Maureen O’Prey was excited to taste the first batch of Natty Preme brewed in Maryland in decades. A historian and self-described beer nerd, she sniffed her pint before sipping.
“Hmm,” she said, tilting her head slightly. “I’m liking this. It’s not over the top.”
She paused: “It’s better than when it was in Delaware.”
At Heavy Seas Beer’s Halethorpe brewery Friday, O’Prey and others gathered to mark the triumphant return of National Premium, or “Natty Preme” as it was nicknamed, to Maryland for the first time in decades. The beer, long one of Charm City’s favorites, was rescued from obsolescence by an Eastern Shore Realtor and beer lover named Tim Miller. For the past 10 years it’s been brewed in Delaware, and fans are glad to see it back.
Coincidentally, the brewery and tap room are located just a stone’s throw from the Carling plant, where National Premium was made for several years after leaving Brewers Hill.
The collaboration between Heavy Seas and National Premium, says Miller, represents “newer craft beer and older Baltimore beer coming together.”
Introduced in the years after the end Prohibition, Natty Preme was billed as a classy alternative to National Bohemian. Both were originally brewed in the city by the National Brewing Co. Natty Preme even had a fancy mascot, Mr. Pilsner. Like the Natty Boh man, he had one eye, but he also wore a suit and tie, and even a monocle.
As a kid growing up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Miller, 54, remembers his uncle bringing a case of Premium when he came to visit from Linthicum. Its more prestigious image came with a slightly higher price tag, and was something of a status symbol.
On Friday, Miller, wearing a polo shirt with the Natty Preme logo, showed off National Premium paraphernalia he’s collected through the years, including taps and a neon sign of Mr. Pilsner. He also had on hand a few 1940s-era kegs someone gave him after finding them in their backyard.
The Natty Preme comeback has become Miller’s passion since he purchased the trademark at an auction for just $1,000. He set up a website for the brand and began hearing from fans ecstatic to see what he was up to.
He knew the stakes were high to get it right. A previous effort to resurrect the brand in the 1990s failed, even with then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer as a pitchman.
Miller spent months hunting down the original recipe, no small feat. Through connections, he got introduced to a former brewer who happened to know the brewmaster who made the original. “It was all by hook or by crook,” Miller said.
Taps for National Premium ran dry in the 1990s amid declining sales, but the beer still holds a high place among many, says O’Prey, whose website, Brewed in Baltimore, explores local beer making from the Colonial era to today. The Premium brand “is a part of Baltimore history.”
In 2012, Miller began brewing Natty Preme in Delaware through a contract with Fordham & Dominion Brewing Company, the Dover-based maker of Dominion root beers. Miller said a few criticized him for not coming to Maryland first, but back then, he said, no one in the state was interested.
Then, a few years back, the Delaware brewers told Miller they no longer had the bandwidth for Natty Preme, which takes 6-8 weeks to make. He again began looking for a Maryland partner.
This time, Heavy Seas in Halethorpe was interested. In an emailed statement, company founder Hugh Sisson wrote: “National Premium is a brand I’ve grown up with. When the opportunity arose to bring it back to Baltimore, it was a no brainer!”
Natty Boh was bought by Pabst and hasn’t been brewed in Maryland since.
Aengus McCoy, beer director at Lighthouse Liquors, which carries National Premium, thinks many people still wrongly think Boh is made locally. “I don’t think Natty Boh should really be the beer of Baltimore since they kind of ditched” the city, he said.
As for the brand’s enduring popularity, and the perception that Boh is locally made, McCoy blames the Natty Boh man, whose single eye still looks over the city from the former National Brewing Company plant in Brewers Hill.
Nearby is The Gunther, the former brewery for Gunther beer. Now luxury apartments, the building is owned by Obrecht Commercial Real Estate. As he sipped Natty Preme Friday at the event, the company’s vice president, David Knipp, said they would be excited to see Miller resurrect their namesake brew as well.
Miller, as it happens, wants to do just that: He owns the rights to Gunther, too.
It remains to be seen whether today’s craft beer drinkers will be won over by the brands of yesteryear. At the brewery Friday, friends Steve McGuire, Ernie Koehler and Doug Roberts said they remember their parents drinking Natty Preme when the men were teens, more than 50 years ago.
Gathered around a table in the Heavy Seas tasting room, they sipped Natty Preme and agreed that it tasted exactly as they remembered. And after one round of the classic pilsner, they ordered IPAs.