Lager of Love
One man’s unplanned quest to re-create Baltimore’s long-lost National Premium Beer
Published: August 8, 2012
The Waldorf Astoria’s Art Deco lobby is seasonally attired in lighted wreaths, but the ballroom pumps disco and upbeat ’80s pop while a huge screen flashes ancient brand names. Shearson, Braniff, Handi-Wrap, and Meister Brau share the Jeopardy!-like grid with hardly-knowns like Lucky Whip, Kool Shake, and Nudit.
Groggy after a night of drinking with a couple of old lacrosse buddies from college, Tim Miller takes his place in the crowd of about 50, his friend Dickie Grieves beside him for moral support. It’s Dec. 8, 2010, and the Eastern Shore realtor—he’s never been to New York’s Waldorf before—is nervous.
“I’ve got no money,” Miller remembers, standing in the parking lot of the Fordham Brewery in Dover, Del., 19 months later. “My wife was like, ‘Are you kidding? You’re going to New York to spend money?’”
Miller didn’t know it then, but he was about to embark on the ride of his life. In less than two years’ time, he’s become a mini beer baron, brewer, reviver of an iconic Baltimore brand, and the last best hope of an aging cohort of high-end lager lovers. It’s been an unlikely trajectory for a guy who spent part of the previous night tossing back cheap PBRs and who, until a couple years ago, knew nothing about beer-making.
At 10 a.m. on that Wednesday morning, Miller was at a “buyer’s choice” auction of more than 100 dead trademarks. A longtime aficionado of retro advertising, he had paid a $3,600 deposit to secure his right to bid on three different brands, telling the auction organizers what he was interested in. One of them was National Premium Beer, a one-time Baltimore favorite which had not been brewed in nearly 15 years. He liked the label and figured anything he put in the bottle would sell.
Once in the ballroom, Miller wasn’t sure what he was doing. He had never been to a mass auction of zombie trademarks. In fact, it looks as if that auction was the only one like it, ever. (The web site announcing it, complete with a sketchy video, is still up: trademarkauctioninfo.com.) The auctioneer started the bidding at $100,000 for any name on the board. He got nothing. Then he started coming down.
“The first bid was like $45,000,” Miller says. “The bidder chose Shearson—remember Shearson Lehman, the brokerage firm? The next one was Meister Brau. That went for something like $35,000.” It was actually $32,500, according to a report in Ad Age. Handi-Wrap went for $30,000.
“After the first two rounds, the prices went really down,” Miller says.
Rounds came and went. Miller waited. “My friend was like, ‘JUST GET IT! GO! GO! I’ll pay for it,’” Miller says. “Finally I stood up.”
Miller paid about $1,200 for the right to put “National Premium” on beer bottles, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and a web site.
And so began Miller’s unlikely odyssey as a brewer of a formerly craft-style, high-end, mass-marketed, nostalgic lager.
Long known as National Bohemian’s upscale brother, “Natty Preme” featured better ingredients, more carefully brewed under the watchful eye of brewmaster Carl Kreitler, who grew the hops on his own Jarrettsville farm back in the day. Premium’s jaunty mascot, the monocled “Mr. Pilsener,” looks like a relative of “Mr. Boh,” reinforcing the brews’ connection in the minds of many beer people.
You may have heard that National Premium is back on the shelves after a 16-year hiatus. Depending on your age and palate, this may have made you deliriously happy or it may have meant nothing to you.
Debased for the mass market over three generations by the country’s beer conglomerates, watery, light-bodied American lagers garner no more respect among craft brewers and their followers than do the rednecked, white-socked fans of such weak concoctions.
“Trying to market a ‘revival/renaissance’ brand like National Premium, to me, is like trying to offer me a Five Guys burger at Fogo de Chao,” says Alexander D. Mitchell IV, a beer blogger and columnist for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.
To compound this credibility gap, Miller, by his own admission, knows absolutely nothing about making beer.
“I had absolutely no idea what was going on,” he says of the making of the first batch of the new-old stuff last November.
Miller grew up in the oil business—his grandfather had a string of gas stations and a small distributor called McMahan Oil, which he started in the 1940s. They sold Amoco products and Miller says he sometimes drove the delivery truck from station to station.
The family sold the business in 2001, and Miller became a realtor in Easton, the increasingly pricey, waterfront town he grew up in. After selling a house, he says he’d treat himself to a trip to a local antique shop to pick out some old gas station stuff or old brewery signs.
“I just loved that style of ad,” Miller says. “I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to bring one of these old brands back? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
And so began the kernel of the dream a decade ago.
Standing 6 feet 5 inches, with a straight back and a small paunch, Miller exudes a relaxed it’ll-all-work-out attitude running just beneath an infectious enthusiasm for whatever he’s doing. Humble and self-effacing, seemingly astonished by his good fortune, he’s a natural salesman who draws people in by showing them the world through his eyes—as an adventure and a sporting proposition.
Miller’s first old-brand love was Gunther, another Baltimore beer icon. In the mid-2000s, he managed to get an audience with Jim Lutz, who had just taken over as CEO for Fordham Brewing Co. Lutz was incredibly busy, but they spoke for a few minutes. Miller says Lutz told him, if you do it, do just one thing and do it well.
“So I just started Googling, just learning about beer,” says Miller.
This was during the peak of the housing boom. Miller, who had taken up real estate just about when the market began to take off in 2002 (“I was like, man, this is easy.”), had little time then to pursue his beer brand-revival dream. But he nurtured it with things like the story of Mark Hellendrung’s revival of the Narragansett brand in New England. He says he saw an article about that in 2007. “It was like, ‘that’s what I want to do,’” says Miller. He told his parents and his wife, who all told him he was crazy, he says. Then the real-estate market crashed, and Miller was suddenly working much harder for fewer commissions.
“Flash forward to 2010,” he says. “I was reading the Wall Street Journal, and they have this thing near the back page, called ‘The Mart,’ an ad for an auction of brand names. One of them is Meister Brau.”
In the three weeks between winning the auction and New Year’s Day, 2011, Miller sat down and created a National Premium web site. “I’d never made a web site before,” he says. On the night the site went live, he was picking up take-out sushi from a local restaurant when he got a call from a man named Jon Fritz.
“He’s a National Premium guy,” Miller says. “He goes on and on about the taste, how good it was. He’s got a club, he collects memorabilia. He says, ‘You’re fulfilling my dream.’”
In a phone call from his D.C. office, Fritz says he was surfing the web to try to find more National Premium memorabilia to supplement his beer can collection (7,000 cans; his wife has said no more) when he ran across Miller’s new site and contacted him.
“I was kind of coaching him up, saying this is great,” says Fritz, who is 56 years old and says he and his friends drank Natty Preme in high school. “It kind of progressed [until] he was going to [relaunch it]. At first, he just bought the name.”
Fritz says he e-mailed Miller a copy of the old label so he could make the new one accurate and tried to help him find former brewery workers so he could reproduce the formula.
“At this time, it could have been anything in the can,” Miller says. But more people called him, guys who told him they remembered the taste. It began to become clear to Miller that whatever he put in that can better taste correct to these fans.
That meant Miller, the guy who likes art deco and metal signs, had to learn how to make a very specific beer.
Miller posted on beer bulletin boards. He called old friends. He found the name of John Houseman, now the brewmaster for Yuengling in Tampa, who used to work in Baltimore. “I called him a bunch of times,” Miller says. Houseman didn’t call back.
Miller called an old lacrosse pal named Craig Linthicum, who sent him on to Joe Gold—Linthicum’s old lacrosse buddy who has “been in the beer business since we graduated.” Gold, who is the founder and organizing co-chair of Baltimore Beer Week, told Miller to call Timothy Kelly, a brewery worker who left the National Brewing Beltway plant when it closed in 1996, after working more than 30 years for company.
“We met at Snyder’s in [Linthicum], which was the only restaurant I knew near his house,” Miller says. “He was very guarded at first. I had the idea he’d been down this road before.”
Sitting in his favorite rocking chair in his Halethorpe living room, decorated with Irish and brew memorabilia, Kelly remembers the meeting much the same.
“He gave me his story, and I said it to him: ‘If you’re some guy who just bought the name so you can go into a bar and say, “I own National beer,” then I don’t have time for this blarney,’” Kelly says in the lilting Irish brogue he brought with him to Baltimore in 1957. “I used the word ‘blarney.’”
A ship captain’s white beard sets off Kelly’s twinkling clear blue eyes as he jumps from story to story, between sips of coffee.
“I spent my life working for breweries,” Kelly says. “’Course, I had six children so I worked every five minutes overtime. I worked shift work right on the kettle where they brewed the beer. So I met a lot of dignitaries.”
He met Jerry Hoffberger, the boss of National Brewing Company from 1946 to 1973.
“He was a True American man,” Kelly says. “That’s the phrase I use to describe a good person.” He coined it from his experience with an American GI who came to his neighborhood looking for ancestors and his ancestral home after the war’s end in 1945. A pack of gum, a shilling for directions—small kindnesses to a 9-year-old boy, remembered nearly 70 years after the fact.
Kelly got his start in Guinness’ London brew works, he says, and Hoffberger’s brewmaster gave him a job when he moved to Baltimore. After the 1960s, the corporate owners changed and so did the recipes.
“You had these big conglomerate companies, so to be competitive with one another they had to make the beer out of cheaper materials,” Kelly says. “I don’t want to say ‘cheap,’ because that’s how I made my life—with beer—but that’s how they done it.”
Kelly knew a National brewmaster from the old days: Ray Klimovitz. He’s another True American, Kelly says—the careful guy at the plant. The big bosses at Carling passed over Klimovitz’s boss and made him brewmaster in the ’70s, when they got the contract to make Tuborg Gold.
“It was top-class European beer,” Kelly says, drawing out that word, “European,” like a long draught from a cool glass. “They krausened it.”
Krausening, a carbonation process that’s similar to friendship bread, is a traditional German beer-making method and also the way National Premium was originally made. It’s a kind of double fermentation that takes a bit more time than modern methods and gave Tuborg Gold a “nuttier taste,” Kelly says. The new Natty Preme is not krausened, though Kelly says it tastes spot on.
“Anyway, I gave Ray’s contact to Tim,” Kelly says. “I worked for a lot of brewmasters, a lot of people in the brewing industry, but I knew Ray was the man.”
Ray Klimovitz is the technical director emeritus of the Master Brewer’s Association and a consultant to brewers around the country from his home in Chippewa Falls, Wis. He got his B.S. in chemistry from Loyola College in Baltimore and went into the beer-making business after a stint at Four Roses making whiskey.
“I started making some phone calls,” Klimovitz says in a phone interview. “I knew the formula back in the mid-’70s, when it was taken over by Carling. But Tim wanted to take it back to how it was in the mid-’60s.
“So I called some of the brewers. One was in Florida, one was in LaCrosse, Wisconsin,” Klimovitz says. Five in all. “We got as close to the original as we could in modern materials. . . . the barleys used in the late ’60s are no longer around. There are new varieties now. It’s just a fact. You have to take that into consideration when you’re malting something for fermentation. The hops—that variety is the same—from Germany.”
Miller had been making the rounds at breweries, looking for someone to make the beer, getting nowhere. For help with that project, Klimovitz passed him on to Jack Ehmann, a retired master brewer in Baltimore.
“I worked in a different area of the industry,” Ehmann says. “I knew some people. It’s big but small, if you know what I mean.”
With the formula in hand and Ehmann’s gravitas behind him, Miller went back to Lutz, who had more time for him now—plus a lot of excess capacity in his brewery.
In November of 2011, a homebrewer from the Fordham brewery brought a portable kit and made a 20-gallon test batch, using the simpler of two formulas Klimovitz had supplied. It was two months prior that Miller put his marketing into high gear, notifying the media about his project. City Paper wrote about the prospective brew (“National Premium Beer to Return?,” Feedbag, Sept. 12,2011) as did The Sun.
Meanwhile, a query he’d sent years before to the cable television show American Pickers was answered, and a crew of 13, including the show’s roving hosts, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, showed up at Miller’s family oil plant to pick through old gas pumps, Amoco signs, and spare parts.
On the show, Miller is seen affably letting heirloom stuff go for cheap. He says the show’s pickers paid him maybe $3,000 for their selections—“enough to open the bank account” for the beer company, he says. As a bonus, Miller got to say “National Premium” on the air twice.
The episode was shot last July. It aired on Dec. 19, two days after Miller’s mother died. His father died at the end of March 2012.
“I’ve had such a crazy journey here,” Miller says above the sound of whirring fans, a clinking bottling machine, and loud punk and rock music blaring from the Fordham brewery.
The manager of F.P. Winner in Baltimore, a liquor and beer wholesaler in all but five counties in the state, called Miller, asking for that contract (which he granted for most of the state of Maryland). An old acquaintance got the Eastern Shore distribution deal. The brew shipped in late May, a few weeks past his original deadline of opening day for the Orioles. He says the company has produced about 1,500 barrels so far.
National Premium is delivered to about 600 retail locations—mostly liquor stores and a handful of local bars, including Liam Flynn’s Ale House and the Windup Space in Station North, and Ale Mary’s and Bad Decisions in Canton. There is none on tap yet at your local watering hole while he works on getting kegs leased in sufficient supply. They’ve been hard to come by since the craft brew revolution took off, and he’s got a small deal to lease kegs by the day.
At about $8 per six-pack, National Premium costs a couple bucks more than Boh—a bit less than the 50 percent premium the old Premium commanded and right in line with the craft brews that have set the beer world on fire since Premium disappeared.
“We didn’t want to be priced with Bud, and we didn’t want to be priced with Stella [Artois],” Miller says. “It’s a thin market [niche].”
He pronounces it a “labor of love.” Miller still has about 30 listings with realty company Benson and Mangold. If you’re interested in some waterfront land, he’ll certainly take your call.
“Now the hard part starts,” Miller says. “It’s what I said to my guys: The first few months are going to be easy. We have to keep pushing to keep it in front of people.” He says he’s just signed a deal with a company called Swag Dog to get the merch flowing.
Back in Halethorpe, Tim Kelly laughs. “You’ll never believe what I got in the mail Monday,” he says. “I’ll show it to you ’cause I couldn’t believe it. It’s a check.” He removes it from the envelope and points out the logo, which says National Brewing Company, LLC.
The check is for one dollar.
“Tim came here a bunch of times. He came to my house. He brought his wife,” Kelly says of Miller. “Eventually he said, you should be working for me. I said, ‘How much could I make?’ He said, ‘Name your price.’ I said, ‘one dollar a month!’”
Kelly gamely holds the check up for a picture. “I’m going to save this,” he says, laughing again. “My children, my grandchildren can have it.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.