We taste test National Bohemian's new beer, Crab Shack Shandy. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
For Baltimore drinkers, National Bohemian is more than a beer. For many, it’s a can filled with years of memories made at local bars, parks and tailgates, tied together by the face of the brand — Mr. Boh.
Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, the brand is trying something new.
Available from now until the end of summer, Crab Shack Shandy, National Bohemian’s new citrusy brew, is for sale in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and Washington on draft and in cans, said brand manager Chris “C-Mo” Molloy.
Crab Shack Shandy is National Bohemian’s first new beer to launch in the current craft-beer era, when consumers have no shortage of new brews to try at bars and at home. The brand chose the shandy style (typically beer mixed with lemonade, but not in this case) based on consumer research, Molloy said. It turns out customers were already mixing lemonade with the original National Bohemian, he said.
“Natty Boh has been its own brand for so long and people are such fans of it, it just seemed right — with everything else going on in the beer business — to give people a variety,” Molloy said. “This is what we figure is a step in the right direction.”
On Tuesday, as news of the shandy spread, social media reactions ranged from excited and intrigued to confused and offended. At Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits, it didn’t take long for the first sale.
“We just sold a case to a gentleman who called and asked if we had it,” said Tenille O’Connor, general manager of the store. “He’s a firefighter, and he said the guys at his house were going nuts about this stuff. They made him go and pick up a case.”
At 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, National Bohemian's shandy is slightly less alcoholic than the 4.5 percent ABV original. The shandy is a golden-colored, light-bodied lager with prominent notes of orange peel and lemon zest, Molloy said. It was not made with lemonade, nor does it contain crab spice, which people might expect from the crab displayed on the can, he said. The imagery speaks more to the setting where the brand envisions customers drinking the beer, according to Molloy.
“We wanted to make a brew that would fit perfectly with seafood and the fare that we eat during the summertime,” Molloy said. “It’s just a really flavorful, really round, not-too-sweet, sessionable [low-alcohol] beer.”
While National Bohemian is now owned by Los Angeles’ Pabst Brewing Company, the brand, its beer — colloquially known as Natty Boh — and its mustachioed, one-eyed mascot have been synonymous with Baltimore and Maryland for many decades. And the Crab Shack Shandy will aim to appeal to National Bohemian’s largest customer base — 85 percent of the brand’s sales come from Maryland, Molloy said.
Brad Mitchell, operational manager for Mama’s Restaurant Group, which owns Nacho Mama’s, said the city’s pride in National Bohemian — despite the fact it is no longer brewed here — is obvious just from looking around Baltimore. From the winking, oversized logo atop the Natty Boh Tower in Brewers Hill and T-shirts to the countless knickknacks and framed art sporting Mr. Boh’s face, the logo feels omnipresent.
“You go through the city, and the amount of people with the bumper stickers with just the Boh label or a tattoo or a hat or [who wear] the Natty Boh clothing line — it’s more than just a beer,” Mitchell said. “It’s such a Baltimore icon that it’s a symbol of us and who we are.”
While National Bohemian isn't brewed locally anymore, the brand still has a loyal following in Baltimore. So news of a new beer was bound to draw some strong reactions.
Mar 07, 2018 at 11:10 AM
On Tuesday, some Twitter users championed local craft brewers, and urged their followers to support them instead of the new Boh product. Mitchell said he was a “big proponent of the local craft-beer scene,” but he didn’t draw a direct comparison between the two.
“It’s kind of apples and oranges when you talk about Boh and local craft. Those guys do great things, too. I support them wholeheartedly, but on the other side, Boh is a symbol, and that’s just who we are,” Mitchell said. “It’s nice to have choices.”
People won’t confuse this with the original Boh anytime soon. A panel of tasters at The Baltimore Sun were all surprised by how heavily the beer leaned on the up-front citrus flavors but thought it seemed well designed for outdoor settings like rooftop decks.
But in the Land of Pleasant Living — where some residents prove their devotion to Boh with tattoos — there’s a chance traditionalists won’t appreciate such a bold contrast to the beloved original.
But it was a risk worth taking, Molloy said, as National Bohemian tries to connect with younger drinkers who are constantly trying new beer styles.
“They’re a totally different generation,” he said. “They’re getting tons and tons of flavors and options.”
The suggested retail price for a six-pack of Crab Shack Shandy is $8.99. A 12-pack’s suggested retail price is $14.99.
National Bohemian was first brewed in Baltimore in 1885, and remained in the area until 1996, when then-owner Stroh Brewery Co. closed its brewery in Halethorpe. But no National Bohemian products are produced in Maryland, including Crab Shack Shandy, which was brewed in Latrobe, Pa.
Chris Furnari, editor of the industry website Brewbound, said Pabst’s decision to launch the shandy is in line with the current trend of large beer companies offering more flavors to their products. He said Pabst’s decision was low-risk, and the potential upside is worth pursuing from a business standpoint.
“If this re-engages consumers and can breathe a little bit of life back into the original Boh brand, I think it’s a win,” Furnari said.
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“As someone who’s been born and raised here, that’s always been part of what I’m trying to work on,” Molloy said. There’s no timeline in place, but “we’re constantly looking for ways to partner with existing brewers and things like that in the area.”
As long as production continues outside Baltimore, the debate over the city’s loyalty to Natty Boh, and whether it’s justified, will likely continue. For Boh fans like Mitchell, though, there’s no questioning the city’s love for the brand.
“It’s something we’re proud of. It reminds us of the working-class atmosphere, the blue-collar atmosphere that made up Baltimore when Boh was here,” Mitchell said. “Just because it’s not brewed down the street, to me, doesn’t mean anything because it’s still our beer. It’s our history.”