Nacho Mama's taps one of the first kegs of Natty Boh in 15 years
Inside the bar, which is decorated like a shrine to National Bohemian, there were more people than Mr. Boh logos on the walls. The waitresses had a hard time delivering their regular orders.
It wasn’t a flash-mob. The crowd, evenly split between young and rickety old-timers, was there to toast the tapping of one the first keg of Natty Boh in 15 years.
Last week, Boh owner Pabst Brewing Company announced it would start selling the beer on draft, which since 1996 had only been available in in bottles or in its iconic gold-on-white cans.
To mark the return, it organized eight official keg tapping events throughout the region, starting Thursday here in Fells Point and ending in Columbia on February 16.
Judie Mitchell, a 54-year-old nurse who grew up in Highlandtown when a six-pack of Boh would set her parents back a little over two bucks, said she came to celebrate the beer as much as her childhood.
“Every time I see Mr. Boh it reminds of the times that were. It’s comforting to see this coming back,” she said.
Boh, Baltimore’s beer of choice for centuries, had been locally owned until 1979, when it was sold off to the G. Heileman Brewing Company. In 1996, it even stopped being brewed locally. But throughout all that, it’s remained popular, and in the last five years, it’s enjoyed a revival, especially among young drinkers.
Pabst, under new management since last year, brought the beer back on draft to capitalize on that nostalgia and to expand its footprint in the region.
Initially, it had modest expectations for the product on draft. In October, it set an initial run of 300 kegs and pre-sold it to 80 locations in Maryland, said Rachel Warren, a Baltimore sales representative for Pabst.
But since then, the demand has overwhelmed them, Warren said. The company had to approve an shipment of 600 extra kegs this week just to satisfy the 80 locations it had pre-sold beer to.
(Mount Royal Tavern, which got three kegs Tuesday, was already down to one and a half by Thursday evening, said manager John Corun.)
“We never thought we’d need to do almost 1,000 kegs,” Warren said. “Hopefully 600 will be enough, but we have to play it by ear.”
Warren acknowledged it’s hard to tell if they’ll keep selling 900 kegs a month. “There’s always enthusiasm at first so we have to see how it shakes out,” she said.
Along with Mount Royal Tavern and Della Rose’s, Nacho Mama’s has long been a Boh stronghold in the city. Owner Patrick McCusker has decorated his bar with all the Boh memorabilia he’s been collecting for years.
The ceremonial tapping of the keg, which was actually hooked up to a kegerator, happened at 6 p.m. on the dot; the bells from a nearby church could almost be overheard over the crowd.
McCusker entered the bar, to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” and the cheers of the crowded bar, wearing a bulbous Mr. Boh head. One of his bartenders pulled the kegerator's lever, and the official first glass disappeared to the crowd.
Rusty Walters, a 25-year-old native who works in marketing, couldn’t even step inside the bar when he got there. The crowd was starting to spill out into the street. He said he didn’t start drinking the beer for the irony, or because it was because it was passed down through his family.
“I don’t know if it was my grandfather’s first beer,” he said. “I started drinking in college because it was cheap.”
But then it became a reminder of Baltimore. When he lived in Los Angeles, he and his friends used to have it shipped. “It’s not even about the taste,” he said. “It’s about drinking Natty Boh. It’s just Baltimore.”
Ron Hartman, 64, on the other hand, said he’d been drinking it since he was 21, when it was the beer of working-class families.
“Back then this was a very poor neighborhood,” he said. Now, he drinks it out of loyalty.
“At one point, we had a lot of beer in this town; there was Gunther, Hamms,” he said. “Ths is the only that survived.”
Even though it’s not brewed here anymore, it’s not owned by a local brewery, and this might have been described as a big, frothy promotional event for a beer magnate, Hartman doesn’t care. Boh is part of the city’s heritage.
“It’s us,” he said.
Photo: Nacho Mama's bartender Delaware Dave serves up Natty Boh drafts to the crowd.(Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)