National Bohemian beer to be served on draft again

It's been 15 years since National Bohemian left Maryland, but Patrick McCusker remembers it almost as bitterly as the day Robert Irsay took the Colts out of Baltimore.

He grew up with the beer. In the 1970s, everyone's basement bar sported pictures of three icons: the Colts, the Orioles and the dapper, mustachioed Mr. Boh.

This week, McCusker and other fans of the popular beer got some small satisfaction. Owner Pabst Blue Ribbon announced that Natty Boh would return to the state, on tap.

"It's not as big a deal as the Colts coming back to Baltimore, but it's pretty close," said McCusker, who owns Canton's Nacho Mama's, the bar and restaurant that will tap the first keg of Natty on Feb. 3.

Until now Boh was only available canned or by the bottle. But Pabst, under new ownership since last year, wants to spruce up a beloved brand that had all but ceded its share of the market to larger competitors and plans a hefty regional expansion.

It has already pre-sold an initial run of 300 kegs that will be available in 80 locations in the Baltimore area, Howard, Carroll, and Anne Arundel counties. And, in March, it will expand to Montgomery County and Washington.

Keg production is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, said Andy Gurjian, a representative of the company.

Natty Boh, a longtime local favorite for its affordability and for being famously brewed in "the Land of Pleasant Living," left the area in 1996, when then-owner Stroh Brewery Co. closed its Halethorpe brewery.

Three years later, Pabst bought Stroh and its brands — which aside from Boh, included Old Milwaukee and Schlitz — in a transaction valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Boh production was then moved to MillerCoors plants in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and the beer stopped being served on tap.

Pabst began plans to bring Boh back on draft in October in response to distributors' and fans' demands to keep the brand alive, and for the fresher taste of kegs, Gurjian said.

The brand has experienced an ironic, grassroots revival since 2004, when the 11-story Natty Boh Tower atop Brewers' Hill was restored and Mr. Boh, its longtime mascot, started being plastered on all sorts of souvenirs and T-shirts, a monocled equivalent to the Hon lady.

Another reason for the revival of the beer on draft is Pabst's sale last year to C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., a Connecticut equity firm. The new owners want to capitalize on a beer that they see as having potential thanks to its local following, Gurjian said.

Sales of the beer total 600,000 cases a year, with about 90 percent coming from Baltimore, according to the company.

"As a company we sell Natty Boh in bottles and cans, and it's doing just fine. We took a step back, and thought, why not? Why not change it up and do something different?" Gurjian said.

Benj Steinman, editor of industry newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights, added that the new owners want to refurbish the diminished assets they've inherited.

"It's a company with limited resources," he said. "They think they've got an intriguing property, and they want to see if they can bring an old brand alive."

He explained, though, that the return of draft is not a game changer for Pabst, which accounts for only about 3 percent of the overall beer market.

Its impact will be felt only locally, if at all. Judging from the company's initial run, that's how Pabst sees it too. Gurjian said that, though there's demand in other states, they want to focus mainly on Maryland, at least for now.

The return of draft Boh will be commemorated with keg-tapping parties at seven area locations, including Frazier's in Hampden and the Hamilton Tavern. A glass of Boh should still cost the same as a bottle.

Tom Creegan, co-owner of Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon, is bullish on Boh on draft. By the bottle, it's already the top seller at Brewer's behind their own beer.

"It's a nostalgia beer," he said.

But McCusker said Boh's draft revival is about more than just kitsch value.

"Even though it's not made here and it's not owned by National Bohemian, it's such a big part of this community and its heritage," he said. "I can't imagine a bar in Baltimore that wouldn't have it."