Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pabst Americana - Natty Boh

Like Grain Belt is to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, National Bohemian, or "Natty Boh" as it's affectionately referred to, is interwoven in the history of a great American city: Baltimore. The beer's slogan, "From the Land of Pleasant Living," paid homage to the good life enjoyed by the residents of this city on Chesapeake Bay.

First brewed in 1885 Natty Boh was a Baltimore staple and emblematic of both the city's working class, and the incestuous fate of so many regional breweries.

Natty is much like a Hamm's or a Pabst: a pale American lager that isn't going to wow you, but has a little more flavor than a Bud Light. It's perfect to wash down a sausage and makes a great compliment when watching sporting events.

In fact, beer and sports have always gone hand in hand in Baltimore. When local competition was fierce in the brewing industry, announcers for the Orioles or the Colts (they were in Baltimore back then) were paid by the breweries to mention the beers. Another local brewery, Gunther's (which was eventually bought by Hamm's), paid the Colts announcer to exclaim "Good as Gunther's" whenever the team converted a successful extra point.

Going further, at one time the Orioles were owned by the then president of National Brewery, Jerry Hoffberger. Natty was served in the now defunct "Memorial Stadium," solidifying the beer as nostalgic for legions of current Baltimore sports fans.

Like Hamm's, National came up with an image for its star beer that would turn into an advertising icon, and in this case, an icon for the city itself. "Mr. Boh," the one-eyed (for whatever reason) mustached mascot for Natty Boh, was used by the brewery post-WWII, and was huge by the time of the reemergence of American breweries in the 1950's. The mascot itself was retired in the 1960's, but the image of Mr. Boh is still on bottles of Natty to this day, not to mention all over Baltimore. From bar memorabilia, to signs, to T-shirts, Mr. Boh is still around, and can currently be seen proposing to the Utz potato chip girl. Good choice Mr. Boh.

National Brewery merged with the Canadian brewer Carling in the 1970's, and the facility in Baltimore was closed, with production being shifted to a facility in the Baltimore suburb of Halethorpe. In 1979, National was acquired by G. Heileman of Wisconsin, which, like the earlier profiled Lone Star, was then subsequently sold to Stroh's of Detroit in 1996.

Laden with debt, Stroh's was broken apart in 1999, with most brands, including Natty Boh, being sold off to Pabst. Pabst still brews Natty Boh, but production is no longer in Maryland. The bulk of the stock is contract brewed in North Carolina, and some is brewed in Pennsylvania.

Natty Boh is still very much alive, and still very much a part of Baltimore, but there's a sadder side to it too. It's yet another bit of local flavor that was chewed up a spit out by the forces of corporate consolidation and globalization. The prize beer of Baltimore is no longer even brewed in Maryland, gone to cheaper, larger facilities for contract brewing. While it may just be an average American macro, it's one of those breweries that's more than that. Ask a few Baltimore natives and I'm sure you can find one with a soft spot for the good old days of the National Brewery and Natty Boh.

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