A Beer to Call Your Own
Tales from the Rise and Fall of National Brewing
"We had some good times in this old girl here," he says. "I never thought it would come to this. It's like visiting a graveyard."
The "old girl" is the 50-year-old, 10-story brick brew house that dominates this hilltop intersection. The tower, derelict and largely windowless, is the largest in a collection of decayed industrial buildings of various vintages that once made up the home of the National Brewing Co. Glass worked here, amid the aroma of malt and hops, for 13 years.
North of the brew house, one squat building of soot-stained brick bears a date of 1885 in oxidized copper numerals on its side, near the roofline. This merely hints at how long beer has been made on this lofty prominence. As early as 1850, Baltimore brewers were sending barrel-laden horse-drawn wagons rambling up O'Donnell Street to store beer in lagering cellars dug into the hillside, leading the area to be dubbed Lager Beer Hill.
But it was after Prohibition that the beer business boomed up here. In its 1950s and '60s heyday, some 900 people worked at National Brewing, turning out National Bohemian, National Premium, and, later, Colt 45 malt liquor. All that ended 24 years ago when the old girl closed up shop--a victim of the rude machinations of a brewing industry dominated by a handful of deep-pocketed national brands. The workers went away, and Lager Beer Hill went dry.
And then suddenly last summer, Mr. Boh came back to the hill. A massive banner emblazoned with the one-eyed mustachioed icon for National Bohemian beer is now strapped to the looming brew house's top floors. It doesn't portend a return to beer-making, however, but rather advertises the intentions of the real-estate developer Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse to turn the assemblage of industrial ghosts into an office/condo complex called Brewer's Hill. Before that happens, Jim Glass, who was a quality-control technician in the brew house, has come to take a final look around (courtesy of a Struever rep who's agreed to let us on the site). Along for the tour is 72-year-old Joe "Reds" Harper, a fellow National Brewing vet who recalls the very day he started working on the Hill.
"July 2, 1951," he says. "I started on the clean-up gang, but I'd work wherever they wanted to stick me."
The ruddy-faced septuagenarian saunters eastward down O'Donnell, pausing before a fenced-off loading dock where rusty railroad tracks are discernible beneath a bed of weeds and trash. Hands sweeping across the expanse, Harper describes how this was once both the beginning and the end of production. One track, he says, brought in rail cars laden with grain that was "sucked into the brewery through big pipes." Another track served the freight cars that hauled away the bottled beer.
Entering this building through an anonymous wooden door brings us into a dark room with pools of fetid water on the concrete floor. Spent grain, sold off as animal feed, was loaded onto trucks here, Glass says. Shadowy, rubble-strewn metal stairs lead upward through the squalid, empty building. Previous owners of the abandoned site stripped out most of the pipes and brewing apparatus for scrap. And over the years, trespassing neighborhood teens have covered the walls with graffiti and the floors with garbage and broken glass.
"Oh, it's sad to be up in here," Glass says, emerging into a vast tile-walled room, scattered with more garbage and pigeon droppings. The ceiling, a good two stories up, is punctured by a circular openings, each 20 feet in diameter. A pair of copper-topped brew kettles, holding more than 15,000 gallons each, once filled the holes. Glass says that back in the day, the room was hospital-clean, lorded over by workers in white lab coats, including fussy German brew masters with thick Old World accents.
A bank of windows faces southward across O'Donnell, looking out on the crumbling remains of another Baltimore brewery, Gunther. It seems odd that two of the city's biggest bar-rail rivals should have been neighbors, but Glass says it made for fun times. The competing brewers staged Friday-afternoon softball games, at which, Glass recalls with a chuckle, "the losers had to drink the other guys' beer."
But workday fun wasn't relegated to Fridays. One brewery perk was the ready availability of beer. There was always a tapped keg stowed somewhere, and employees--from white-shirted execs to the sweat-streaked laborers--were able to pour themselves a cold one whenever their tongues went dry.
"It was a pleasure to come to work," Glass says. "Instead of looking forward to the weekend, I think many of the guys here looked forward to coming to work, where they could drink and party and still do their job."
Crunching across the floor to the north end of the building brings us to another glassless window, overlooking a vast open yard. Harper recalls when it would be clogged with beer trucks. The low-slung brick bottling plant sits just beyond the scrap-strewn field. "There's a lot of history here," he says, adopting a solemn tone. "A lot of history."
National Bohemian beer was born in the 19th century and it has survived to see the 21st. Well, sort of. While its pricier sibling National Premium is gone, you can still find sixers of Natty Boh at the local liquor store. Look down toward the bottom of the chill case . . . there, next to the Schmidts, Schaefers, and the other $6.99-a-case budget beers. Such is the ignoble end of the line for a host of once-famous beers--historic brands forced to the cheap shelf by cutthroat competition and the rapacious realities of modern retailing. Today's National Bohemian is "National" in name only, National Brewing having disappeared as an independent entity in 1975. The beer of the Land of Pleasant Living is now brewed in North Carolina by Miller Brewing, under a contract agreement with Pabst (The Nose, Nov. 7, 2001).
But the history of the brand, and of its brewer, goes deep. With the National plant on the cusp of becoming a roost for young professionals, it seemed a good time to tap into the storied past, before the company's saga is forgotten entirely. Not many folks from the glory years are still around. Jerry Hoffberger, National's charismatic leader for 31 years, passed away in 1999. Many of the other front-office folks who guided and promoted the brewery are gone as well.
But not all of them. Dawson Farber, who long led National's marketing efforts, has tales to tell. So does Jerry Di Paolo, who once cracked the whip on an army of National salespeople. These men knew Boh, both when the mug ran over for the winking mascot and when a Boh keg issued its last Baltimore-born drop.
"We could make anything in those brew kettles," Farber says. "It was an exciting time." I had originally asked Farber, now 84 years old, to come on the tour of the crumbling National plant, but he politely demurred. His legs weren't up to it. Instead, he recounts his 37 years in the brewing business from the comfort of the family-room sofa in his Towson home.
He grew up in Sparrows Point, he says, where his father was a company doctor at Bethlehem Steel. When he went off to study history at Princeton in the depths of the Depression, he had no career aspirations in mind. But he knew the kind of job he didn't want. "I think the last thing I wanted to do was get into selling, and of course that's what I ended up doing all my life," he says. Nor was he thinking about the beer business, despite being familiar with fellow Princetonian Bill Coors, of the Colorado brewing empire. (Today, Bill Coors is chairperson of the Adolph Coors Co.)
Graduating in 1939, Farber soon found himself in an Army captain's uniform, taking part in the World War II invasion of North Africa. Action in Sicily and the Italian mainland followed. He returned to Baltimore in December of '45 and started looking for work. It was his great uncle who suggested he go meet Sam Hoffberger, then head of National Brewing. Still in uniform, Farber reported to Hoffberger's office. Over a tumbler of bourbon, Mr. Sam (as Farber affectionately refers to him) offered him . . . no, told him he had a job at National. Farber never looked back.
National was then one of the city's smaller brewers. Unlike Gunther and Globe Brewing (maker of Arrow Beer), which had limped through Prohibition making near beer and/or ice, National had simply shut down during the 13-year "noble experiment." When the taps opened anew in 1933, the plant at O'Donnell and Conkling was antiquated and small (and still sported stables from the days of horse-drawn beer wagons).
Farber started as a salesperson but soon became special assistant to Sam Hoffberger's son Jerry, who became head of the company in 1947 at the ripe age of 28. The brewery steadily rose to local dominance, which Farber largely attributes to its crackerjack sales team--though the beer turned out by a crusty brew master named Carl Kreitler gets some credit as well.
There were some innovations involved too. In the late '40s, canned beer was just beginning to replace clunky returnable bottles and their heavy wooden cases. But can packaging had yet to be perfected. "We had an engineer working for us--a genius who'd been on a German submarine," Farber says, "and I told him, 'If we could put canned beer in six-packs, we could sell a lot more.' He told me he'd work on it."
The submariner-turned-packaging innovator soon developed equipment that not only put cans in sixers, but assembled them in cases and wrapped them for shipping. The result, Farber says, was that National was the first brewer in the country to put six-packs of cans on the market.
In 1950, Farber was promoted to vice president of marketing. One of the promotional tools he inherited was Mr. Boh, who had debuted in the '30s. His visage was modernized some--his egg-shaped face, though it remained austere, was given a mouth and an ear--and he became a potent brewery icon. "I have no idea why he only has one eye," Farber confesses. "I don't think anybody does." In the '50s, Farber was instrumental in getting the Detroit-based W.B. Doner & Co. advertising agency to open a branch office in Baltimore. It was Doner that created another powerful sales tool: National's slogan, "From the Land of Pleasant Living."
Business was booming at O'Donnell and Conkling in the '50s--on both sides of the intersection, as rival brand Gunther enjoyed growth as well. Little known at the time was that a prominent Baltimore family, the Kriegers, had financial stakes in both Gunther and National. "They actually had a percentage invested somehow--I don't know how it worked out exactly," Farber says. And there were more overt interconnections: One member of Gunther's management sat on National's board. Farber dubbed him "Zippo"-- "because as soon as we'd finish a board meeting, he'd run across the street and tell them what we did," he says.
But as the decade wore on, it became apparent that the real threat to National wasn't across O'Donnell, but halfway across the country, in St. Louis and Milwaukee. In the previous century, St. Louis' Anheuser-Busch had pioneered the process of pasteurizing beer to extend its shelf life, and its ability to be shipped; Budweiser had been available in Baltimore since the 1880s. In the '50s, an increasingly aggressive Anheuser expanded its reach by opening breweries in New Jersey, California, and Florida. Milwaukee's Schlitz Brewing followed suit. Though National eventually bought breweries in Detroit, Miami, and Phoenix, it never matched the swelling capacities of the growing Midwestern beer makers.
"I knew I had to do something [to compete], and that's when I came up with the idea of making a malt liquor," Farber says "I did some research and found there was only one malt liquor that meant anything in the country. It was called Country Club." And so National rolled out Colt 45 in 1963. While Farber's home is surprisingly lacking in brewing artifacts, he does possess one singular bit of breweriana: the original prototype can of Colt 45. Farber says he told a can-company industrial designer roughly what he wanted: a white can sporting a gold, blue, and red color scheme, a white kicking horse, and a horseshoe. The prototype Farber retrieves off a basement shelf--simply an artistic rendering wrapped around an empty can--looks very much like the current packaging of Colt 45, another product now controlled by Pabst.
What has changed since then is malt liquor's image in the marketplace. Farber chafes at the way the product is sold today--largely as a cheap way to get drunk, foisted on the inner city. When Colt 45 first hit liquor stores it was a premium product, priced higher than Boh and designed to compete with Bud, Pabst, and Schlitz. But Farber makes no bones about the fact that the name was chosen to denote the potent brew's extra bang. (Malt liquor's alcohol content is as much as twice that of beer.) "We had to be very careful to never show a gun in the advertising," Farber says (lest they raise the hackles of Colt Firearms, makers of the Colt .45 revolver). National sponsored Baltimore Colts football at the time, and Farber says he sometimes told people the brew was named for a Colt fullback who wore the number 45.
Colt 45 soon became National's first truly national brand, sold from coast to coast. Farber had less luck with several follow-up products, including a "sparkling malt liquor" called French 76 ("It tasted just like champagne," Farber says eagerly) and 007 Special Blend, a mixture of beer and malt liquor whose cans featured pretty models set against London landmarks. But even trying these things was a plucky move for National. While the past 20 years have seen the big brewers roll out a host of quirky products--dry beer, clear beer, ice beer--such innovation wasn't the norm back in the '60s.
In 1966, flush with brewery funds, Jerry Hoffberger branched into a new business: He bought the Orioles baseball team, the year they would sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Farber made frequent use of National's choice stadium seating. (A pitcher on Princeton's team, Farber says he played in the first televised baseball game, a Princeton-Columbia match broadcast to a pavilion at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.)
When not at the ballpark, Farber was on the road mingling with other beer sellers and keeping tabs on the industry, and dark clouds were gathering. He recalls chatting with a tipsy Anheuser executive at a New York convention who confessed his employer's coming strategy. "He said, 'We're going to price you out of business rather than market you out of business--we're going to hold our prices down, and other breweries are going to have to move prices up,'" Farber recalls. Pabst would soon do this approach one better, cutting the price of its flagship product, Blue Ribbon. It was all a matter of brewing capacity: The larger your brewery, the cheaper your per-unit costs, and the more flexibility you had with pricing.
The big brewers would actually price and market the regional brewers into submission. The weapon of choice was television. Farber first discovered TV's power in the '50s, when National began local-TV advertising. Suddenly the brewery saw a sales spike in York, Pa. National didn't have a large sales force there, but York folks were turning into Baltimore TV stations.
Beer ads hit the tube in earnest after tobacco giant Phillip Morris bought Miller Brewing in 1970. When cigarette ads were legally banned from the airwaves the following year, Phillip Morris poured its ad money into Miller--a key factor in the success of Miller Lite, which debuted in '73.
"I recognized that sooner or later all of this was going to be a problem for us," Farber says. "We had a gold mine in Baltimore, but we'd been unsuccessful in putting National Premium across the country." So in 1973, Farber approached the Hoffberger family with the idea of selling the business. Hesitant at first, the family agreed two years later. The result was a merger with Carling Brewing, a Canadian firm that had built a large brewery in Halethorpe in 1961. The combined Carling National Brewery--with Hoffberger retained as its head--became the nation's 10th-largest beer maker. But it was too little, too late.
"We started having trouble even with Carling [on board]," Farber says. "Colt 45 was a moneymaker, but we soon ran into the same old problems competing." As a cost-cutting measure, National's Lager Beer Hill plant was shuttered in 1978 and brewing was consolidated at the newer Halethorpe facility. But soon it seemed time to sell or merge again. Along with dropping sales, there was also a more prickly need for an ownership change: Carling was owned by Britain-based Rothman Cigarettes, which was in turn part of a South Africa-based holding company. South African apartheid was beginning to draw negative attention in the United States, so Carling National's owners wanted out. "They told me, 'Apartheid is going to kill us,'" Farber says.
In 1979, then, La Crosse, Wis.-based G. Heilman Brewing bought Carling National, and Farber was made president of the Baltimore subsidiary. "We ran into the same old problems," he says. But before long they weren't his problems anymore: In 1982, Farber turned 65 and retired. He wasn't on hand to see the brewery pass into the hands of Detroit's Stroh Brewing in 1996. He rarely even drinks beer anymore; when he does, he drinks Genesee. But his experience tells him that the shakeout is far from over. Asked about the future for Boh's latest parent, the San Antonio-based Pabst Brewing Co., he pauses to sit back in the sofa before responding: "I think they're going to go under too."
"Selling beer was once about forming personal relationships," Jerry Di Paolo says. "That doesn't exist anymore. It all comes through advertising today." Di Paolo, now 85 years old, couldn't attend the brewery tour either. He was simply too busy; the restless retiree was working as a greeter at Towson Town Center during the holidays. We manage to meet in early December for a chat at a union office, where I've gone to track down former brewery workers.
There's still a good bit of salesperson in Di Paolo. Wearing a jaunty snowman-decorated tie, the veteran beer man slips into conversation easily. Born on Saratoga Street and reared in Pimlico, Di Paolo spent World War II supervising the production of Navy officers' uniforms in Baltimore. After the war, sportscaster Bailey Goss--a family friend from Pimlico--encouraged him to apply for a sales job at National. Di Paolo had his doubts. He feared his Italian heritage would turn the brewer off.
"The German brew masters didn't like Italians because they didn't drink beer, they drank wine." Di Paolo says. "That, and they thought we were emotional."
Di Paolo applied up at the Hill anyway--actually, he applied five times before National took him on as a salesperson. His first sales territory included Little Italy. "I thought it would be a cinch selling in Little Italy, but the [restaurateurs] would kick me out--they wouldn't even listen to me," Di Paolo says, shaking his head. "They hated the brewery."
It wasn't because they had a preference for wine. The animosity, he discovered, dated back to the war years, when beer was rationed by the government--essentially taken away from certain areas to make sure the downtown hotels were supplied. Little Italy was one of the neighborhoods that lost much of its brew, and its barkeeps were still bitter.
An exasperated Di Paolo told his father about his troubles, and the senior Di Paolo offered some advice: He told his son to tell the folks in the neighborhood--in Italian--that he was the son of Vincent and Leana Di Paolo. The neophyte beer man's next sales call was at Velleggia's Restaurant--an early mom-and-pop incarnation of the huge tourist-filled eatery facing Pratt Street today. At first the proprietor was ready to give him the bum's rush, but before he was dispatched, Di Paolo managed to blurt out his parentage.
"Well, [the owner] looked at me and he started screaming for his wife to come out," Di Paolo says, grinning at the memory of it all. "Turns out, when they got married, I was a baby and they carried me in their arms telling people, 'Look what we have already.' They gave me an order for 10 cases of National Premium and took me by the arm and led me to every restaurant in Little Italy, and I sold 10 cases at every one."
It was an early lesson in the personal nature of beer selling--a lesson Di Paolo drew on three years later when he was promoted to branch sales manager, with the power to hire and run his own crew. He quickly broadened the makeup of the sales force to reflect Baltimore's diversity. "I hired a Greek guy, I hired a Jewish guy, I hired an Irish guy, and so on," Di Paolo says. In the early '60s, the diversity drive expanded across racial lines as well, when, Di Paolo says, he "hired the first black salesman any brewer had in the country--a former Morgan State track star."
A big part of the salespeople's work was fulfilling Di Paolo's desire that they get to know every employee at every tavern or nightclub in their territory. "And I meant all the shifts," he says. "These personal contacts had results, and the other brewers couldn't keep up."
These marching orders translated into long and strange hours. Particularly if your territory included the Block, which was then booming. Many of the folks who controlled the tills at the girlie bars didn't show up until the wee hours. Di Paolo has a host of stories related to selling beer in this fast-and-loose location, though he doesn't want the best ones in print. He did get to meet storied stripper Blaze Starr. "I got picture of me pinning a Mr. Boh pin on her blouse," he says--while the snap was being taken, he adds, Ms. Starr invited him to "slip his hand underneath" if he wanted.
National salespeople were aggressive, Di Paolo says, but also upstanding. He had his rules: "I told my men, 'You don't cheat on your report, there's no fooling around with barmaids or [bar owners'] daughters, and every dollar of your expense account goes to sell a bottle of National beer."
He also wanted his salespeople to be knowledgeable--experts in the art of brewing. Over the protests of the brew masters (who weren't keen on having their domain invaded), Di Paolo marched all of his people through the hilltop brewery monthly. "I wanted them to know the beer's ingredients, how long it took to make, where the yeast came from, everything," he says. "If someone in a bar asked how National beer was made, my people could tell them."
There were tongues to educate as well. "I allowed our guys to take home a bottle of Gunther, a bottle of Arrow, a bottle of American [beer]--even a bottle of Budweiser," Di Paolo says. "I wanted them to taste them [alongside National's] so that any of them could pick out our beer over the others blindfolded."
Serving as silent salesperson all the while was Mr. Boh himself, who had become a popular image in the '50s, appearing on a variety of promotional products. "We even had Mr. Boh mustaches that our guys would wear," Di Paolo says. He has his own explanation for Mr. Boh's facial makeup: "I always said it was because it only took one eye to pick a good beer."
By the early '60s, the sales force's shoe-leather strategy had achieved spectacular results. With pride undiminished by the years, Di Paolo says they had simply sold the whole city. There wasn't a beer joint, burlesque house, liquor store, or swanky restaurant in Greater Baltimore that couldn't serve you a cold National beer--some 2,700 outlets in all, by Di Paolo's recollection.
In hindsight, Di Paolo admits his sales efforts might have "let up a little" once such saturation had been achieved. But he has another explanation for the eventual downturn: a redesigned Natty Boh label. Deeming the label too dowdy for the swinging '60s, Hoffberger had the label streamlined and modernized. Mr. Boh was gone, as was the "Land of Pleasant Living" line (replaced with the slogan "A beer to call your own"). Di Paolo considered it an unwise move, and one he says rival beer makers--including a steady stream of national brands--took advantage of.
"Our competition went out and said it was not the same beer," he says. "They would take an old [Boh] bottle and tell customers, 'This is the good stuff--the beer in the new bottle has more water in it.'"
Soon the big national brewers' sales forces began to sweep into Baltimore in earnest. They didn't rely on personal relationships, blindfolded taste tests, or knowledge of yeast strains. They bought their way behind the bar. As Di Paolo explains it, they would provide bar owners with racks of free beer glasses as an incentive to stock their brands, or offer to upgrade aging draft-beer equipment--perks beyond National's means. All the while, their broadcast ad campaigns were hammering away on the consumer end.
"It wasn't dog-eat-dog [between the Baltimore brewers]; it was a good rivalry," Di Paolo says. "But when the big guys came in, it was like lions eating deer." By 1970, Pabst had eclipsed National as the top-selling brand in Maryland. Five years later, Bud passed Mr. Boh as well.
Di Paolo retired in 1978, but he still maintains a soft spot for Natty Boh, even now that it is peddled by former archrival Pabst. When he goes out to dinner, he still orders National beer. And every time, he says, the archaic request draws blank looks from waiters. Well, just about every time.
"One night we went over to the Café Hon in Hampden," Di Paolo says, leaning in to give his words emphasis. "When the girl asked what I wanted to drink, I said, 'A bottle of National beer.' And guess what--she came back with a bottle of National beer. I almost fell over. I could have hugged and kissed her."
Back on lager beer hill, with a frigid wind whipping through the shattered windows, the tour is winding to a close. There's just not much else to see amid the shambles.
When the Canton plant closed the summer of '78, Jim Glass and Joe Harper were among the workers who were shifted to the Halethorpe brewery. But the sprawling plant hard by the Beltway didn't have the same friendly atmosphere, they say. That same year, Jerry Hoffberger stepped down as brewery head.
"Hoffberger would walk through the [Canton] plant on holidays and he knew everybody's first name," Glass says. "That was a good feeling--to have the big shot come though and greet you by name."
When Stroh shut down the Halethorpe plant in 1996--and big brewing left the state for good--Harper simply retired to his Canton rowhouse. Glass had left his main job four years earlier to become vice president of Teamsters Local 570, a descendant of the union that once represented hundreds of Baltimore brewery workers. (Signage in front of 570's Eastern Boulevard headquarters still reads brewers hall.)
Before leaving, Glass talks about taking home a souvenir brick from the old plant. "Thirty-one years in the brewing industry, and all I get is a brick," he jokes. But then Harper chimes in, boasting how he scored a real piece of history.
"You know what I got?" he gushes. "I got the last six cans of National Bohemian beer [made in Maryland]. I was working the midnight shift and I took the last six-pack that came off the line. And that's not for sale."
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