A City's Character Shaped by Once-Local Beer


I am in Baltimore to visit the new Guinness brewery being built here. I'm here in collaboration with Guinness, who paid for the trip, as a way of looking more deeply into what my sponsor is up to.

  From a distance, all cities look the same. The geographies vary, but they all have the same parts. It's only by traveling to a place and encountering the weird local idiosyncrasies that you begin to understand its character. Yesterday morning over my first Baltimore breakfast I saw something I didn't understand on the menu: "Old Bay." Was this a sauce, a preparation, or ...? (It's a blend of spices.) I didn't even have to wait until morning to hear an invocation of National Bohemian ("Natty Boh")--I heard that on the drive in from the airport. I've been in the city 36 hours and I can already report that Baltimore has more interesting local charm than nearly any city I've visited--which I guess makes sense for a place that has acted as muse for talents as diverse as David Simon and John Waters.

Beer is one of the most particular markers of place. This is especially true in the craft era, but it's always been so. National Bohemian hasn't been made in the city of Baltimore for nearly forty years, and yet it is the dominant brand here:

Though not highly regarded among beer lovers (it has a rating of sixty-seven—“Poor”—on BeerAdvocate.com), Baltimoreans cherish the brew. Ninety per cent of Natty Boh’s sales are in Charm City. Drive through Baltimore on I-95, and you will see the black-and-white visage of Mr. Boh, the beer’s one-eyed, mustachioed mascot, peering down like Dr. T. J. Eckleburg on the neighborhoods of Brewers Hill and Canton. All across town, billboards and T-shirts celebrate the symbiosis between Natty Boh and Baltimore: Edgar Allan Boh, Old Bay seasoning and Boh, special purple-and-silver Ravens cans of Boh. Some even refer to the city as Bohtimore.

As the above New Yorker article describes, National Bohemian earned its status honestly, over the course of decades. It hasn't been brewed here for nearly forty years, but the roots of the brand are so deep and entwined in the Baltimore's history that they're going to be slow to disentangle.

Founded in 1885, it was part of an active brewing scene here. There were scores of breweries located here from the 19th century through prohibition, and there's even a Brewer's Hill neighborhood here. Following Prohibition, National Bohemian became one of the country's largest breweries, and the wealthy owner and President, Jerold Hoffberger, helped bring the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1953--changing the name to the Baltimore Orioles. In 1965, he took a controlling interest in the Orioles, and of course, fused the team and brewery together in both experience and branding.

Yesterday, as I was speaking to Guinness "ambassador" Ryan Wagner (ambassadors are a bit like viral salespeople--they work to create a deeper connection to the brand through education and promotion), he discussed the legacy of Natty Boh. As craft brewing gains a foothold here, it will do so in the shadow of the old brewery. "There's a lager palate here," he told me, and craft will have to contend with the legacy of that emotional bond between the city and it's beer.

A few years ago one brewery, Heavy Seas, went directly at it by riffing on the Natty Boh logo with a caption reading “actually brewed in Baltimore.” I don’t know how that worked out, but it’s the classic case of a supposedly disruptive message actually underscoring the original. I don’t think anyone in Baltimore believes Natty Boh is still brewed here, and Heavy seas highlighted the right bond that still exists. 

Although maybe not much longer. Two years ago, parent company Pabst pulled Natty Boh out of Camden Yards, where the Orioles play, and a number of local breweries, including Heavy Seas, is made here.

Beer is sticky, which accounts for Natty Boh’s Baltimore success decades after it left the city. But it’s not everlasting. In the UK, porter gave way to mild and then bitter. Dark Belgian beers have gone golden. And in many American cities local beer now means craft. I am very curious to see what replaces Natty Boh. Baltimore is a city apparently as parochial as Portland (I observe that with affection), and when the Natty love fades, what local institution will take its place?