CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati's vibrant brewery culture was wiped out by the efforts leading up to and during Prohibition. But the city's comeback roots were seeded in the community's heritage.
Ultimately, the nation as a whole saw that Prohibition didn’t live up to its promises. It didn’t reduce crime – if anything, it gave rise to organized crime – and it didn’t significantly reduce drinking. Nor did it restore the family unit - if it had been lost in the first place.
On the other hand, Prohibition wrecked local economies, cost billions in revenues, wasted the taxpayer money governments spent to enforce it and led to corruption.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 and The Depression set in, many people believed making brewing legal again would create jobs and give the economy a shot in the arm.
But the brewing industry didn’t pick up where it left off overnight.
When the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, only six area breweries came back – Bruckmann, Hudepohl, Foss-Schnieder and Schaller in Cincinnati; Wiedemann in Newport and Bavarian in Covington.
And Bruckmann, which had brewed near-beer up to the last days of Prohibition, was the only brewery ready to produce beer.
A few new breweries opened in facilities that other breweries had abandoned. Notably, Burger took over Windish-Muhlhauser’s Lion brewery, Red Top replaced John Hauck, and Schoenling opened just north of Burger.
Also, Vienna Brewing Company replaced Gambrinus Stock, Clyffside Brewery replaced Mohawk Brewery, and Jackson Brewery replaced George Weber’s Jackson Brewery.
In Covington, the new Heidelberg Brewery opened in 1934 but was seriously damaged by the Great Flood of ’37. It was bought by Bavarian in 1949.
Red Top grew to become one of the largest breweries in Ohio, but consolidation and industry changes forced it to close in 1957.
That left five big companies to start a new era of brewing in Greater Cincinnati.
Bavarian And Wiedemann: Kentucky Gets In On The Act
While hundreds of breweries spread across the Cincinnati landscape in the 19th century, a few also rose in Northern Kentucky to become leading employers, city treasures and regional landmarks.
Bavarian started in Covington in 1882. Almost a century later, its unique brewhouse, designed to look like a castle and painted yellow, would catch the eye of many drivers on I-71/75. Inside, it had ornate staircases and iron railings.
Bavarian was the pride of Covington, and residents were loyal to Bavarian Old Style, which the brewery promoted as “A Man’s Beer.”
But returning from Prohibition was rocky. After reopening in 1935, it went into receivership. The pre-Prohibition management team of the four Schott brothers regained control.
Buying its short-lived Covington neighbor, Heidelberg, in 1949, gave Bavarian two operational breweries, and things were looking up. Bavarian bought land to expand its Twelfth Street brewery in addition to warehouse space in Cincinnati.
But Bavarian apparently wasn’t looking at its sales numbers. Sales had fallen from 323,000 barrels in 1952 to 200,000 one year later.
Expansion was canceled, and the Heidelberg brewery was sold. When sales improved only marginally, Bavarian entered a 1959 merger agreement with Detroit-based International Breweries, Inc.
Bavarian got a boost with the opening of a $500,000 bottling plant in 1960, and it won first place at a European beer festival in 1962. But by 1964, Bavarian reported a loss of $500,000. In 1966, International closed the Covington brewery, putting 200 out of work.
Despite its legal setbacks during Prohibition, Newport-based Wiedemann had more success along the way but met a similar fate.
George Wiedemann and John Butcher opened their brewery in 1870 (Butcher sold out in 1874) and by 1890 it was the largest brewery in Kentucky, with a capacity of more than 100,000 barrels a year. After George Wiedemann died that year, his sons took over and continued to expand the business. The brewery filled five acres at Sixth and Columbia streets. By the turn of the century, Wiedemann was the largest brewery in the Southeast. The brewery included a stable of 150 horses to pull its delivery wagons.
It was Newport’s biggest employer, and town’s beer drinkers rewarded the brewery with their loyalty. Its Bohemian Special Brew and Royal Amber were favorites.
Its popular 1950s slogan, “It’s Registered Pure,” emphasized its attention to quality. Wiedemann claimed that every bottle and can of its flagship brand passed more than 83 tests.
Wiedemann took some positive steps in the ‘60s to try to keep afloat. It bought Pepsi of Cincinnati in 1963 and took over sponsorship of Reds radio broadcasts in 1966, hiring Joe Nuxhall for a five-year deal.
Long before, Wiedemann’s devotion to baseball included having its own pre-Prohibition semi-pro team, the Brewers, that played against other traveling teams. In 1908, Wiedemann built its own 4,000-seat ballpark – the first lighted ballpark in Greater Cincinnati (the Brewers had a lighted park before the Reds did). Players included Reds great Noodles Hahn and Miller Huggins, who went on to manage the Babe Ruth Yankees.
But Wiedemann ultimately ran into the same problem as Bavarian. It had an older, inefficient facility and it didn’t have the wherewithal to expand or compete with the big national breweries.
So even after recording $20 million in sales in 1966, it was sold to G. Heileman Brewing Co. of Wisconsin for $5 million in 1967. Heileman expanded the brewery in 1970 so it could be part of a national network of regional beer producers.
Wiedemann got a short burst of adrenaline from that, increasing sales 40 percent over 1969.
In 1971, Wiedemann had the distinction of becoming the first local brewery to produce 1 million barrels in a year.
But Heileman ended up with a surplus of breweries at a time of stagnant sales. Within a few years, the company acquired Pabst breweries, and its new facility in Perry, Ga., produced 6 million barrels in 1982 to Wiedemann’s 1.3 million.
Heileman closed Wiedemann for good in May 1983 after 113 years of operation. It dispatched 400 workers with a 12-pack of beer and $70 for each year of service.
After a Pittsburgh brewer discontinued Wiedemann production, former beer reporter Jon Newberry and his wife Betsy acquired the brand name and started producing it in limited quantities in 2012. Newberry said he hopes to return Wiedemann production to Newport by as early as 2014.
Sponsoring The Reds: That’s The Ball Game
When the Reds played in the 1972 World Series, the four remaining local brewers produced a print ad touting the fact that Riverfront Stadium was the only stadium in the world within one mile of four major breweries.
The ironic thing is that baseball also sounded the death knell for large-scale brewing in Cincinnati.
For decades, Cincinnati brewers had been major sponsors of the Reds – and later, the Bengals and the NBA's Cincinnati Royals. Beyond the outfield walls of Crosley Field, buildings were painted and plastered with beer ads. More signs were placed on the left- and right-field foul lines inside the ballpark. Breweries sponsored scorecards to further capitalize on the Reds’ popularity.
More significantly, local breweries sponsored the Reds on radio and TV, starting with Burger on radio in 1942.
With Waite Hoyt at the mic, announcing on the “Burger Beer Broadcasting Network,” the brewery benefited greatly from that daily exposure for 23 baseball seasons.
Burger also sponsored the Reds and Royals on TV and was the original radio sponsor of the Bengals when they started playing in the American Football League in 1968.
Meanwhile, Hudepohl became the original TV sponsor of the Reds in 1956 and maintained that association for two decades, through the Big Red Machine’s world championships in 1975-76.
But as Burger revenues declined in the mid-60s, and the cost of broadcasting rights rose, Burger gave up the Reds mic to Wiedemann in 1966.
Five years later, when Wiedemann’s contract ran out and it couldn’t afford to continue, the unthinkable happened:
Stroh’s, a Detroit brewery, became the Reds radio sponsor in 1971.
If Cincinnati beer drinkers didn’t know their hometown breweries were in trouble, they knew it then.
And it got worse. By 1977, Hudepohl couldn’t afford the Reds TV rights, and Pabst, a Milwaukee brewery, took over. That ended three decades of local brewery sponsorship of the Reds.
Only one thing could have been more irritating to loyal Reds and Cincinnati beer fans, and that happened in 1980, when Anheuser-Busch, owner of the Cardinals, bought out Stroh’s and Pabst and became the exclusive TV and radio sponsor of the Reds.
By the late 70s, you could see the impact all over town, not just in popular, hip bars like Sleep Out Louie’s on Second Street, Arthur’s in Hyde Park and Zip's in Mount Lookout. National and European beers were taking over neighborhood taverns, too, not to mention home refrigerators all over town.
The national giants eventually took over sponsorship of Oktoberfest, the Riverfest fireworks, and other popular hometown events like concerts, community festivals and runs.
They were literally running the local breweries out of town.
Burger: The Secret Is In The Water
Burger started before Prohibition as a malt company, then decided to enter the brewery business once the 18th Amendment was repealed. Led by W.J . Huster, an office boy who became company president, Burger leased the Lion Brewery and bought it a decade later.
It quickly became a Cincinnati favorite with its “Vas You Efer in Zinzinnati” ad campaign, and Reds radio broadcasts, heard in eight states, put Burger on the regional map. But by the late ‘60s, Burger sales were falling off the charts.
In 1968, Burger made a bold/reckless decision to change from city water to artesian spring water from a well under the brewery. When somebody asked Schoenling, which brewed across the street, why it didn’t use the same spring water for brewing, a brewmaster there said they didn’t find the water suitable for anything but cleaning.
Burger hadn’t gotten the memo, and even its most loyal customers said 'Ugh.' Cincinnati sales dropped 14 percent in one year.
Burger reintroduced one of its original brands, Red Lion Ale, but that had no positive impact.
In 1972, Burger started negotiating with Hudepohl to sell its assets. Hudepohl didn’t want the brewery, and Burger closed its brewery operations in 1973, giving 225 workers the pink slip while continuing its profitable soft drink operations at four other plants.
It was sad news for its loyal drinkers and especially for Hoyt, who made Cincinnati his home even after his Reds broadcasting days were over.
The Cincinnati Post sent a reporter to Hoyt’s apartment in Hyde Park with the bad news about Burger.
“It’s a sad thing – it’s a sad, sad thing. You become attached to an operation like this, and now it’s gone,” Hoyt told the reporter.
“I used to drink Burger,” Hoyt said, “but I haven’t had a drink in 27 years.”
Back in the 40s, Hoyt publicly confessed that he had an alcohol problem. But Burger kept him as its Reds broadcaster and pitchman, and Hoyt was forever grateful.
When Burger dropped the Reds broadcasts after the ’65 season, it gave Hoyt a 20-year contract as public relations director.
“Just the other night, I was told the contract will be honored right through, no matter what,” Hoyt said. “I don’t know how they would do it. I have nothing but the highest praise for these people. They’ve been letter-perfect with me.”
Even Hudepohl execs lamented the demise of their rival. Hudepohl agreed to brew Burger, but it didn’t market it to any large degree.
Ideas for turning the Burger brewery, on Liberty Street near Central Parkway, into a shopping mall didn’t take off, and it was sold for manufacturing, though it was never used for that. The brewhouse and iconic smokestack were torn down, and the Romanesque Revival façade was finally leveled in 1993.
Ironically, the office building at the corner survived to become the headquarters of what became known as “Cincinnati's Brewery” after the two last-standing breweries merged.
Schoenling: The Tiny Brewery That Could
Schoenling made other breweries green with envy.
By size and outward appearance, its modest buildings didn’t begin to measure up to its neighbor, Burger, across West Liberty Street, or Hudepohl or its bigger rivals in Northern Kentucky, but Schoenling was memorable for the large picture windows on Central Parkway that let passersby look in and see the bottles move along the line.
Most of all, Schoenling was memorable for those funky little green bottles of Little Kings Cream Ale and the brew that was a real Cincinnati success story.
When Prohibition ended, Edward Schoenling decided to change the family business from ice and fuel. What Schoenling lacked in size, it made up for in persistence and innovation.
While other breweries through the years basically made the same pale lager, Schoenling modified a largely-forgotten brewing process in 1958 and created a rich, creamy ale.
The 7-ounce green bottles happened by accident.
According to Holian, “Ribs King” Ted Gregory’s tap system broke down and “workers who wanted a shot and a beer balked at paying more for standard 12-ounce bottles.” So Gregory asked Schoenling to make a smaller bottle for use at his restaurant. Years later, the brewery gave Gregory a plaque acknowledging that it was his idea.
The success of Little Kings transformed Schoenling into a regional brewery. It spent money on marketing and expansion. By 1982, Little Kings accounted for 85 percent of Schoenling sales. Ultimately, Little Kings spread into 44 states. Schoenling introduced a light beer in 1986 – just one year after Miller Lite started the craze – and wasn’t afraid to diversify. In the same year, it developed a wine cooler and produced them in four flavors.
For the time being, Schoenling management stayed in family hands. Despite the threat from the national brewing giants, and in contrast to its failed neighbor, the grass looked greener on Schoenling’s side of the street.
Hudepohl: Rise And Fall Of A Giant
Hudepohl became the standard bearer for Cincinnati beer and produced some of its signature brews, notably Hudepohl 14K, Hudepohl Gold and Hudy Delight. It made a hit with Christian Moerlein Cincinnati Select, the first American beer to meet the German purity standard of Rhineheitsgebot, which permitted only barley malt, hops, water and yeast. It went into the low-calorie beer market with Pace Pilsner.
It did almost everything right, and if any local beer was going to survive the onslaught of the national giants, you would have expected it to be Hudepohl.
Co-founder Louis Hudepohl was Cincinnati’s first American-born beer baron. He enjoyed singing in one of the city’s social groups and fraternizing with his workers. The company sponsored regular picnics and outings for workers and their families.
Born Ludwig Hudepohl II, this son of German immigrants packaged liquor and wine and ran a real estate office out of a storefront on Main Street. In 1885, he and partner George Kotte bought the Buckeye Brewery on McMillan Avenue. After Kotte died, Hudepohl bought out his widow and changed the name.
The brewery was an instant success. In 1890, Hudepohl sold 40,000 barrels.
Although Hudepohl died in 1902, the brewery continued to operate as a family business for 100 years. After Prohibition, it bought out the Lackman Brewery on Sixth Street at Gest and operated from two locations until consolidating on Sixth Street in 1958.
By 1947, Hudephl was producing almost 900,000 barrels. By 1949, it was selling beer in 14 states. 14K, introduced in 1953, became the best-selling beer in Cincinnati.
Hudepohl sponsored the Reds on TV and the Bengals on radio and - almost as significant in one of the country’s biggest bowling towns - 25 years of King of TV Bowling.
It marketed special beer cans for the Reds world championship teams of 1975-76 and the Bengals' Super Bowl seasons of 1981 and 1988. It sponsored the Riverfest fireworks, Octoberfest, Bockfest, the Stone Valley Bluegrass Festival and a 14K Brewery run.
Hudepohl management was on the ball. They expanded and modernized through the 1960s, and seemed to be fortressing themselves to survive the rapid decline of regional breweries.
Hudepohl produced successful specialty beers that gave it a leg up on the other local brewers and, seemingly, more staying power. In a bold and ingenious move, it took on Michelob and the Europeans in the super-premium market with Moerlein Select, a dark, rich and malty lager. It became the first American beer to win the international Chicago Beer Society competition and led to a variety of Moerlein spinoffs.
One of its off-beat products was the draft Beer Ball, which held more than five gallons and was packaged in an insulated box. Just put ice in the box and throw a party. Not surprisingly, Hudepohl first marketed the Beer Ball around college campuses.
When 14K sales sagged, Hudepohl marched out a new flagship brand called Gold and later revived its namesake brand.
Better late than never, Hudy Delight was a big local success and claimed 40 percent of the local packaged light beer market by 1982. The bad news was Miller Lite had 55 percent.
Hudepohl was still selling most of its beer within 150 miles of Cincinnati, and the market was being overwhelmed by national giants.
In the end, numbers don’t lie, and the bottom line was this:
In 1976, Hudepohl produced just more than 400,000 barrels – less than half what it produced it in 1947. Spurred by Moerlein and Hudy Delight, Hudepohl’s arrow rose for four years in the early ‘80s, but 1984 production fell off 13 percent to 324,000 barrels.
The end was near.
One year after Hudepohl celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1985, there were rumors it would be sold to Stroh’s. Late in 1986, Hudepohl and Schoenling agreed to combine into one operation, with production at Schoenling.
The Hudepohl brewery closed after 130 years, going back to its days as Lackman Brewery. Schoenling absorbed some Hudepohl workers, but about 50 lost their jobs. To this day, most of the brewery is still standing vacant and in decay.
Cincinnati’s big brewing industry was on its last keg.
Cincinnati’s Brewery: Tea For Two
The Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company took the nickname “Cincinnati’s Brewery” and revived 14K. It integrated Moerlein into the almost nationwide Little Kings network and achieved a coup with its first order from West Germany, followed by forays into Canada and Japan.
At the same time, the brewery picked up significant contract business from other regional brewers. It even made several Blue Moon ales for Coors.
And it filled small orders: It made Ribs King Red Ale for exclusive sale at the Montgomery Inn. One loyal customer, entertainment legend Bob Hope, bought 150 cases.
It was so far, so good. “Cincinnati’s Brewery” made a record 515,000 barrels of beer in 1990, brewing and packaging seven days a week, even though a lot of it wasn’t Cincinnati beer.
It created a subsidiary, Royal Class Import/Export, and acquired and distributed European beers. It began producing Snakes Eyes Alcohol Fruit Drinks, and then Tradewinds teas, lemonade and fruit drinks.
Tradewinds products were such a hit that the brewery went into seven-day production.
But while the tea party went on, local beer sales pooped out. Hudepohl-Schoenling tried one last gimmick, launching Hudy Bold with the promise that it was radically different than 14K or Gold. But Bold never made a statement with local drinkers.
The end of Cincinnati’s big brewing era came in December 1996 when Hudepohl-Schoenling sold its brewery and assets to Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. There was some bittersweetness to that, since Boston Beer founder Jim Koch’s dad worked at Hudepohl in 1946 as an apprentice brewer.
Hudepohl-Schoenling wasn’t done yet, though.
While Boston Beer brewed its namesake beers, along with Samuel Adams, Hudepohl-Schoenling built a microbrewery in the facility to brew limited quantities of specialty beers for draft-only sales in Cincinnati.
In 1999, the Cincinnati owners sold out to Cleveland-based Crooked River Brewing Company, whose owner, David Snyder, was a Little Kings drinker in college.
An Overwhelmed Market
At the end, as local breweries went out of business, the loyal customers they had left must have had a bad taste in their mouths - like taking the last warm sip from a can or bottle that had been ignored too long.
Cincinnati's big breweries had survived Carrie Nation and temperance, an anti-German backlash and Prohibition, but they could not survive an invasion from St. Louis and Milwaukee.
By 1992, Hudepohl-Schoenling had little more than 9 percent of the Cincinnati beer market; Anheuser-Busch had 43 percent.
The numbers for Ohio, where Hudepohl and Schoenling once had significant inroads, were even more lopsided. In 1991, Anheuser-Busch sold 3.7 million barrels in Ohio to less than 175,000 for Hudepohl-Schoenling.
For a town that measures civic pride by its institutions, the frustration and hopelessness of losing its big breweries must have felt worse than losing 13-3 and 15-2 to the Cardinals on the same weekend.
Fortunately, Hampton, Hardman and a new generation of craft brewers are on their way to preserving the big-brewing heritage and reviving the art of beer-making in Cincinnati.
“We talk so much about pigs, and everybody knows ‘Porkopolis,’” author Morgan said. “It’s time we celebrate what the real history of this city is.”