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- Garrison Hilliard
September 5, 2009, 11:09 pm
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Old Cincinnati Germans worshipped God, family and beer. And not always in that
All three elements of this home-brewed trinity headline today's first-ever
family reunion of Christian Moerlein's descendents.
Relatives of the 19th-century Cincinnati beer baron begin the day pouring over a
12-foot family tree in the reception hall of Philippus United Church of Christ,
an Over-the-Rhine landmark for 118 years.
Next, they will bow their heads in the church Moerlein helped found and listen
to a pipe organ Moerlein's money purchased.
After church, they head for a picnic in Winton Woods where they'll bend their
elbows. Libations include three varieties of a foamy beverage bearing the name
of the family patriarch. His made-in-Cincinnati brews by the Christian Moerlein
Brewing Co. quenched thirsts worldwide.
These events follow Wednesday's beer-on-The Banks announcement. The present-day
Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. - owned and operated by CEO Greg Hardman, not on
the Moerlein family tree - plans to build a microbrewery and restaurant, called
the Moerlein Lager House, on prime riverfront real estate next to Great American
"The Lager House brings Cincinnati's brewing history, and one of its most
historic names, right to the city's forefront," Hardman said.
"It also gives the Moerlein family something to celebrate at their reunion."
People with Cincinnati German blood in their veins don't need a reason to quaff
a beer. Besides, the Moerleins have plenty to celebrate. This is, after all, the
first reunion of a family that's been in America for eight generations.
"Christian Moerlein would say about the reunion: 'Vas took you so long?' " said
Susan Moerlein Schroeder. The teacher's aide from Colerain Township is the
brewer's third cousin.
Considering the fame attached to the Moerlein name, it initially seems strange
that the family is holding its debut reunion in 2009. But then, consider this:
Old Cincinnati Germans were even more tight-lipped than they were notoriously
tight-fisted. That makes this reunion's belatedness seem not all that strange.
Those old Germans did not want anyone to know their business. Not even family
members. One obituary noting Christian Moerlein's death at the age of 79 in
1897, termed the self-made millionaire, " a modest man . . . avoiding display or
Moerlein and his fellow immigrants were proud of their heritage. But they were
short on sharing specifics.
"We were told we were related because of our last name and we had some ceramic
crockery-style Moerlein beer bottles at home," Schroeder said. "But that's all
Steve Moerlein, grew up "in the Kenwood area," before moving to South Bend, Ind.
As a kid, he learned about his family's genealogy during drive-by history
"We'd drive by Philippus church and my dad would point and say, 'that was your
grandfather's church,' and his big car just kept on rolling.
"Nobody ever told us about the past," he added. "No one ever told us about the
history of Christian Moerlein."
Welcome to Christian Moerlein 101:
Born in Bavaria in 1818, Moerlein trained as a blacksmith. He came to the United
States in 1841 and reached Cincinnati in 1842. Unable to find work, he dug
basements for 50 cents a day. Within six months, he had enough money to open his
own blacksmith shop.
In 1853, Moerlein joined forces with a brewer and started making beer. In his
brewery's first year of operation, Moerlein produced 1,000 barrels of beer. By
the peak year of 1894, his brewery had expanded to a three-block-long complex
along Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine and was brewing 500,000 barrels a year. (Note
of comparison: The Banks' proposed Moerlein Lager House annually plans to brew
5,000 barrels of beer.)
The Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. became the largest brewer in Cincinnati -
home to dozens of breweries - and the state of Ohio as well as the 13th largest
in the nation.
Moerlein brewed quality as well as quantity. His beers won gold medals at the
1893 Chicago World's Fair as well as expositions in Atlanta and Nashville.
With the gold came the green. Moerlein became a multimillionaire. He built
mansions in Clifton and Butler County. The latter shared acreage with a barn
whose shingles spelled out his name. He gave a mansion to his daughter, Lizzie,
as a wedding gift. That huge home became the Clifton restaurant, Christy's and
Moerlein also gave money to numerous charities. "But he was a quiet giver,"
Steve Moerlein said. No publicity.
Tragedy struck the family and its business in the 1890s. A fire destroyed the
main brewery building in May 1891. In August, George Moerlein, the most brewery
business savvy of Christian's sons, died. He was 39. Six years later, his dad
Throughout the decade, the temperance movement grew. When the movement's
anti-drinking sentiments became law with Prohibition in 1919, that spelled the
end for the brewery. But not for the family's philanthropy.
Moerlein money paid for the 1937 installation of Philippus' organ. Renown for
its true tones, the organ gets its annual check-up paid for by funds set aside
by the church.
"Christian Moerlein had a hand in providing for this church and this organ,"
said Terrie Benjamin, Philippus' organist and director of music. "His family
held the music program in high regard."
She plans to play a sonata by Bach and the old hymn, "What a Friend We Have in
Jesus," during today's reunion service. "Christian Moerlein," Benjamin said,
"would have known and heard that music."
Before the church service, Steve Moerlein "will, for the first time in my life,
willingly wear a name tag" to meet and greet his long-lost relatives. He has
tracked them down in Germany, as well as Alaska and Hyde Park. Family members
routinely express disbelief over their numbers.
One descendent told him: "There can't be that many Moerleins. They must be using
our name in a witness protection program,"
Moerlein dissuaded him of that notion. Three years of research, aided by
Schroeder's many trips to Cincinnati libraries, put such fears to rest.
He has located five branches, bearing 400-plus names, on the Moerlein family
tree. None of the branches knew of the existence of the others. Moerlein placed
the blame "on the old German way of not sharing information."
He wants to share. He's bringing a computerized scanner to the reunion in hopes
someone "brings in a family portrait." None is known to exist of Christian
Moerlein and his kids.
Hardman hopes the reunion flushes out "an official Christian Moerlein beer stein
or mug. They're supposed to be out there. But none has ever been found. If one
shows up, it would be a treasure."
Moerlein would be content to add more names to the family tree and link the
whole bunch to the beer baron.
"If I could do that and get my hands on a recipe for his beer," he said, "I'd
During the reunion weekend, Moerlein and Schroeder plan to meet for the first
time. They've only exchanged phone calls and e-mail.
They settled on Christy's and Lenhardt's. They say they're going just for the
German food. But, in case they get thirsty, they can always order a tall, cold
glass of Christian Moerlein's ale.
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