Little Kings comes home to Cincinnati

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For the first time since 2001, Little Kings Cream Ale is being brewed
and bottled in Cincinnati. Greg Hardman, owner of Christian Moerlein
Brewing Co. brought the famous brand back to town and gave us a look
at the process. The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy

 Shauna Steigerwald, 9:16 a.m. EDT April 17,
635963261274403110-LITTLE-KINGS-4-14-16-6.jpgBuy Photo
(Photo: The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)

"How awesome is this?" Greg Hardman said as he watched little green
bottles roll down the bottling line Thursday in Christian Moerlein
Brewing Co.'s Over-the-Rhine brewery.

It was the brewery's first full run of Little Kings Cream Ale. The
beer hadn't been produced locally in nearly 15 years.

"It's emotional," Hardman, who owns Christian Moerlein, said over the
whir of the machines and the clanking of bottles. "So many people
wanted this to happen."

People started asking him about bringing other Hudepohl-Schoenling
Brewing Co. brands, including Little Kings, back to Cincinnati as soon
as he bought Christian Moerlein in 2004, Hardman said. He got letters
and emails. People came up to him in bars. It wasn't just fans of the
old beers: Children and grandchildren of former brewery workers were
also deeply interested in the historic brands' fate, he said.

And it wasn't like the idea had never crossed Hardman's mind. In fact,
the seeds had been planted there years before.

Back in 1986, he watched from the distance of Athens, Ohio, where he
ran a beer distributor company, as Hudepohl Brewing Co. (founded 1885)
and Schoenling Brewing Co. (founded 1933) merged. A little more than a
decade later, he watched from a closer vantage point – he was living
in Cincinnati and working for Warsteiner by then – as
Hudepohl-Schoenling sold its brewery at 1625 Central Ave. to Boston
Beer Company, and the Samuel Adams parent company took over production
of Hudepohl-Schoenling's brands. And he watched in 2001 as the last
Hudepohl-Schoenling beers were brewed there and production left the
city altogether.

An Enquirer story at the time called Hudepohl-Schoenling beer "the
oldest surviving link to Cincinnati's German brewing past."

"I always felt that Cincinnati lost something at that time," Hardman
said. "I thought Cincinnati lost some of its brewing soul.

"I thought, if I could ever right that wrong, I would."

So he prepared. When he bought Moerlein, his attorney suggested he
negotiate rights of first refusal to buy the other old
Hudepohl-Schoenling brands if they came up for sale. He exercised that
right in 2006, acquiring more than 60 brands. He sold Little Kings to
an investment company but was able to buy it back on New Year's Eve

If he could have brought production back from day one, he would have.
He just didn't have the resources. But that's changing.

Moerlein started brewing Hudepohl Pure Lager, which replaced its
Hudepohl Amber Lager, in Over-the-Rhine back in September. Hudy
Delight bottles and draft followed. (Hudy Delight cans and Burger cans
are still brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Hardman said he can't brew
those price-sensitive beers here as inexpensively just yet, but he
hopes to bring them back someday.)

And now, the brewery is making Little Kings.

"This is your grandfather's beer," Hardman said. "And your grandfather
was really cool."

Greg Hardman, owner of Christian Moerlein Brewing CompanyBuy Photo
Greg Hardman, owner of Christian Moerlein Brewing Company and
Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing, is brewing and bottling Little Kings at
the Moerlien Brewery. He is in the room in which the Little Kings brew
is fermented. (Photo: The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)
Little Kings: Roots in ribs

Little Kings Cream has its roots in 1958. Its creation can be traced
to another local icon – Mongomery Inn – and a broken draft system.

As it happened, "Ribs King" Ted Gregory's draft system broke down and
was too old to fix. A new one would have cost more than he could
afford at the time. But his customers, many of them construction
workers, balked at paying for a full-size bottle of beer to pair with
a shot for their boilermakers.

So he approached Bill Schoenling, Sr. about putting Schoenling Cream
Ale in 7-ounce bottles, something he'd seen in bars around his native
Detroit and Windsor, according to his son, Dean Gregory.

"They called him the 'father of Little Kings,'" Gregory, Montgomery
Inn's vice president, said.

It grew from there: At its peak in the late 1980s, the brand sold
approximately 8 million cases a year, Hardman said. And it won a lot
of fans along the way.

"There's a real cult following for Little Kings Cream Ale nationwide,"
he said.

Part of that could be an emotional connection, particularly for people
who tried it as their first beer. "It's kind of like (how) you
remember your first date," Hardman said. "That's what Little Kings is
to people. Everybody has a Little Kings story."

And some people just really like those little green bottles, he said.

Now that the beer is no longer contract brewed, Hardman expects its
margins to improve enough that he can invest more in its marketing and
distribution. He said it's sold in about 20 states now, but with
limited distribution. He hopes to expand on that, starting by
establishing full distribution in Ohio and its 10 closest states.

"This is the start of the rebirth of Little Kings," he said.

He's already trying new things with the brand, including a new
16-pack, the "cube," to join the eight-pack and 24-pack ("king case")
previously offered. Hardman thinks the cube is a desirable price point
for consumers (it retails at about $15.99, he said) and that it fits
on the shelf and in the fridge better.

For the first time since 2001, Little Kings Cream AleBuy Photo
For the first time since 2001, Little Kings Cream Ale is being brewed
and bottled in Cincinnati. (Photo: The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)
The bigger picture

Bringing back the old brands only became possible as part of a $5
million expansion in progress at Christian Moerlein's Over-the-Rhine

"We were at capacity from the day we opened this production brewery,"
Hardman said. "We had nowhere to grow or go."

In recent months, the brewery has added 12 new 120-barrel fermenters,
with two more on the way. There's a new, faster bottling line, with
special equipment that can fill Little Kings' smaller bottles as well
as 12- or 22-ounce ones; a new canning line; a new lab; new safety
equipment, even a new automatic case erector for the Little Kings

Before the expansion, the brewery's capacity was 15,000 barrels per
year. Today, it can brew 50,000 barrels, a number the brewery could
easily up to 100,000 or even 150,000 barrels with additional
equipment, he said.

Aside from bringing the production of the old brands to the brewery,
the increased capacity has allowed Moerlein to try other new things.
Hardman has been shepherding the brewery's evolution for a while. The
addition of Eric Baumann as vice president of brewing in early 2015,
for example, has led to an expansion of the brewery's portfolio,
particularly where IPAs are concerned.

"We have really changed our product mix," Hardman said.

More recently, the brewery released 15-can packs of its updated and
new core beers: Third Wave IPA, Purity Pils and OTR Ale. That size is
something that Hardman has seen big domestic breweries carry for

After all, Hardman sees the changes he's been making as a way to
compete with big beer. That's why he wanted to have beers in multiple
categories, from budget Burger to craft Christian Moerlein.

"We felt it was important to be a very diverse beer company appealing
to a lot of different palettes," he said. "(We) have a lineup to rival
what the big breweries have."

At a time when the beer giants, particularly Anheuser-Busch InBev, are
buying up small craft breweries, Hardman is particularly determined.

"In the sea of the global corporate beer environment, we are executing
on our independent niche," he said.

"Small craft breweries need to take it to the big guys," he said.
"We're mighty and we have a lot of heart. I know we can win."

Would he ever consider selling to one of those big guys? Not for any
amount of money, he said.

"My plan is to always make sure that these beers have proper local
ownership," he said. "Guys like me don't retire."

Enquirer archives contributed.

Kevin O'Malley guides bottles of Little Kings CreamBuy Photo
Kevin O'Malley guides bottles of Little Kings Cream Ale from a
bottling table to a conveyor where they will be labeled, washed and
packaged. (Photo: The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)

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