The future of Baltimore’s classic beer label National Bohemian is in jeopardy as its parent company, Pabst Brewing Co., pursues a lawsuit against MillerCoors in court this month.
While National Bohemian has not been brewed in Maryland since 1996, the brand is still widely popular in Charm City. As recently as 2011, 90 percent of sales of National Bohemian, known colloquially as Natty Boh, came from the Baltimore area, the Sun reported at the time.
Those sales could come to an abrupt halt if the lawsuit filed by Pabst Blue Ribbon against MillerCoors in Milwaukee County Circuit Court is unsuccessful.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is the dispute?
Since 1999, Pabst Brewing Co. has contracted MillerCoors to produce, package and ship nearly all of Pabst Blue Ribbon products, including smaller beer labels like Natty Boh and Lone Star. MillerCoors recently notified Pabst of the intention to discontinue the companies’ partnership after the contract runs out in 2020, according to a Nov. 12 report from the Associated Press.
Pabst lawyers have since filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors, arguing that their labels’ very existences rely on the partnership, according to the Associated Press. Pabst attorneys say the contract provides for two possible five year extensions. However, MillerCoors attorneys argue the company has sole discretion to determine whether it can continue to brew for Pabst, the Associated Press reported.
The dispute is a symptom of a wider trend affecting the United States’ largest brewing companies. Behemoths such as Pabst and MillerCoors have lost business to the thousands of smaller, independent brewers that have entered the market in the past decade, the Associated Press reported.
How does this affect National Bohemian?
Pabst owns a number of classic beer labels including Old Milwaukee, Natty Boh and Lone Star. However, the company outsources all of their brewing operations to MillerCoors in a longstanding partnership of more than 19 years. If the court sides with MillerCoors, Pabst may find itself without a place to brew.
Pabst representatives declined to disclose to The Baltimore Sun the metrics on sales or distribution for the National Bohemian brand. The company also declined to speculate on the case’s potential impact on Natty Boh.
However, Pabst attorneys have argued in court that MillerCoors could effectively put them out of business if the partnership ends. The Associated Press reported the only other beer company with the bandwidth to brew for Pabst is Anheuser-Busch, which doesn’t do contract brewing.
Why should we care?
National Bohemian has not been brewed in Maryland nor owned by a local company in decades. However, the label is widely popular in the Baltimore area.
In 2018, it was the first beer label, as opposed to bar or brewer, to be inducted into the Baltimore Beer Legends Hall of Fame. Joe Gold, founder of Baltimore Beer Week and organizing committee chair of the hall of fame, said the label is iconic, but also a staple of a previous era.
To Gold, Natty Boh is an “old school” beer that people order along with a shot as an inexpensive drink option.
“I still puzzle daily on why people do care,” Gold said. “It’s not even made here. But this city has a love affair with Natty Boh and the one-eyed mustachiod guy,” aka its mascot Mr. Boh.
Gold said it is unlikely Natty Boh could make a grand return to brewing in Maryland as the state lacks the capacity to brew beer on the scale and price point required.