The future of Natty Boh may be decided in a Milwaukee courtroom.
While originally brewed here in Baltimore, the ever-popular National Bohemian is among roughly two dozen brands of mostly cheap beer owned by Los Angeles-based Pabst Brewing Company that are brewed at plants scattered across the country.
Since 1999, Pabst has had a contract with beer giant MillerCoors to brew its stable of beer labels. (Boh has been produced in Albany, Georgia, Trenton, Ohio, and, up until 2016, in Eden, North Carolina.)
But the deal, which has options for two further extensions, is set to run out at the end of 2020, and MillerCoors has said it does not want to extend any further because its plants cannot produce as much beer as Pabst needs—at least not at the rate laid out in their contract. Pabst has said MillerCoors is asking for the new rate to be set at $45 per barrel, “nearly triple” the present one, the AP reported earlier this week.
Pabst has sued MillerCoors, alleging the conglomerate is trying to put its smaller competitor out of business by opting not to renew their contract. During opening statements before a jury on Tuesday, an attorney for Pabst accused MillerCoors of acting out of “greed and fear,” and violating their contract and Wisconsin law in its decision not to renew, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.
The conglomerate countered that it is not obligated to renew, and that the rate Pabst has been getting is “a sweetheart deal” that’s unsustainable for MillerCoors.
In national stories covering the trial, a loss for Pabst is seen as a fatal blow for its 174-year-old flagship Pabst Blue Ribbon. What that means for Natty Boh and the rest of the company’s portfolio of low-cost regional brews like Lone Star, Old Style and Old Milwaukee is unclear, but it doesn’t look good.
Reached for comment, a Pabst spokesperson offered this statement to Baltimore Fishbowl:
“We are deeply disappointed that MillerCoors, the U.S. subsidiary of multinational brewing conglomerate Molson Coors, has willfully breached our 19-year agreement in an effort to stomp out the competition.”
“Even though MillerCoors’ market power is much larger than Pabst’s, we will not allow this industry bully to push us around. We are confident that the court will see MillerCoors’ fabricated ‘capacity’ concerns for what they are: a thinly veiled, bad faith attempt to unlawfully hurt a competitor.”
Pabst declined to comment on the future prospects for National Bohemian, specifically. Asked for figures on how much Boh it produces, sells wholesale or distributes via MillerCoors’ plants, the company said it does not disclose such figures.
Bond Distributing Company, which distributes Pabst products in the Baltimore area, declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing legal dispute.
Despite not being made here since 1996, Natty Boh is cemented as the cheap beer of choice around the Baltimore area. Stores all over town sell assorted paraphernalia decorated with Mr. Boh and references to the “Land of Pleasant Living,” and plenty of drinkers still happily guzzle the pilsner out of local pride.
The brand dates back more than a century, to 1885, when it was first brewed by National Brewing Co. in Southeast Baltimore. Boh famously pioneered the six-pack in the 1940s, and gained brand recognition while being sold at O’s games at Memorial Stadium after the team was founded in 1954. It became the team’s beer sponsor, and was declared the “official beer of Baltimore” in 1960.
But starting in 1975, the beer began shifting out of the city, as The Sun has reported. National Brewing Co. merged with Carling Brewing Co., and production was moved to Halethorpe. Three years later, Wisconsin-based G. Heileman Brewing Co. bought Carling-National. In 1996, Detroit-based Stroh Brewing Company bought that firm, and three years after that, the rights to its labels were split between Miller and Pabst.
Now, Pabst does not have its own breweries and must rely on conglomerates to produce Boh and other cities’ old favorites. Since MillerCoors competitor Anheuser-Busch reportedly doesn’t do contract brewing, the future of Natty Boh remains in limbo.
Of course, a company could still stand to make plenty of money selling Boh to Baltimore-area beer drinkers, an appealing prospect for a local entrepreneur if Pabst eventually has to sell off its assets.
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, a trade group representing craft brewers statewide, said that while the association does not have any comment on the legal dispute, “our craft beer scene would welcome Natty Boh home if Pabst or another entity desired to brew it in Baltimore again.”
The Pabst-MillerCoors trial is expected to wrap up around Nov. 30, the AP reported this week.
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