My favorite spot to view him is standing by the Pagoda looking East over Patterson Park at night. There, staring back is the neon face of a smiling, mustached, one-eyed man – often mistaken for the man on the Pringles can – looking over the city that claims him. Watch him for a minute and he winks his one eye. Mr. Boh, as his neighbors know him, is the keeper of the unofficial municipal beer of Baltimore, Natty Boh (brewed in Eden, North Carolina).
That the city should be so boastful of a beer brewed 318 miles away should surprise no one familiar with us. We’re used to losing things. We lost a football team to Indianapolis. We lost population to the suburbs and Sunbelt states. We lost status and self-esteem to that most un-hometownish of all cities an hour south on 95. Why should it be unusual that we lost our beer as well; first – like so many Baltimore residents – fleeing the city for the suburbs in 1978, and later abandoning the region altogether?
Mr. Boh had a good run here in the land of pleasant living. He was the icon of the first beer to ever reach the market in 6-pack canned version. He graced the bottles of 60% of beers sold in Baltimore in the 1950s. He became the official sponsor of the Orioles in 1965, a team that – coincidentally? – won its first World Championship the following year.
The stories of employment at the old brewery are legendary, and are captured in a 27-minute documentary about the beer. One particularly irresistible anecdote involves employees hunting pigeons in the brewery. Occasionally, a downed pigeon would fall into a beer vat, which would (thankfully) not be sold to the public. Instead, the employees would share the beer from that vat, calling it “pigeon beer.” But in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, sales fell off. National brands grabbed a larger chunk of the market, management altered the color of the label, and eventually, the brewery closed.
For the next quarter century, the beer location-hopped and Mr. Boh was in a bit of hibernation. Growing up in the area in the 80s and 90s, I remember hearing the jingle on the radio (the “brewed on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay” line has been stuck in my head since the age of 12), but have only occasional recollections of seeing anyone drink the beer and no recollections at all of the face of Mr. Boh, now displayed throughout the city. He was still there but the days of 60% market share were long gone.
The Boh renaissance began in full about five years ago. The neighborhood of the brewery (Brewers Hill, a section of Canton) is located in the heart of the resurgent Baltimore neighborhoods east of the harbor that took off early in the last decade. To go along with the scrubbed-up-city-that-maintains-historical-integrity image of the neighborhood, restoring the brewery and re-naming it “Natty Boh Towers” was a natural marketing step. The idea took off. Mr. Boh became one of the most popular tattoos in the city, a billboard featuring Mr. Boh proposing to the Utz girl (see below) was ranked by City Paper as one of Baltimore’s favorites, and Mr. Boh’s face often fills in for the “O” on Orioles shirts, working his way onto Ravens gear as well. Maybe it’s a kitschy fad and maybe it’s just one more victory for the corporate-nostalgia complex, but it’s also a symbol of genuine city pride and pride is important to a town that has grown accustomed to being a late-night punchline.
There is a bit of dissonance in all of this. There are authentically local breweries that employ Marylanders and contribute to the local economy. While there is little market overlap between the local beers – Clipper City brands, for example – and Baltimore’s own North Carolina beer (the former being more expensive and more flavorful than the PBR priced and tasting Natty Boh), there is the subtle awareness that the whole city has been duped by clever marketing. As with any dissonance, rationalization is the next step: the marketing itself, which goes far beyond the beer, has been a huge boon for the local economy, not to mention the value to beer distributors. Whether or not that fact justifies the city’s loyalty to Natty Boh is somewhat beside the point. Natty Boh has a storied place in our history; that history is not imagined by advertisers, and the other, legitimately local, beers can’t claim the same history. It’s our beer by tradition.
Baltimore is, in the words of local columnist Michael Olesker, “a town so historically self-conscious of its municipal shortcomings, real and imagined, that it shuns the limelight like some sheepish teenager and hopes no one will notice it in all of its infinite flaws. But when it thinks nobody’s looking, it can dance a little number to make your heart lilt.” That’s why I think Mr. Boh winks. The visitors glance up, see the neon, and turn their gaze to something else; the locals know to keep their eyes fixed and wait for the wink – we’re in on the joke. As another columnist recently noted about the winking Mr. Boh, “When I see him at night, I relax and praise heaven I’m in Baltimore.” Oh, what a beer.