Camden Yards gives beer drinkers more choices, but expensive choices

At the top of the seventh inning Monday night, despair was setting in at Camden Yards. The Orioles trailed the Minnesota Twins by three runs, and there was little time for the team to pick up the slack.

It was the kind of moment that could have used the numbing effect of beer to stave off the feeling of doom, or at least make the eventual loss go down easier.

The only vendor nearby was selling Budweiser and Miller Lite. It was exactly what I'd heard about Oriole Park's beer selection: heavy on the domestic brews, and expensive to boot. I got out of my seat in the left field upper box, and as soon as I turned a corner on the upper promenade, there was a concession stand stocked with craft beers, including several varieties of Flying Dog and Heavy Seas.

Eights bucks a pop, sure, but the beer situation at the ballpark is far different from what I'd been led to believe, when phrases like "gouging" and "lowest common denominator" were thrown around. While there's room for improvement, the ballpark's concessionaire has made a serious effort this year to supply both regular and savvy beer drinkers with plenty of choices.

In all, there are six craft brands available by the bottle or draft, about 10 domestics and six imports. And they're available throughout the ballpark, even near the cheap seats, where I was.

This year also marks the first time National Bohemian is being served by the glass in 15 years.

Camden Yards changed concessionaires this year and hired Delaware North Companies Sportservice, which despite being based in Buffalo, N.Y., has put together a menu peppered with local touches and lots of regional beer.

Though mainstream domestics still dominate, the menu has four beers by Baltimore's Heavy Seas Brewery, three by Frederick's Flying Dog, and options from Delaware's Fordham Brewing and Dogfish Head.

Still, before I went to the game, I had heard and read complaints about the beer's price and the difficulty in finding. The cheapest option here is a domestic bottle, at $5.75.

That price would be outrageous anywhere, but especially here. Some people still remember when Memorial Stadium had a BYOB policy. And across the street at Pickles Pub's happy hour, a domestic bottle was $2.50.

But the prices are in keeping with most ballparks; the average price for a small draft in Major League Baseball was $5.79 last year, according to Team Marketing Report, a research firm.

Particularly galling for some consumers is the cost of Natty Boh, known for its affordability but sold here at $7.50 a glass.

That this is the first time in 15 years the beer's been on tap at a ballpark with so much shared history should be cause for celebration.

National Bohemian and the Orioles have a long history. It used to be the team's official beer. And the chairman of the brewery, Jerry Hoffberger, was a majority owner of the team from 1965 to 1979.

But fans showed their disdain for the beer's steep new price at the Natty Boh Bar, a no-frills matchbox of a bar on the first base side of the lower concourse that was deserted while I was there. It didn't help matters that for all that history, there was little to show for it on the barren, white walls. Nacho Mama's has more memorabilia.

While the concessionaire should consider a beer map so consumers know where to go for their favorite brews, both mainstream and craft beer were easily accessible. I did a very informal survey around the ground concourse, and of the 20 or so concession stands that I counted, about half of them carried craft beer. There were several Boh-only carts, as well as some that sold imports: Beck's, Bass, and Stella Artois.

I thought the ballpark would have skimped on craft on the cheap seats, but when I stepped out for a beer run during the seventh inning, the closest concession stand carried Fordham Copperhead and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, Pale Ale and Gold Ale.

The Orioles still ended up losing to the Twins, but at least I had a cold beer in my hand by the end of the night.

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