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Natty Woes

Posted 11/7/2001

Looked at a can of National Bohemian lately? Good ol' Mr. Boh, the one-eyed, mustachioed mascot of the unofficial beer of Baltimore, is there, of course. We love that guy--a regular Mobtown icon. Too bad he's a liar.

No, we're not talking about the can's flowery wordage stating how Boh is "patiently aged to a smooth, light superior taste." (Yeah, whatever--you can buy it for $7.99 a case.) The first big fib is the trademarked slogan from the land of pleasant living, a holdover from the days when National Brewing Co. made the stuff right here in Baltimore. Truth is, Mobtown's own National Brewing hasn't been around for more than 20 years, and Boh hasn't been brewed in the Free State since 1996. (That's when Stroh Brewing, then-owners of the Boh brand, shut down the state's last big brewery, out Halethorpe way.) The can also reads brewed by the G. Heileman Brewing Co., San Antonio, TX. More lies. Heileman doesn't really exist anymore (Stroh bought it out five years ago), and as best we can determine, since leaving town Natty Boh has been brewed in Upper Macungie Township, Pa., near Allentown.

Poor Mr. Boh has been batted around between breweries for so many years his one eye is probably black by now. And along the way rumors have ever swirled that his days are numbered. After all, Mr. Boh's sibling, Mr. Pilsner--the monocled mascot for National Premium--was a victim of the corporate six-pack slugfest. (Stroh killed that venerable brand back in '96.) Some read ill tidings in Stroh's decision a few years back to pull Boh from the keg market. Two years ago, Stroh itself gave up the ghost: Most of its facilities and beers--including Boh, Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, and Lone Star--were taken over by Pabst Brewing. And now--you guessed it--Pabst is no more.

Well, sort of. "Pabst Brewing" still exists as a concept, but what was once the nation's second-largest beer-maker closed its last plant in September--the one in Upper Macungie--and all its beers are now contract-brewed by the Milwaukee-based Miller Brewing Co. (How weird is that? It's almost like Ford deciding to have its cars built by General Motors.)

So what of Boh? Is this latest hop happening the final straw for a 116-year-old brew that, while largely unknown outside Maryland, is beloved in Baltimore? Will corporate cost-cutting put Mr. Boh's eye out for good?

The answer, cheap-suds fans will be glad to know, is no. "There's no truth to rumors that National Bohemian production is ending," says Arthur Westbrook, "Pabst"'s Maryland sales manager. "Production has already been shifted to a Miller facility."

Boh will now have a Southern accent, as it is to be shipped to the Land of Pleasant Living® from a Miller plant in Eden, N.C. Just over 300,000 cases of Natty Boh are sold a year, most all of it in Maryland. This is only a drop in the keg within the Miller empire, which moves around 500 million cases annually, but Boh's corporate parent is well aware of its strong local following. "I have a personal affinity for Boh," says Westbrook, who began his beer career 31 years ago in the National Brewing mail room (back when the company was perched atop Canton's Brewer's Hill). "And so does [Pabst's] national vice president of sales, who also started with National." So rest easy, Natty swillers. Seems Mr. Boh--for the moment, at least--has friends in high places.

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