Another round of National Premium?

Easton man owns brand name and formula, hopes to join beer revival

  • Tim Miller holds National Premium glasses he bought at an antique store. Miller, of Easton, bought the naming rights to National Premium last year and plans to reintroduce the beer to the market.
Tim Miller holds National Premium glasses he bought at an antique… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 24, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

For decades, National Premium has been a hazy, distant memory. Stored-away memorabilia and faded beer ads were all that remained of its once-storied legacy.

That may change next year. Tim Miller, an Easton real estate agent, has acquired the trademark and has ambitious plans to bring the beer back to the Baltimore market by next baseball season. He has secured the formula and announced a new, spiffy logo. Capital investment and brewing are next.

National Premium's comeback will test the already-stretched trend of revived beer brands that includes Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon. But if Miller succeeds, it would be the second iconic Baltimore beer brand, after National Bohemian, to return.

"Natty Boh is brewed out of North Carolina. There's nothing local about it but its heritage," Miller said. National Premium's "going to be a Maryland-owned beer again."

The original National Premium, with a recipe dating to 1934, was popular in Baltimore in the 1950s and '60s and was seen as a pricer, more critically acclaimed alternative to National Bohemian.

"My uncle would always bring a case when he was visiting. It was his way of saying, 'Thanks for having me over,'" Miller said. "For anyone from this region, it was considered something pretty special."

But like many popular beers, sales suffered as its original maker — the National Brewing Co. — was sold and then resold. Stroh Brewing Co., which bought the brand from G. Heileman Brewing Co., stopped making National Premium in 1996.

In 1998, what was then Frederick Brewing Co. brought National Premium back in cans with much fanfare, enlisting then-state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer for the initial promotional news conference. But the experiment didn't last long.

Miller, 43, whose family had been in the oil business, hadn't particularly been looking to bring back National Premium. By the time he had tasted it in the 1980s, the brew was far removed from the original formula. But he had wanted for years to revive a brand that had nostalgic appeal.

"Maybe I just live in the past," he said. "I thought, 'If I like this, I'm sure other people do.'"

He saw his opportunity in December, when Brands USA put up for auction the trademark rights to about 200 long-obsolete brands, including Victrola, the magazine Collier's and two beers, Meister Brau and National Premium.

The Meister Brau brand sold for $32,500. National Premium went to Miller for much less, though he declined to give the exact figure.

"I thought it was worth the risk," Miller said. "If it goes down the drain, I understand that. But the brand is too valuable."

Miller's bet that a beer with National Premium's history has appeal has precedent. He's following in the footsteps of entrepreneurs and beer corporations that have been hawking nostalgia for a decade to sell brands that had lost relevance. The trend started in the early 2000s, when Pabst Blue Ribbon was reclaimed by young drinkers who liked its lack of advertising and were turned off by the busty babes in billboards and loud TV ads that dominate mainstream beer marketing.

"The whole thing was about retro chic," said Benjamin Steinman, editor of industry newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights.

Pabst Blue Ribbon's sales surged — from 800,000 barrels shipped in 2000 to nearly 2.2 million last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

Other heritage brands saw sales rise. Sales at Yuengling — at 182, America's oldest brewery — have doubled from 1 million barrels shipped in 2001 to 2.2 million last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

Small-time entrepreneurs followed suit. In 2005, Rhode Islander Mark Hellendrung and a group of New England investors bought the rights to Narragansett, the Red Sox's official beer through the 1970s, and turned it into a profitable business. The company is expected to earn $7 million this year, Hellendrung said.

Recognizing a trend, Pabst Brewing Co., which had been in decline for years, moved to replicate Pabst Blue Ribbon's success and in 2007 relaunched Wisconsin's Schlitz and Hawaii's Primo. It also boosted its marketing for Texas' Lone Star and the Pacific Northwest's Olympia and Rainier beers.

This year, Pabst relaunched National Bohemian on tap in Baltimore. It hadn't been available in kegs since 1999.

Pabst's stable of heritage brands is, in part, what made it attractive to C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., the Connecticut equity firm that bought the company for an unspecified amount last year, Steinman said.

At MillerCoors, the veteran Henry Weinhard's Beer, the original Pacific Northwest craft beer that had enjoyed popularity in the 1970s and '80s, was transferred to the company's crafts and imports division in a bid to re-energize its marketing. In April, the brand launched an India Pale Ale.

"It's a chance for smaller brands like this that have a niche position to get more attention from folks like me," said Brad Johnson, Weinhard's brand manager.

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