Natty Boh makes a comeback

The beer once brewed in Baltimore is everywhere these days

August 12, 2010|Jacques Kelly

The other Sunday afternoon the Natty Bohs were flying out of my local tavern. After a lunch, patrons were buying the six-packs of beer I knew as National Bohemian for home consumption. A few days later I observed thirsty neighbors load up on cartons of the brew at a liquor store. Has 1964 come back again?

I marvel at the Boh revival. The beer that people turned their backs on 30 years ago is a hit again — and has been for a while now. But I'll confess: Every time I hear this product called Natty Boh, I cringe. It's a generational thing. I never heard the term "Natty Boh" as I grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s. Yes, the product itself was ubiquitous. In Baltimore, National Bohemian was as universal as Coca-Cola. Mr. Boh, with his wonderful mustache, was right up there with Thanksgiving sauerkraut.

But then National sunk. I thought it had disappeared. But names, phrases and tastes change. Witness what you tread upon to get to the front door. In Baltimore, we had front steps, never stoops. Then somebody changed the local dictionary on me and now we have stoops and Natty Boh.

As a child of the "Land of Pleasant Living" era, a phrase coined by National Bohemian Beer advertising people in the 1950s, I knew that National was what Baltimoreans drank. It was our hometown beer, owned by Jerry Hoffberger, the same man who owned the Orioles.

The beer got sold. The Orioles got sold. The old Dillon Street brewery closed in 2000, and today the old complex is being redeveloped as Brewers Hill, a mixed-use development for shops and residences. Developer Bill Struever put the beer's happy imbiber back on the roof. Mr. Boh returned to Highlandtown and Canton in 2004 and has never looked better. When I see him at night, I relax and praise heaven I'm in Baltimore.

By this time, say 2004, what I knew as National Bohemian, or just Boh, had assumed its new identity as Natty Boh. It was OK to drink again. It was available and inexpensive to buy. It was Baltimore cool.

Name changes and local usage fascinate me. I looked into The Baltimore Sun's digital library. In 1991, there were just three usages of the Natty term. So far this year, the name has appeared in print 34 times. It is now an established use; Natty Boh has become a commodity all its own. It underscores a loyalty to Baltimore and what makes us different. Ironic. The beer is no longer brewed here nor is it owned by Baltimoreans.

As a child, I heard the full moniker "Coca-Cola" used in everyday, soda fountain conversation. Now I realize that it was the generation before mine who used this term. A Coke without the Cola became universal.

I sat with Scunny McCusker one day this week at his Nacho Mama's restaurant on O'Donnell Street on the square there. He loves the National Bohemian legacy and has decorated his establishment, as he so aptly states, as if it were "a poor man's Haussner's." Instead of oil paintings of French peasants and marbles of the Roman emperors, he has Mr. Boh in tin, enamel and glass, along with a generous representation of Elvis on velvet and a sign from the Two O'Clock Club.

As to National Bohemian beer, "That's all I drank," he said. "We're bringing it back to the people whose grandfathers would buy it in basement taverns."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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