National Premium

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. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 24, 2011)

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.

At Pabst, nostalgia continues to propel sales. Bryan Crowley, Pabst's chief marketing officer, projects a sales increase of 30 percent for Pabst Blue Ribbon next year. And nearly 17,000 kegs of Natty Boh have been sold, according to Pabst, which expects sales to exceed 20,000 by the end of the year.

Miller said he took inspiration for his purchase from entrepreneurs like Hellendrung, and also from the success National Bohemian has had in Baltimore.

But Miller's plans face major obstacles. For starters, the relaunch comes at low point for the mainstream beer industry.

"For the first time in over 50 years, beer sales are down for the third year in a row," Steinman said. While the industry had emerged from other recessions unscathed, it has been hurt disproportionately by the latest one because of the high unemployment rate among a key beer demographic, 21- to 34-year-old men, he said.

For beer companies, the revival of "heritage brands" is one of several, let's-see-what-sticks strategies pursued to shore up their bottom line.

"This revival isn't a major effort," Steinman said. "They're not spending a ton of their money on these efforts. There's a hope that these brands have some equity left."

MillerCoors and Pabst did not disclose the cost of their relaunches. Crowley said their reboots are "calculated investments" driven by macro consumer trends.

Small entrepreneurs will have a harder time because they can't afford strong marketing and can't write off flops or underperformers, Steinman said.

"I'm not sure it's a trend that has shown replicable success," Steinman said. "The outcome on these is far from certain. It's not easy. It's going to cost some money to get [National Premium] established."

Said Johnson, "We're aware the heritage strategy has worked for some companies, but I don't know that it would work every time."

Baltimore brewer Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas Beer, fondly remembers National Premium; Heavy Seas' Classic Lager is loosely based on the original National Premium recipe. But he said Miller 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 at the risk of hurting its image, the historically costlier National Premium might have to cut its price in order to compete.

"There was a time when we considered all that stuff, and it just didn't make economic sense," Sisson said. "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."

Miller said he hasn't settled on a price for the new National Premium but expects that it will be between the cost of a six-pack of Natty Boh and Corona.

Another problem will be space. Though Miller wants to build a brewery at his family's old oil plant property in Easton, he will have to hire contract brewers at first, and most in the area are already at capacity. Evolution Craft Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head Ales, both based in Delaware, and Maryland's Flying Dog and Heavy Seas have told Miller they can't accommodate him.

He's talked to 20 regional brewers, including Lion Brewery in Pennsylvania, but nothing's settled yet. For now, National Premium exists only as a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which Miller launched in August.

Miller's next challenge is finding the money. He estimates the relaunch cost at $125,000, most of it for marketing. To raise it, he has been selling his family's petroleum memorabilia. He'll start seeking investors when he's got a contract brewer.

He has checked one major item off the to-do list: This month, he secured what he said is an original recipe from one of the National Brewing Co.'s former brewmasters, Ray Klimovitz.

Miller doesn't know whether he'll be able to replicate the success Natty Boh's had on draft, but he hopes his beer will resonate with fans.

"I think it'll have a lot of interest with those people. And hopefully, it can trickle down from there," he said. But, his challenge is, ironically, the fleeting nostalgia trend that inspired him in the first place. "I want to make sure that they buy it again," he said. Not just as a novelty."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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