If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.
That seems to be the attitude driving a new beer announced Tuesday from Heavy Seas, the Halethorpe brewery. The beverage is billed as an “Authentic ‘Baltimore’ Blonde Ale.”
Sound familiar? That description is nearly identical to Guinness’ Baltimore Blonde ale, the production of which left the state this summer. The gold-and-red design of the Heavy Seas can even looks a little bit like Guinness Blonde’s Maryland flag-inspired packaging (though just unique enough, presumably, to keep those pesky copyright lawyers at bay).
The icing on the cake: The official name of the new brew is BOHdacious Blonde, an apparent reference to National Bohemian.
It’s the drinkable version of a subtweet. Let me explain.
Back in April, beverage giant Diageo confirmed it was ending manufacturing of Guinness Baltimore Blonde and other drinks at its Halethorpe facility, which had been hailed as Guinness’ first stateside operation in decades.
This spring, Baltimore County officials stepped in to attempt to keep the Blonde local, even offering $500,000 to any local brewer who could take over production. Their goal was to prevent Baltimore Blonde from becoming another Natty Boh — a beer that has retained its graphic identity of the region despite being manufactured elsewhere since the 1990s.
Among the top contenders to take up the mantle seemed to be Heavy Seas. In a letter to Diageo, the founder of Heavy Seas, Hugh Sisson, wrote that “our market will respond more favorably if Baltimore Blonde is brewed locally.”
Since last year, Heavy Seas has also brewed National Premium, an old-time Baltimore brew that was resurrected in 2012 in Delaware. “There’s certain things, if it’s Baltimore-centric, it should be made in Baltimore,” he told The Baltimore Banner this year. “In this case, preferably Baltimore County.”
As typically happens in the case of billion-dollar companies, the bottom line prevailed and Diageo eventually announced that production of Guinness’ Baltimore Blonde would be relocated to New York, taken over by Utica’s FX Matt. That had to sting for local beer lovers, especially since FX had also just announced its acquisition of another Maryland brand, Flying Dog.
Heavy Seas responded in beer with its Tuesday announcement, describing BOHdacious Blonde in a release as “an easy-drinking ale with a 4.5% ABV that ensures a smooth and approachable experience.”
In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Sisson called the beer “a line in the sand” on behalf of Maryland brewers and proof that “authenticity still counts for something.” At the same time, he resisted calling it a direct shot to Diageo or to Natty Boh, noting that “there’s a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek here.”
“This is the beer business; it’s supposed to be fun,” he added.
As for the name, “I’m not specifically targeting” National Bohemian, Sisson said. “We didn’t call it Boh.”
Sisson insisted he didn’t feel Heavy Seas had been specifically snubbed by Guinness. Rather, when Guinness put out a request for proposals inviting brewers to take over Blonde production, it was clear from their time frame and specification that only a large brewer like FX could qualify. “Their requirements were above and beyond our capability, and I believe intentionally so on their part,” he said. (Diageo recently made its Maryland move even more final: The Baltimore Business Journal reported Tuesday that the manufacturing plant’s 45-acre Halethorpe property is officially on the market.)
The brewing industry has seen significant upheaval in recent months, a period that reminded Sisson of contractions during the late 1990s. “Let’s not forget the fact that there’s 8,000 new breweries in the last 10 years,” he said. At the same time, “beer as a category isn’t growing. All the new people are cutting into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie. At some point, that has to correct.”
To succeed, he said, breweries like his need to focus on their core markets. In the case of Heavy Seas, that’s Maryland, D.C., Virginia and Delaware. “That’s where it’s easiest for us to be relevant,” he said. The BOHdacious Blonde, he said, “supports that message.”
The brew will be available in six-packs of 12-ounce cans and on tap starting Sept. 5, but if you can’t wait, you can try it out at the Heavy Seas Taproom, located onsite at its brewery, starting Sept. 1.
Representatives for Diageo and for Pabst Brewing Co., which now owns National Bohemian, did not respond to requests for comment.