CINCINNATI - “I did it because I felt like I was the only guy at the time who could bring the brands back, to put craft beer on the map in Cincinnati, and be what we should have been doing with these brands all along.”
That is Greg Hardman’s mission: To restore not only the Christian Moerlein name to prominence in the craft beer world, but to rejuvenate Over-the-Rhine and recapture the brewing history of an entire city.
The story of the modern Moerlein starts with the brief history of its past as told by Hardman, who is now its owner.
It’s a story that mirrors the history of the Queen City. It follows the ebbs and flows of the beverage industry and the fortunes of one of Cincinnati’s most famous, and some would say notorious, neighborhoods.
Christian Moerlein was a heritage brewer from the 1800s. Production at the Moerlein facilities ran from 1853 to 1919 when Prohibition started. When the drought ended in 1932, Moerlein was one of many breweries that wasn’t able to return.
The name languished for decades until the 1980s when Hudepohl Brewing Company was looking to create what was then known as “better beer” before the label “craft” was popularized. According to Hardman, the two leaders in the nascent industry at the time were Anchor Steam in the west and Christian Moerlein in the east.
During that period, Christian Moerlein became the first American beer to pass the Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law. The law meant a brewer can only use water, barley and hops in making the beer.
Despite some promise to return to glory, the 1980s and ‘90s were not kind to craft beer. Hudepohl was sold to the Schoenling Brewing Company in 1987 to form the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company and it operated as a regional brewer for a time before its brands were sold to out-of-town brewers in 1999.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Hardman entered the picture. Hardman was president of Warsteiner’s US operations and was on a business trip to Germany when his plan started to come together.
Hardman said people kept coming to him, commenting about the riots in Over-the-Rhine and it didn’t click until later people were conflating the heart of Cincinnati and West Chester, where Warsteiner’s operations were located.
“I thought at that point I was going to do something about changing our community and start to get involved,” Hardman said.
It was close to that time that Hardman learned the company that owned the rights to the Schoenling Brewing Company and its labels was going into receivership; a prime opportunity for someone hoping to bring brewing back to Cincinnati.
Hardman said he ran the math in his head and thought that with his 24 years of international beverage experience, education from German brewers, and previous experience with Hudepohl Brewing Company, he was one of the few people who could pull the project off.
“I felt these brands were just neglected,” Hardman said. “You had one of the pioneer craft brands (Christian Moerlein) that was right up there with Sierra Nevada and before Sam Adams was even born that I felt ‘I should bring this back.’”
That’s when he told his wife he was going to resign from his job and try to bring back Cincinnati’s brewing tradition. He even came up with a four-phase plan on the spot when his wife asked if he had any idea how to get started.
The plan included:
- Bringing back Cincinnati ownership to Christian Moerlein
- Repositioning the brand to make it more relevant to a modern consumer
- Opening local brewing operations in the OTR Brewery District.
- Open the Christian Moerlein Lager House as a tribute to Cincinnati’s brewing traditions and to be a world-class microbrewery and the largest brewpub in the world.
After buying Christian Moerlein in 2004, local operations started in December 2010 with a small pilot brewery. Hardman said they brewed batches of Arnold’s 1861 porter. It was the first Christian Moerlein beer to be brewed in OTR in more than 90 years.
“Soon after starting Christian Moerlein, we had all these people saying, ‘You have to bring back Hudepohl, you have to bring back Hudy 14K and Hude Delight and Burger Beer and Little Kings Cream Ale,’ and we were, like, ‘We don’t have to do any of that,’” Hardman said.
Since then, Hardman has expanded operations to sell many of the Hudepohl and Schoenling brands of old such as Hudepohl Amber Lager and the Little Kings Cream Ale. He said while the amber lager is sold only in the Greater Cincinnati area, Little Kings is sold in about 30 states and Burger beer is sold in 13 states.
“I built a world-class brewpub in Cincinnati that is arguably one of the best in the world to make a statement,” Hardman said. “I would like us to be a great beer town, thriving like we were back in the 1800s and be known as a great beer town worldwide for making great beer. It’s not about the quantity of the beer you produce, but the quality of the beer you produce.”
Hardman’s story isn’t just about the beer. It’s also about the revival of a community.
When he first brought the brewery back to OTR, Hardman said there was blight everywhere, and just a small cadre of investors, developers and activists who were fighting to save the neighborhood’s history and bring life back to the area.
Hardman said he joined the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Redevelopment Corporation in 2006 to help jump-start the reclamation and to preserve the brewing history of the city.
The Christian Moerlein facility makes up no small part of that history. Colloquially known as Bockfest Hall for the past couple decades; it was a chip factory for a time after the brewery it used to house closed.
Hardman said they discovered an expanse of lagering tunnels underneath the complex after analyzing the original blueprints. He said that after knocking out some walls, they discovered what they believe are some of the largest lagering tunnels in North America.
The beer baron soon took a leadership position on the group’s board and helped create the Brewery District Strategic Master Plan, which has since been approved by Cincinnati City Council. He said in addition to bringing more mixed-use renovation to the area, making Liberty Street more bike and pedestrian-friendly and the creation of a Brewery Heritage Trail, the group hopes to protect the dozens of historic sites within the district.
Getting The Right Brewer
That brings us to the beer. As Hardman would say, it would be impossible to tell the story of Christian Moerlein without talking about his head brewer, Richard Dube. While Dube mostly operates out of the lager house these days, the brewmaster makes several trips up to the production facility in OTR to make sure everything is trucking along.
Dube got his start in production brewing rather than homebrewing. After graduating from college as a microbiologist/biochemist, Dube went to work for the Molson Brewing Company in Canada in the research department and would go on to work for other Canadian brewers.
Dube eventually came to work for the Boston Beer Company in Boston as the research and development and quality control manager. During his time there, Dube worked on the Hudephol-Schoenling and was traveling to Cincinnati from Boston every week. He said the family eventually opted to move permanently to the Queen City.
Dube had been working in the field for 20 years by 2000 and decided he wanted to try something new. That’s when he started teaching at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. He also taught high school science for 10 years in the Tri-State.
While perusing an industry forum, he noticed an ad for a brewmaster at Christian Moerlein Lager House. Dube said that while he wasn’t looking for a job, the description just screamed his name.
He said his wife told him, “This is exactly what you liked to do when you were working in the industry, so go for it.”
Dube said the vision that Hardman has, being in a startup facility and being allowed free reign to do what he wants to do, is what really sealed the deal for him.
He said while he is able to bring a hard science background to Christian Moerlein to keep their production well in order, the opportunity to be creative is something he couldn’t pass up.
Dube said the Lager House sometimes acts as his test kitchen. One of the perks of having a brewpub is being able to test out the product on customers immediately to see what everyone loves. He said patrons should always be on the lookout for new brews at the Lager House as they’re always trying out new styles and even starting a modest barrel-aging project.
One of the first things Dube did when he got to Christian Moerlein was to get a baseline for the flavors and characteristics of all the Moerlein beers.
“My approach was not to be arrogant and say, ‘Ok, I’m going to revamp all that;’ my goal was to get consistency with the original recipe and get a true baseline of what the flavor of those beers is when it’s done with the proper ingredients and proper equipment,” Dube said.
Once they established a baseline, Dube said they went to work to decide whether any of the recipes needed tweaking. For instance, Dube worked on the Barbarossa double dark lager to make it more of a true German style. With the OTR Ale, they tried to make it more of an amber ale and with the Northern Liberties IPA, they wanted to create a bigger aroma.
While Dube says it’s unfair to ask him what his favorite beer is (“it’s too much like asking someone to choose their favorite child,” he says,) there was one brew that he really enjoyed working on -- the scotch ale.
Dube said that at the time, nobody believed in it and said “you’re crazy for trying to do this.” One of the reasons for that is Dube used peat malt in the creation of the beer. Peat malt is controversial because many people are sensitive to its very strong taste. It you over-do it with the peat malt, it can adversely affect the beer.
“The joke is you just take the bag of peat malt and just waft it above your grain bill,” Dube said.
After a complex brewing process that included an uncommonly-used practice called “arrested fermentation,” they came out with a beer that was met with rave reviews.
When it comes to competition in the area, Dube is happy to lend his experience and help out the other brewers; especially the younger ones who are just starting out.
Dube said he looks at the situation by thinking “we’re all in this together,” and that those brewers who make bad beer will only bring all the brewers down. It behooves all the local brewers to work together to make quality products that the city can be proud of, according to Dube.
“I love seeing those young brewers come up with all their crazy ideas, and if there’s anything I can do to help them -- even if it’s just to taste their beer and to tell them what I feel, or run the beer through my analyzer -- I have absolutely no problem with that,” Dube said.
One of the things that brought Dube back to brewing was the newly found excitement that the country has about brewing. Dube said he’ll “show his age” a bit when he talks about his experience, but he was around for the first craft beer revolution in the 1980s and saw what happened when it fizzled out.
“My daughter claims I made the biggest mistake of my life in 1984. I was this close to opening my own microbrewery,” Dube said.
During that first expansion in craft brewing, Dube said there were a lot of passionate people. Dube says the difference from today is that there were not a lot of knowledgeable people.
“You had a lot of people who just wanted to make money or just want to get on the bandwagon,” Dube said. “Nowadays, people are a little more educated taste-wise, so if they find a craft beer that is not good they will not put all craft beer under the same umbrella.”
The master brewer said it’s an exciting time to be making beer right now because of elevated knowledge of the industry and the consumer.
When it comes to what he’d like to see Christian Moerlein and the Queen City brewing scene develop into, Dube had this to say:
“We are the local brewer that is truly reviving what beer was all about pre-Prohibition. We’ll keep on pushing that and keep on pushing the other people to do the same. As a brewing community, Cincinnati will regain its place on the map where it used to be a mecca for brewing pre-Prohibition. So for that, it’s very exciting right now.”
The Christian Moerlein Brewing Company is located at 1621 Moore St., Cincinnati, OH.
It can be found online at: http://www.christianmoerlein.com/main.html.
Tap room hours:
- Friday: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Tours at 5 p.m., 7 p.m.
- Saturday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Tours at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m.
- Sunday: 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Tours at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m.
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO Digital photojournalist