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FLAP BREWS OVER LOCAL BEERS Oriole Park concessionaire contends Md. brands didn't sell


At one time you couldn't go more than a few feet at an Orioles home game without seeing a sudsy National Bohemian. The Baltimore brew was hawked by vendors in the aisles, swigged by fans in the bleachers, and poured from taps at concession stands.

Not anymore. For the first time since Major League baseball returned to Baltimore in 1954, O's fans can't buy a Natty Boh -- or any other locally brewed beer -- at the local ballpark.

The concessionaire at the park says it can only stock so many beers and the local brews don't sell well enough to bother offering them. But some local-brew backers are angry that the beers are missing an important promotional opportunity.

"It doesn't make sense if local money is going to pay for the stadium that a local beer isn't represented," said Craig Button, president of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association.

Mr. Button, owner of Button's Liquor Store, is encouraging his members to complain about National Bohemian's absence.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards sells a wide assortment of beers, from Budweiser to Heineken. But none is brewed locally, in contrast to the old days when the concession stands foamed over with hometown brands like National Bohemian, Gunther and American.

In fact, the brewers of National Bohemian and Gunther were major investors in the team for many years. Their beers sold for 30 cents each on the first Opening Day at Memorial Stadium in 1954. The chairman of National Brewing Co., Jerry Hoffberger, was chairman and majority owner of the team from 1965 to 1979.

The brewers have long since sold the team and their breweries. National Bohemian is the only old-line Maryland beer still brewed, now from a 400-worker plant in Halethorpe that also brews Colt 45 and several other brands. It is owned by Wisconsin-based G. Heileman Co.

"It's disappointing but it's symptomatic of the trend at ballparks to stock only the major beers that spend tons on advertising," Randy Smith, vice president and general counsel for Heileman, said of his brand's absence from Camden Yards.

The beer, which traces its history in Baltimore back more than 100 years, almost failed to get into Memorial Stadium last year but was eventually installed in a couple of remote concession stands. The brewery and distributor sponsored a $35,000 fireworks show at the stadium last year, which may have helped its chances, said Reid V. Eikner, president of Best Way Distributing Co., which distributes National Bohemian in Baltimore and surrounding areas.

But this year neither his company nor the brewery could afford a sponsorship. The Heileman name is even misspelled on the company's box seats, he said.

Two years ago, Best Way tried to get Wild Goose, a beer made by a Cambridge-based microbrewery, stocked on the import beer carts at Memorial Stadium, but the two sides were unable to agree on price, Mr. Eikner said.

Wild Goose President Jim Lutz said "I think the stadium, %J because it is a Maryland stadium, should support Maryland businesses and price should not be an issue."

Mr. Eikner said he's confident he could sell National Bohemian for less than Budweiser is charging. He said he made a presentation this year to the company hired to run concessions for the stadium, ARA Leisure Services, about National Bohemian but was turned down. Mr. Eikner has been unable to get his calls returned since, he said.

He's not the only one. Theo De Groen, owner and brewmaster of the Baltimore Brewing Co. microbrewery on Albemarle Street, said he made a presentation to ARA officials and brought samples. He suggested a "Maryland brew" stand for local brews.

He never heard back.

"I must have called over 50 times," Mr. De Groen said.

Jay Boyle, general manager for ARA at the park, said he has been unable to hire enough vendors to sell beer in the stands. If he had more, he could take a chance with less popular beers, he said.

"If they are out there with an unpopular brand, people will be waiting for the Bud. You will just be annoying them," Mr. Boyle said.

Space is also limited on the import carts, and he wants to sell the top movers, he said. The carts regularly stock seven brands.

"There's only so much room, and what's going to sell more, Heineken or that guy's microbrew?" he said.

As for not returning calls, Mr. Boyle said he gets many solicitations from people trying to sell him something, and he can't return the calls.

Orioles spokesman Rick Vaughn said the team leaves the choice of beers up to the concessionaire.

The decline of National Bohemian at the stadium mirrors the decline of the brand itself, which has had a variety of problems in recent years, from the bankruptcy of its corporate parent to a brief strike by workers. Although it has emerged from Chapter 11, the financial troubles have drained the promotional budget available for National Bohemian and sales have suffered, said Benjamin Steinman, associate publisher of Beer Marketer's Insight.

At its zenith in the 1960s, National Brewing, the former brewer of National Bohemian, commanded 60 percent of the local market. It and its sister brew, National Premium, have since fallen to less than 4 percent.

The beer was dropped from the Baltimore Arena a few years ago but is still sold at Pimlico Race Course, Mr. Eikner said.

But not Camden Yards.

"It's a shame," said Mr. Hoffberger, former chairman of National Brewing and of the Orioles.

When he ran the team he sold several local brews, he said. "It was the right thing to do," he said.

Chris Bigelow, a food-service consultant, said sporting events are important to beer companies because they attract thousands of the most loyal beer drinkers: young men.

Ballparks limit the number of brands for the sake of cost and simplicity, he said. Some offer microbrews at specialty stands, but the overwhelming best sellers are Budweiser, Miller and Coors, he said.

"If people aren't yelling for National Bohemian, I can understand ARA not wanting to force it down their throats," he said.

A check with other baseball teams reveals that national brands -- especially Budweiser -- dominate sales but that local brews are often represented. Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium used to sell a variety of regional brews but now sells only Dock Street.

"We try and give people what they want. We look at what's selling regularly," said Brian Hastings, concessions manager for

Ogden Leisure Services at Veterans Stadium.

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