived but has become a cult beer in Maryland. It is popular with younger drinkers who like its link to local history, its low price and Mr. Boh's logo.

At last week's reintroduction, Joseph Stanley, Roland Muir and Larry Brookman -- sales guys from Frederick P. Winner Ltd. distributorship -- examined T-shirts carrying Mr. Pilsner's logo and said they were hoping that the crowd appeal of Mr. Pilsner would equal that of Mr. Boh.

But Mr. Pilsner faces tough competition. The beer market is dominated by the majors -- Budweiser, Miller, Coors and Pabst -- who aren't expanding but who still carry a lot of market clout. The once-booming micro-brewers, or slightly larger craft brewers, are consolidating.

In Maryland, for example, Clipper City recently acquired the line of Oxford Brewing Co. Earlier, Frederick took over Snow Goose and Brimstone beers. Meanwhile, the imports -- such as Guinness, Beck's and Corona -- are growing, gaining a larger share of the market.

Judging by National Premium's new slogan, "The Beer With a Past," the folks behind the beer are hoping that nostalgia sells. At the harbor, the reappearence of National Premium awakened memories in some Marylanders.

One was Hannah Byron, an assistant secretary for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. She said sipping the reborn National Premium reminded her of her "first serious boyfriend," a Baltimore lad, who, she recounted, was so devoted to National Premium that he had his yearbook photo taken in front of the brewery.

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