CINCINNATI — One of the last and most visible monuments to a great chapter of Cincinnati history faced the wrecking ball Sunday morning.
The iconic Hudepohl Brewery smokestack, a reminder of more than 120 years of big beer breweries in the Queen City, began to come down Sunday at 7 a.m.
The 170-foot tower, visible in the city's western skyline and to countless drivers who passed it on the Sixth Street Viaduct, has been crumbling in the 32 years since the brewery closed in 1987. In 2017, city leaders looked into saving the smokestack, but the price tag to repair it was nearly $1 million.
In the meantime, the Hudepohl Brewery building, which dates back to the 1860s and originally housed Lackman Brewery, has sat abandoned, fenced, blighted and environmentally hazardous - hardly a testament to the proud company and industry giant it had been.
Hudepohl was one of many big Cincinnati-area breweries that grew out of a wave of immigration from Germany starting in the mid-19th century, making the Queen City one of the beer-brewingest, beer-drinkingest places in America - a trend that lasted well into the 20th century.
The beer industry had a huge impact on Cincinnati. It produced thousands of jobs, a new social culture centered in hundreds of saloons and a thriving community in Over-the-Rhine, where most of the German immigrants lived and most of the breweries were located.
In 1885, Ludwig Hudepohl II, born here to German immigrants, partnered with George Kotte to buy the Buckeye Brewery on McMillan Avenue. After Kotte died, Hudepohl bought out his widow and changed the name.
Although Hudepohl died in 1902, the brewery continued to operate as a family business for the rest of its nearly 100 years. After Prohibition became law in 1920, Hudepohl bought out the Lackman Brewery and operated from two locations until consolidating at Sixth and Gest in 1958.
Hudepohl beer quickly became a local favorite and was one of the few breweries that stayed in operation during Prohibition, when it produced near-beer and soft drinks. The Christian Moerlein brewery, Cincinnati's biggest beer-maker at the turn of the 20th century, closed when alcohol was outlawed. But when Prohibition ended in 1933, Hudepohl and other local breweries - Burger and Schoenling in Cincinnati, Wiedemann in Newport and Bavarian in Covington - thrived into the mid-century.
At the height of its beer production, from the 1940s into the '80s, Hudepohl dominated the local market with its top-selling brands: Hudepohl 14K, Hudy Delight and Christian Moerlein Cincinnati Select, a spinoff from the famous beer crafted by the closed brewery.
But market forces eventually overtook Hudepohl and the others between 1966 and 1997. Budweiser, Miller and other national beers sold aggressively in the Cincinnati area and the local breweries - except Hudepohl and Schoenling - did not expand or modernize their facilities or reach far beyond the Tri-State.
Bavarian closed in 1966, Burger in 1973. Wiedemann was sold in 1967 and closed in 1983.
Of all the local breweries, Hudepohl figured to have the most staying power.
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.
It marketed special beer cans for the Reds world championship teams and the Bengals' Super Bowl seasons. It sponsored the Riverfest fireworks, Oktoberfest, Bockfest, the Stone Valley Bluegrass Festival and a 14K Brewery run.
Hudepohl 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. When 14K sales sagged, Hudepohl marched out a new flagship brand called Gold and later revived its namesake brand.
But it was late getting into the light beer race. Hudy Delight was a big local success and claimed 40 percent of the local packaged light beer market by 1982. But Miller Lite already 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 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.
Hudepohl was sold in 1986 and merged with Schoenling, and the Queensgate brewery closed a year later while the combined company operated out of the Schoenling brewery on Central Parkway. Hudepohl-Schoenling was sold to the Boston Beer Company in 1997, and different companies brewed beer under the Hudepohl labels after that.
In 2014, The Port purchased the Hudepohl brewery for $400,000 and the building next door at 840 W. Fifth St. for $250,000.
The Port began demolishing the brewery last month with plans to market the 2-acre site and adjacent properties for development. First, though, it had to remove more than 4,450 tons of material containing asbestos and 10,375 tons of debris.
Laura Brunner, CEO of The Port, called the brewery’s demolition “bittersweet.”
“Demolition marks a bittersweet but necessary end to the old brewery,” Brunner said in a statement. “It has been our honor to serve as its project manager, acquiring it in 2014, bringing the property through an extensive EPA cleanup, the competitive bidding process, and now, through a safe demolition.”
A spokesperson said crews would not demolish the entire smokestack Sunday. The plan is to start knocking down the top and get it level with the building.
The legacy of Hudepohl and other legendary Cincinnati beers continues today thanks in large part to a Cincinnati native, Greg Hardman, who bought the Christian Moerlein brand and opened the Moerlein Lager House at The Banks in 2004.
Hardman starting buying back the Hudepohl labels as well as Schoenling and Burger brands. He also restored the original Kauffman Brewery on Moore Street in Over-The-Rhine.
Some artifacts from the Hudepohl brewery have been saved to be displayed on the Brewing Heritage Trail, which pays homage to the city's brewing history.