National Bohemian and National Premium ad (Tim Miller )
National Premium is coming back next year, says the beloved beer's new owner.
Tim Miller, a 43-year-old realtor out of Easton bought the trademark last year and is now working to bring the beer back to the market. So far his revival is in its fetal stage: he doesn't have the formula yet, or a brewer to produce the beer, or investment partners.
All Natty Premium's got to show for itself is a website, a Facebook fan page, and a twitter account, which Miller launched on Monday. But if he's successful, Maryland would have back at least one of its iconic beer brands..
"Natty Boh is brewed out of North Carolina. There's nothing local about it but its heritage," Miller said. "[Premium's] going to be a Maryland-owned beer again."
A year ago a company called Brands USA Holdings put up for auction nearly 200 defunct brands, National Premium among them. The beer hadn't been produced since 1996, when then owner G. Heileman Brewing Co. sold the rights to Stroh Brewing Co.
Miller saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal and decided to go for it.The price was less than six figures.
"I thought, 'you gotta be kidding me?'" he recalls.
He had never been a Natty Premium fan; he doesn't even think he ever had it in its original form. But he had been planning on reviving a brand that had nostalgic appeal.
Premium, he bet, "had enough equity in the market it was worth bringing back."
This isn't the first time someone's tried to bring back the traditionally more upscale partner to Natty Boh. In 1998, what was then called Frederick Brewing Company brought it back on draft with much fanfare, going as far as to throw a press conference with then state comptroller William Donald Schaefer.
It's not clear for how long that experiment lasted - at least for a year, according to Sun archives - but the company was eventually bought by Flying Dog Brewery in 2006, which has since focused all its energies on their own product.
Miller has several obstacles ahead of him, he acknowledges. First up is coming up with the original formula, or something that approximates a pre-1975 flavor profile, he said.
No one owns that original formula. The closest facsimile is Heavy Seas' Classic Lager, which owner Hugh Sisson said is loosely based on the original Premium recipe, but differs in that its 100 percent malt where Premium wasn't.
To solve that problem, Miller said he's been working with brewers who worked at National when the brewery was still on Dillon Street in Highlandtown. He said he's still weeks from settling on a recipe.
He also doesn't have any active investors, just a few noncommittal partners who are intrigued by the idea. Miller said he'd pursue angel investors once he's got the formula and the brewer down, but that might be his most elusive target.
Few, if any, of the regional craft brewers have space at their locations. When Miller approached Heavy Seas, Sisson told him they were at capacity with their own product. Miller has already talked to 20 different regional brewers, including Lion Brewery in Pennsylvania, a well-known contract brewer. But nothing's settled yet.
Sisson, who remembers and liked Natty Premium, wished Miller luck, but noted the upstart has his work cut out for him.
Part of National Bohemian's continued popularity over the years was its perception as a cheap beer, but the historically costlier Premium will have to reduce its price in order to compete at the risk of hurting its image. Heavy Seas considered bringing back the brand at one point, but Sisson decided it didn't make financial sense.
He suspects independent brewers will have a hard time turning a profit. "I don't know that anybody can afford to bring Premium back and afford to make it a price-point beer unless you're making it by Pabst," he said.
Miller said he's far from deciding on a price, though his plan is for it to be somewhere between a Natty Boh and a Corona.
For now, he's excited about the prospects. In October, FastCompany magazine will follow-up on the defunct brands auction, and sometime this Fall he and his beer plans will be featured on the show "American Pickers."
Ironically, the success Miller would like to replicate is that of National Bohemian, which to the chagrin of many is still brewed outsde the region.
"If we could get to their volume, I'd be elated," he said.