Natty Boh: a taste for nostalgia

Our view: Every city has a cheap beer, even if it is brewed out of town

February 02, 2011

It is no surprise that beer drinkers have a taste for nostalgia, a point that will be reinforced Thursday when National Bohemian, which was once brewed in Baltimore, will once again be served on tap here.

National Brewing Company once ruled the city. John Steadman, the late longtime Baltimore sportswriter, described the Baltimore beer scene of the 1950s and '60s this way: "If you walked into a bar and ordered a Budweiser, everybody knew you were from out of town."

In those days, the man who owned National Brewing Company, Jerold Hoffberger, also owned the Baltimore Orioles. A fringe benefit of playing for the Orioles was that two cases of National beer were given to each player at beginning of each home stand. Some players, such as John "Boog" Powell, not only took full advantage of this fringe benefit but also relieved teetotaling teammates of their unwanted cases of National.

Like a lot of regional breweries, National eventually succumbed to pressures from bigger breweries in St. Louis and Milwaukee. Their beers, the well-regarded National Premium and the less expensive National Bohemian, were brewed by a succession of out-of-town owners. In 1996, National Premium ceased to exist. Since then, Natty Boh, the lesser beer, has not only survived but will soon be served on tap in local taverns, a serving style that brings out the best in a beer.

Natty Boh's appeal has been twofold. Its Mr. Boh mascot has become an emblem, a signature equated with living in Baltimore. (Never mind that the beer is made in Eden, N.C., at a brewery owned by MillerCoors, which Pabst — owner of the rights to Natty Boh — is using in an arrangement called contract brewing. Somehow, the image of the one-eyed Mr. Boh, who has survived many corporate takeovers, makes the beer a denizen of Baltimore.)

The beer is also cheap, about 55 cents a can if purchased by the case, which area merchants say is how much of the brand is sold. The chief consumers of Natty Boh, the merchants say, are college students, a market segment long known for favoring inexpensive brews. Who knew they also had a yen for local history?

The Baltimore area has several locally produced beers. The craft brews turned out by Clipper City Brewing in Halethorpe, the Brewer's Art in Baltimore, and White Marsh Brewing are richer, fuller and hoppier than Natty Boh. Yet almost every town, it seems, clings to a cheap, local beer — even one brewed outside that town. Look around the nation and you will find plenty of hometown brands that have been displaced from their old breweries. Iron City, for instance, has left Pittsburgh.

National Premium was a better beer, but Natty Boh proves that quality has little to do with nostalgia.

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