Classic Cincinnati: Over-the-Rhine's Bockfest turns 25

There are certain things that are just so Classic Cincinnati -- from neighborhood traditions to food to celebrations. As a Tri-State native, entertainment reporter Brian Mains loves either remembering or learning about them. That's why he decided to write a recurring column celebrating the Queen City's unique heritage.

CINCINNATI -- A group of Over-the-Rhine residents and business owners came together 25 years ago to celebrate their neighborhood with beer, sausage, a parade and goats.

"We put together the parade," said Julie Fay, a founder of Merchants on Main in Over-the-Rhine. "It was a candlelight parade."

The merchants and residents named the event Bockfest after the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. approached them to create the event to market the release of the brand's bock beer that year.

"The story of the bock beer is that it was brewed by the monks during Lent and it started in the Middle Ages. And it was in Germany, so those were the themes we used," said Fay. "Bock is also German for 'goat,' so that's why there's a goat on every bock label."

The beer also helped the group set the date for Bockfest that year: It took place on the first Friday after Lent began on March 3, 1993, and drew less than 600 people. 

First Bockfest parade   

RELATED: Breaking down the basics of the beer, the goats and all the fun

Starting Friday, Over-the-Rhine will celebrate the 25th annual Bockfest. The now three-day event attracted an estimated 30,000 people in 2015, said current Bockfest organizer Steven Hampton, executive director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp.

"It was a chance to tie in with the neighborhood and Merchants on Main Street,” said Hampton. 

The parade at the center of Bockfest

While much of Over-the-Rhine has changed in the past 25 years, Hampton said Bockfest has remained true to its roots.

Bockfest's parade will start at 6 p.m. Friday in front of Arnold's Bar & Grill, just as it did during its first year. Participants also will walk from Main Street to Liberty Street. Many will be dressed as monks, and there also will be at least one goat among the crowd. And though Hudepohl-Schoenling sponsored Bockfest for only its first year, bock beers will flow freely in Bockfest Hall after the parade. 

"One of the reasons why the parade is so important and the event is so important is it is still very spontaneous," said Jim Tarbell, who also helped organize the first Bockfest. Tarbell, a former Cincinnati councilman and vice mayor, also led the first parade in 1993. "The parade is totally spontaneous -- so that's 25 years of a similar spirit that runs through this neighborhood still." 

However, some elements of Bockfest have changed along with the neighborhood through the years. When Bockfest began, Main Street had a lot of vacant buildings and few businesses. Fay said the Merchants on Main group initially moved Bockfest Hall into a different empty building each year to promote the neighborhood's real estate.

The first Bockfest Hall was located inside what is now the former Mixx Ultra Lounge space at 1203 Main St.

"We always did it in an empty storefront and soon thereafter that storefront became a business," Tarbell said. "I would not underestimate Bockfest's contribution to this extra-large extravaganza of economic development that we're experiencing now."

The group also recruited the few bars and businesses on Main Street to be Bockfest's official financial sponsors, paying for things like the parade permit after the inaugural Bockfest. In turn, the sponsorship provided publicity to those bars, Fay said.

The Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. Malt House at 1621 Moore St. became the festival's permanent Bockfest Hall in 2004 after owner Greg Hardman brought the company back to Cincinnati. The malt house also became the end point for the parade, as well as the site of the traditional Catholic blessing of the first keg of beer.

Before 2004 the parade ended inside Old St. Mary's Church on 13th Street, where a priest blessed the beer on the church altar. The only stipulation the church made was that Bockfest organizers had to leave the goat that pulled the keg on a cart outside, Fay said.

"It truly was a religious experience: the Bockfest parade marching into Old St. Mary’s Church with a keg and a plate of sausage on the altar," Tarbell said. "Jesus would have approved."

How Bockfest grew

Other, more quirky changes spontaneously cropped up over the years, too.

During the parade's early years, Marge Hammelrath, former president of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, led the parade carrying a plate of bratwurst sausages. She eventually suggested Bockfest crown a new "sausage queen" each year.

That led to bawdy competitions that culminated on Saturday night of Bockfest with the crowning of one lucky man or woman to lead the next year's parade.

"Advice to the Sausage Queen contestants: Have fun, but they should also taste the bockwurst -- you know, it is kind of special," Hammelrath said. "I think people just think it's pretend, and it's real -- and it's good." 

In 2009, Bockfest participants began burning a paper mache snowman to ward off bad weather. The year before, a snowstorm officially shut down the parade, but it took place anyway.

There is also an oversized Trojan goat, which first appeared in the 2000 Bockfest parade.

“They built that big Trojan goat out of a concept from my head,” said Jim Effler, a commercial artist who has drawn almost every official poster for Bockfest. “My concept behind the Trojan goat thing was that it was sneaking a good time into the city of Cincinnati.

“They let me do whatever I wanted to do,” Effler said. “There are just four things that had to be in the poster: beer, the goat, something that represents OTR and something that represents the coming of spring. All four of those elements can be found in any poster I’ve done.”

In recent years, a greater focus also has been placed on Over-the-Rhine's beer history through symposiums, which organizers will host in Bockfest Hall this year.

"At our core we are a neighborhood redevelopment group," Hampton said of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. "Getting people to the neighborhood to change people’s perception of the neighborhood. It’s obviously changing a little bit, but Bockfest will always be there."

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