Forget Boh: Old Oriole Park Bohemian should be the beer of Baltimore
By Brandon Weigel
Oct 07, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Mr. Boh has become a civic symbol in Baltimore. The winking, mustachioed mascot of National Bohemian beer is, not surprisingly, on the cans, bottles, and draft handles that deliver the untold volume of liquid gold this city consumes on a daily basis. Boh's face is on all sorts of T-shirts, some hawking the beer, others pairing him with the Orioles or Ravens in some fashion, and others still—like those designed by a friend of mine—that put Boh's head on Mickey Mouse's body or arrange a bunch of Boh heads in different colors to look like the logo of Krylon paint. Walk around any festival in the summer or fall and you'll see a slew of craftspeople incorporating Natty Boh into their wares, from paintings with Boh and crabs on newspaper to dog leashes. A billboard ad for Smyth Jewelers in which Boh proposed to the hair-bow-wearing, bob-cut-having Utz girl became a local icon before it was taken down; the store still uses the image on its gift cards.
And up on Brewer's Hill, a neon-red Mr. Boh still sits high atop his brick perch, marking the place where for years the beer was made. But as most anyone can tell you, Natty Boh has not been brewed there—or anywhere in the Land of Pleasant Living it still lays claim to—for decades.
Yet, we as a city, as a region, still cling to it. We cling to it like the hon, as some holdover from a folksy blue-collar era of robust factory work, cars with fins, and a thriving Hutzler's department store. These were simpler times, and National Bohemian and Gunther were the beers Baltimoreans drank. We buy the shirts with Boh on them or the framed photographs of the neon sign at the old brewery because "Dat's so Baltimore, hon!" O's and Bohs!
But here and now, the city is experiencing a brewing renaissance, with plenty of local operations churning out IPAs, lagers, altbiers, and more. National Bohemian may have "Baltimore's Beer Since 1885" written around the lip of its 16-ounce can, but this is now more a marketing angle than the truth. If Baltimore is going to embrace a beer as its own, maybe it's time that beer actually be made here.
Problem is, Natty Boh is cheap and simple and most craft beer is expensive and complex—one could argue overly so, in many cases. Speaking anecdotally, we see most six-packs of craft beer—those brewed in Baltimore or otherwise—going for north of $10 a pop, even before taxes. And craft beer can often be a matter of extremes, with brewers throwing fistfuls of malts or hops at your palette, something high-minded sophisticates seem to love.
Boh is no frills, taste-wise—a nice and smooth Americanized Czech-style lager that goes down easy and is satisfying in its simplicity. And it's dirt cheap. Boh is egalitarian. Baltimore still needs a beer that possesses these characteristics.
Thanks to Peabody Heights Brewery in Abell, there's a new beer in town that fits the bill: Old Oriole Park Bohemian. The Old Oriole Park has got the nice light body of a lager with a slight finish of cream flavor. It's damn good: The Brewers Association of Maryland recently gave the gold medal to the Old Oriole Park in the pale lagers/pilsner category of the 10th Annual Maryland Craft Beer Competition. A sixer will run you about $7—while that's not as cheap as Boh, it's a downright bargain-basement price for a craft brew. And hey, it's even got Bohemian in the name!
Baltimore: This should be your new beer.
Recently, I took a trip up to Peabody Heights to find out more. Despite a big poster in the tap room that says "It's finally here! Baltimore's own bohemian beer," Richard O'Keefe, president of the co-op brewery, says he's not putting a target on Boh, at least not as a business.
"Not really. I can't even make my Old Oriole Park Bohemian for what you could go out and buy Natty Boh in the store," he says. But he also points to something mentioned above: Natty Boh is owned by the Pabst Brewing Company and hasn't been made in the city limits for nearly four decades. (Production was moved to nearby Halethorpe in the mid-1970s; the beer left Maryland altogether in 1996.)
As for how it can be so cheap, there are several reasons. One, O'Keefe and his sales team deliver Old Oriole Park to bars and beer stores themselves, cutting out the cost of using a distributor. Two, the beer uses fewer hops and is not dry-hopped, a process that usually yields less beer—thus lowering the costs.
If you need further proof of Old Oriole Park's mainstream appeal, consider this: O'Keefe says a young man—I'm picturing a hops-loving beer snob—called him "the Antichrist of brewers" for deigning to make a bohemian-style beer. And when he talks about his competitors, style-wise, he says, "We believe it to be a better beer than Budweiser, Miller, or Coors."
The idea to pay homage to the smooth, light-hopped beers that come from the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic is a marriage of both history and experience. Peabody Heights sits on the former site of Oriole Park, one of a series of similarly named baseball stadiums built in Barclay and Abell in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the brick wall that runs along 29th Street is said to be the only part of the stadium that survived a fire in 1944). They wanted to make a beer similar to the ones spectators might have had.
And they had just the guy to do it in head brewer Ernie Igot, who spent a little more than two decades at a much larger operation, San Miguel Brewery in the Philippines.
"It's not only recipe, it's how you make it," Igot says. "It's how you follow certain processes that will make the beer cleaner, better—beer with quality. So that's how I learned there in my 21 years."
"It's only a pilsner," he says. "It's not as complicated as doing an IPA or other complicated beers."
The appeal of the beer, as I see it, is that it's straightforward. "If you ask me, the beer is so simple, it's so mellow," he says. "And it's really very clean, it's well-balanced."
Another brewer at Peabody, Graham Crisler, says he used to hate lagers before he started working at Peabody, but thanks to the Old Oriole Park, now he loves them.
"I guess that it's like Natty Boh," he says with a laugh when asked about his change of heart. "I drink a lot of Natty Boh, you know? I don't know if I've surpassed the amount of Natty Bohs I've had with the amount of Bohemians, but I'm probably getting close."