Cincinnati's brew culture on the rebound, and there's more where that came from

This story is part of a special beer month series celebrating the Queen City's beer heritage and bright future as a booming brewery town. Check wcpo.com/beer every Tuesday and Thursday for a new profile of one of the 12 local breweries in the Cincinnati area.

CINCINNATI - In many ways, Cincinnati is built on a foundation of pork and beer.

Both items played a pivotal role in helping spark the city’s growth during the Industrial Revolution: Jobs in meat packing and brewing provided much needed income and attracted new residents.

The Queen City’s love affair with beer and brewing can be directly traced to the flood of German immigrants who settled here between the 1830s and 1880s, and who brought a penchant for their favorite beverage with them.

Although Germans accounted for only 5 percent of Cincinnati’s population in 1820, that number jumped to nearly 60 percent by 1890.

As a result, the German language was used in four newspapers, as well as in numerous churches, banks and shops. It was even taught in all 47 public schools.

During that era, there were 36 active breweries in Cincinnati, with 18 located in Over-the-Rhine.

“When you add all of those up, there were a lot of people employed in that industry,” said Greg Hardman, who heads Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.

“There were tens of thousands of people who had brothers, uncles and cousins who worked at these breweries,“ Hardman added. “Many Cincinnatians can claim a part of our brewing heritage in their family trees.”

By the end of the 19th Century, Cincinnati produced 1.1 million barrels of beer annually. Some was exported around the United States and to other nations – but a good portion stayed here.

In 1893, the per capita consumption of beer nationally was 16 gallons. Cincinnati’s average per capita consumption, however, was 40 gallons – 2.5 times the national rate.

As an 1864 report by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce stated: "A large number of citizens would dispense with their bread rather than their beer."

Mike Stuart, a Cincinnatian who operates the Brew Professor website, thinks the Queen City has longed for the authenticity that comes from local brewing.

“There has always been an ingrained fierce sense of pride about Cincinnati's brewing heritage,” Stuart said. “And people have missed the soul that the breweries brought to their communities after large corporations either purchased, closed, or forced them out-of-business. It wasn't all that long ago the church and the brewery were focal points for many communities.

“Today, like in the past, you cannot mistake the social lubrication and communal spirit spawned by our local breweries,” he added. “People have their favorite beers and breweries whether it be due to proximity, experience, or the positive palate response that they induce.”

Hardman had a central role in reviving the local industry for the 21st Century.

A beverage industry veteran, Hardman bought several historic Christian Moerlein beer brands and recipes in 2004 from Snyder International Brewing Group in Cleveland. Two years later, he purchased rights to the old Hudepohl-Schoenling brands, returning some of the class names like Burger and Little King to local stores.

The various brands are now all brewed at a large facility on Moore Street in Over-the-Rhine. Additionally, Hardman last year opened the Moerlein Lager House on Cincinnati’s riverfront.

“We’re the first craft brewery that has brought back its heritage beer brands,” Hardman said. “When I bring back these great Cincinnati brands, people always tell me about stories in their families.”

Nowadays, many bars around town – but especially in Over-the-Rhine – carry an extensive array of trendy micro-brews trying to appeal to the ever-more discerning beer aficionado.

One of those brew-heads is Scott Hoberg, 27, an attorney who lives in East Walnut Hills. Like many young professionals, he frequents drinking establishments mostly for their selection of beers; and if they have an outdoor area, all the better.

“Two places with patios that come to mind when it comes to trying new locally produced beers are Neon's in Over the Rhine, and Dutch's in Hyde Park,” Hoberg said. “In addition to a wide variety of bottles at Dutch's, they have rotating selection of local, regional, and national beers on tap.

“In the colder and wetter months, the Brew House in Walnut Hills has a diverse selection and, more importantly, bartenders that will recommend beers based on what you like in a brew,” he added.

Stuart’s favorites include MadTree Brewing in Pleasant Ridge and Arthur’s Café in Hyde Park.

“I love (MadTree’s) decor and backdrop of an actual production, breweries where the guys spend all day, 15 feet away, toiling to bring you a solid, tasty, and fresh beer,” Stuart said. “It's a family-friendly, relaxed atmosphere were egos are checked at the door in favor of a common bond over suds.”

Also, he appreciates Arthur’s commitment to the local brewing scene.

“They were the first establishment to buy into Cincinnati's (then) fledgling

craft beer movement by dedicating all of their draft beer tap handles to local breweries,” Stuart said.

The growing interest in beer and brewing is partially connected to resurgent pride in Cincinnati, Hoberg said, particularly its urban core.

“This city's history with breweries and their resurgence instills a sense of civic pride that serves as a metaphor for the revitalization of downtown neighborhoods in recent years,” he said.

“Beer is perhaps the most malleable spirit, making it easy to customize’” Hoberg added. “You do not need to spend time to develop an educated palate to find a quality beer that tastes good to you. Rather, you can simply try one, like it, or move on to the next one.”

Stuart believes the interest is due to younger consumers, who are more demanding and crave variety.

“Interest in craft beer has been escalating rapidly,” Stuart said. “Two to three years ago, you were hard pressed to find something not made by Bud, Miller, or Coors at your average bar… these days, you are hard pressed not to find at least one craft beer and even one local beer on tap at an average bar or restaurant.

“This is driven by a grassroots demand from the beer-drinking public,” he added. “I think this follows suit with the ‘foodie’ movement where people are beginning to challenge their taste buds to experience the endless combinations of flavors and textures.”

Hardman and other urban pioneers are hoping to parlay the beer revival into helping Over-the-Rhine continue its resurgence.

Between 2006 and 2009, Hardman was part of a group of stakeholders that included residents and business owners who crafted a plan to revitalize part of Over-the-Rhine and the West End located around historic brewery sites.

The group formed the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (BDCURC). It envisions a mixed-use neighborhood that promotes its heritage while attracting new businesses.

Bounded roughly by Linn Street, McMicken Avenue and Central Parkway, the district contains 47 buildings from 14 different breweries that remain intact.

The organization worked with city planners to change zoning, so it would allow the unique, centuries-old industrial buildings in Over-the-Rhine to be redeveloped to their full potential.

“We want to celebrate the heritage and preserve the neighborhood and sites where it all happened,” Hardman said.

One of the projects on tap is installing historic markers and creating a Brewing Heritage Trail, so strollers can walk through the district and learn about the past.

“If Boston has the Freedom Trail and Kentucky has the Bourbon Trail, well, Cincinnati has a rich history we could be capitalizing on,” Hardman said. “It could be a tourism economic driver for the city.”

To raise money for the marker, the first-ever Beer Baron Ball will be held Sept. 12 at Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati.

For a beer drinker like Hoberg, the latest trend is welcome.

“Variety begets a greater demand for variety,” Hoberg said. “As more local breweries crop up, the more people want to experiment both in the laboratory and at the bar.

“Beer is truly a democratic beverage in the sense that one can brew a quality beer regardless of where one lives and one's budget, making it natural fit for a city like Cincinnati.”

This story is part of a special beer month series celebrating the Queen City's beer heritage and bright future as a booming brewery town. Check wcpo.com/beer every Tuesday and Thursday for a new profile of one of the 12 local breweries in the Cincinnati area.

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