Beer brewing once helped define us

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By Peter Bronson • • February 1, 2009

Try to imagine what would happen to Cincinnati if the federal government
outlawed soap and sent G-men with axes to destroy Procter & Gamble's contraband
supply of Tide and Ivory.

 Devastating. An industry that has been the part of the city's culture and
history would be destroyed. Unemployment, bankruptcy, poverty and decay would
follow like the Four Horsemen of the Regulatory Apocalypse.

But here's a revelation: That wouldn't even be close to the damage done to
Cincinnati on Jan. 29, 1920, when Prohibition took effect and turned off the tap
at Cincinnati's thriving breweries.

For decades, Over-the-Rhine was a thriving neighborhood, with a dozen breweries:
Germania, Bellevue, Hauk, Schoenling, Clyffside, Jackson, Lafayette.

The names are almost mythical now - just fading paint on towering brick

"It was part of the culture," said Steve Hampton, president of the OTR Brewery
District, as he led me on a walking tour past ancient ice-houses, lagering
tunnels, churches and neighborhoods that were all part of the lost beer world.

"There were barrel makers, farmers, stables, malt houses and brewers. When
Prohibition came, it ripped the life out of this community," he said.

Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933. President Roosevelt called it "a
failed experiment."

But too late for Cincinnati.

Most of the proud German breweries were gone - mothballed like giant tombs for
lagers and bocks, never to be tapped again.

Just west of the corner where McMicken meets Elm, hard against the steep
hillsides of Clifton, one of those relics is the Felsenbrau, where kegs last
rolled out the doors 50 years ago.

Under brick arches, tunnels reach back into the hillside - cool, damp places
with four-foot walls, where the beer was lagered in precise conditions to keep
the yeast happy.

A black iron grain bin extends to the third floor, where old flywheels are all
that's left of conveyors that carried wagonloads of barley to the brewer's

"The bars were all owned by the breweries," Hampton explained - like gas
stations owned by Shell and BP. If someone wanted a Red Top premium, they filled
up at the Red Top pump.

Those lagering tunnels proved useful. During Prohibition, the network was
expanded to link breweries to bars and speakeasies.

Turns out Cincinnati had a second Underground Railroad - for beer.

"There are tunnels under tunnels," Hampton said. "We constantly find them when
someone's digging."

Deep in the shadows of the old Felsenbrau-Clyffside brewery, where the tunnels
fade to black, it's easy to imagine ghosts. They wear derbies and black suits
and brew golden nectar under a sepia sky, rolling barrels of German lager into
streets crowded with horse-drawn beer wagons and workers.

"There were 45,000 people living in this neighborhood at one point," says Mike
Morgan, director of the OTR Foundation. "Now, we're down to 4,900."

But where there's beer, there are dreamers.

One of the oldest and proudest breweries in Cincinnati, Christian Moerlein, is
providing the beer. President Greg Hardman now owns 47 of the historic brands,
including Hudepohl, Burger and Little Kings.

Guys like Hampton and Morgan are standing by with a stein full of dreams.

They look at the derelict old breweries that crowd the streets in the north end
of OTR, and they see condos, lofts, businesses, even breweries. "The
architecture here is of historic significance," Hampton says, pointing out the
intricate beer barrel, grain and brewer's tools that decorate the front of the
old Clyffside building.

"This district is key to the economic revival of the city," says Morgan. "It's
one of the most significant historic districts we have in Cincinnati. The city's
roots are in this neighborhood."

Yesterday at 5 p.m., Christian Moerlein tapped a keg of its special Moerlein
Emancipator Doppelbock, brewed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the repeal
of Prohibition.

Hampton and Morgan were looking forward to that to kick off their Bock Fest that
begins on March 6, with a parade, ceremonial sampling of bock recipes and
Prohibition Resistance Tours of old breweries:

Besides, they're beer drinkers.

"We're professionals," Morgan laughed.

Once upon a time, so was Cincinnati.

Send your suggestions for columns on local history to Peter Bronson at or call 513-768-8301.

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