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All hail Little Kings: Cincinnati's iconic cream ale sold in tiny green bottles turns 60

Four local events will celebrate the ale's history
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-25 22:07:25-04

CINCINNATI -- It's good to be the king.

It's even better to be royalty in the Queen City if you are the progeny of a ribs king and beer baron.

On Thursday evening, Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. owner Greg Hardman will host the first in a series of events honoring the 60th birthday of Little Kings Cream Ale.

The kickoff event will take place 6-9 p.m. inside the Montgomery Inn Boathouse at 925 Riverside Drive Downtown. For $60, guests can enjoy a five-course dinner and Little Kings and bourbon pairing, followed by a discussion of the beer's history led by Hardman.

Mixologist Molly Wellmann, who created Thursday's beer and bourbon pairing, will then host a history of the Cincinnati boilermaker on Nov. 14 at her bar Japp's Since 1879, which is located at 1136 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine. A boilermaker traditionally consists of a shot of bourbon dropped into a small glass of beer that can be consumed in one gulp.

A two-day Little Kings Reunion will cap off the celebration inside Hardman's Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.'s taproom Nov. 21 and 23. Guests will be able to take a pack of Little Kings home after watching it roll off of the brewery's production line at 1621 Moore St. in Over-the-Rhine.

Hardman said each event reflects the history of Little Kings Cream Ale and the iconic seven-ounce green bottle in which it is sold.

"The Schoenling Brewing Co. with Montgomery Inn developed Little Kings in 1958," Hardman said. "They developed the first seven-ounce split to go with a shot of bourbon. It was actually developed as a cream ale style to pair with bourbon because it's slightly sweeter, thanks to the residual sugar retained in the brewing process."

RELATED: Cincinnati's rise and fall as a brewery town

The Mother of Invention

Necessity also played a part in the ale's creation in 1958, according to Dean Gregory, vice president of Montgomery Inn and son of the restaurant's late founder, "Ribs King" Ted Gregory.

As Dean Gregory recalls, Little Kings fans owe a big thanks to a broken compressor used in the draft beer system at the original Montgomery Inn at 9440 Montgomery Road.

"The original Montgomery Inn in Montgomery wasn't always this big restaurant you see around us," Dean Gregory said. "It was struggling at the time. (My father) didn't have the $200 to repair the compressor."

At first, Ted Gregory tried selling 12-ounce bottled beers to patrons who asked for a boilermaker, according to his son.

In his book "Over the Barrel: The Brewing History and Beer Culture of Cincinnati," author and beer historian Timothy J. Holian reported some of Ted Gregory's customers balked at paying for a full 12-ounce beer with their boilermaker.

Dean Gregory also said that when his father realized how much beer was wasted in those full-sized bottles on boilermakers, he turned to Edward Schoenling, founder of the Schoenling Brewing Co., for a solution.

The original Schoenling packaging for Little Kings Cream Ale.

"He loved Mr. Schoenling," Dean Gregory said of his father. "He asked Mr. Schoenling to come up with a six-ounce beer. He (Ed Schoenling) went one step further. He actually developed the Little Kings to complement the bourbons at the time."

According to his obituary, Ed Schoenling founded Schoenling Brewing Co. in 1934 after seeing people lined up outside the fledgling Hudepohl Brewing Co. to buy their first beers after Congress ended Prohibition. Schoenling remained an active part of the brewery he established until his death in January 1982 at the age of 82.

Hardman said Schoenling's relationship with Ted Gregory was why he wanted to host the first Little Kings anniversary event at Montgomery Inn. The boilermaker is why Hardman asked Wellmann to handle the pairings and host a history lesson at Japp's.

"I didn't know the history of Little Kings," Wellmann said. "Then Greg and his team called me up and told me the story of the boilermaker. I then picked labels that would have been around in the 1950s and we had a tasting. We found the perfect bourbon pairing for Little Kings."

A King is Crowned

Little did Ed Schoenling and Ted Gregory know in 1958 that they'd created the original perfect pairing. Little Kings went on to make the Schoenling Brewing Co. one of the most successful local breweries in Cincinnati history.

"In 1979, Schoenling celebrated brewing 300,000 barrels of Little Kings (that year)," said Lance Bakemeier, Ed Schoenling's grandson.

Bakemeier's westside home is a museum dedicated to the family business; his father, Irwin Bakemeier, served as the brewery's vice president.

"There's not a ton of people who strictly collect Cincinnati brewery-ana," Lance Bakemeier said. 

In his home, Lance Bakemeier displays a photo of his grandfather, former Schoenling Brewing Co. President Edward Schoenling and his grandmother, Norma Schoenling.

Among the hundreds of pieces of Schoenling memorabilia that Bakemeier has collected over the past 30 years is a photograph of his father and grandfather celebrating Little Kings' 1979 milestone.

By 1982, Little Kings accounted for 85 percent of Schoenling sales. The company ultimately distributed it to 44 states.

Lance Bakemeier said he regrets not getting to work at his grandfather's brewery as an adult. By the early 1990s, Bakemeier had started another manufacturing job and feared the brewery's days were numbered.

"I'm really surprised by Little Kings' longevity. A lot of peple still love it," he said."It's really kind of an honor, the family heritage."

In 1986, Schoenling and local beer giant Hudepohl Brewing merged to form the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. in an attempt to compete against the rise of national breweries such as Anheuser-Busch.

The merged brewery eventually sold its plant in 1996 to the Boston Beer Co., which has since expanded Schoenling's original facilities at 1625 Central Parkway in the West End.

Boston Beer Co. founder and Cincinnati native Jim Koch allowed Hudepohl-Schoenling to operate a microbrewery on site. Then in 1999, Hudepohl-Schoenling's local owners sold their company, along with the Little Kings brand, to Cleveland-based Crooked River Brewing Co.

Crooked River then started manufacturing Little Kings near Cleveland, according to Hardman.

"The local ownership went away, but Little Kings never went away," Hardman said.

Hardman said he decided to quietly bring Little Kings home and start brewing it at Christian Moerlein's brewhouse in Over-the-Rhine in 2016, a few years after buying Hudepohl-Schoenling from the Cleveland company.

During the Little Kings Reunion events, Christian Moerlein will open its production facility. Guests will get to watch Little Kings bottles roll down the bottling line and also be able to take a fresh case home.

For more information about each celebration event visit the Facebook event page.