Built on Beer: Cincinnati USA's Brewing History

Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky were, quite literally, built on beer. By the mid-1800s, 36 breweries were producing more than 30 million gallons of beer and digging underground lagering cellars and tunnels. One batch of lager at a time, Cincinnati’s so-called beer barons turned humble brewing operations into beer-making empires that prospered until Prohibition forced them all to close. Few reopened, and none survived consecutively into the 21st century (after operating for 114 years, Hudepohl Brewing Company closed in 1999).
Now, in just five years, the number of breweries in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky has more than tripled. Craft breweries are on the rise across the country, but here it’s more than a trend. It’s a tradition that dates back more than 200 years. From touring original brewery buildings and underground tunnels to tasting freshly made beer (and seeing the process), there are countless ways to explore the region’s brewing past and present.
THE FIRST BREWERY Twenty-fi ve years after the city was settled, Englishman Davis Embree opened Cincinnati’s first commercial brewery on the banks of the Ohio River in 1812. He made classic porters and ales that never quite got popular, and the brewery closed in 1825. Shortly after, waves of German immigrants started establishing roots a few miles north in a neighborhood that would become the heart of the region’s brewing industry.
OVER-THE-RHINE BREWERY DISTRICT Located north of the Cincinnati stretch of the Miami Erie canal (now Central Parkway), Over-the-Rhine was home to throngs of German immigrants by the mid-1800s. It’s here where the first German-owned brewery opened in 1829, with more following shortly after. Ten years later, a revolution that started back home in Deutschland took hold and changed everything.
For centuries, beer was made using yeast strains that ferment at the top of the tank, resulting in what we know as ales. In the late 1830s, a new kind of yeast strain that fermented on the bottom was developed in Europe. It took longer and had to be chilled at lower temperatures, but the result was a crisper, mellower beer called lager, from the German lagern, “to store.” The new brew quickly caught on in the states, especially around these parts. By 1850, lager was more than the preferred drink of German immigrants in Over-the-Rhine; it was all of Cincinnati’s beer of choice.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF BEER In 1860, as many as 36 breweries operated in Cincinnati. By 1889, a fewer number of breweries (23) produced even more beer, collectively brewing 35,700,000 gallons of suds drunk the world over (Christian Moerlein Brewing Company exported beer as far as South America and Europe). In fact, so much beer was made and consumed in Cincinnati that in 1890 it was dubbed the “Beer Capital of the World.”
The vast majority of Cincinnati’s pre-Prohibition breweries were in Over-the-Rhine, clustered together along McMicken Avenue and the canal. From 1875–1900, 17 operated in Over-the-Rhine and the West End. While this historically German area boasted the most breweries per capita, it wasn’t the only neighborhood where the air smelled of liquid bread and the beer flowed freely.
BREWING IN NORTHERN KENTUCKY George Wiedemann worked at the John Kauffman Brewing Company in Over-the-Rhine for 15 years before moving across the river in 1870 to start his namesake venture in Newport. George Wiedemann Brewing Co. was Kentucky’s largest beer producer in 1890, followed closely by Bavarian Brewing Company in nearby Covington. The original Bavarian Brewery is the only thing that remains of Northern Kentucky’s brewing heritage. You can find the faded yellow building, complete with original brickwork, at 528 W. 12th St. in Covington.
PRE-PROHIBITION BREWERY ARCHITECTURE Back in Over-the-Rhine, a more intact historic brewing district astounds with its architectural prowess. As it turns out, Cincinnati’s brewing industry was as much about beer as it was about worldclass architecture. Brewery buildings were considered extensions of the beer, and architectural details were often exaggerated in advertisements. That’s not to say the expansive brewing complexes weren’t lavish in real life. In 1893, George Wiedemann hired Cincinnati architects Samuel Hannaford and Sons (of Music Hall fame) to construct a new bottling facility. The building, since torn down, once towered majestically over Sixth and Columbia Streets in Newport.
The most intact building remaining is the old Felsenbrau-Clyffside Brewery (1887), one of the stops on a Cincinnati Brewery Tour. From across the street, gaze at the meticulously carved cherubs and six-point brewer’s star on the roof. Inside, notice the beer barrels etched into the stair posts, and gilded steel beams that sparkle in the natural daylight. Ascend to the top-floor grain room and you’ll find pulleys caked with decades of rust hanging from the ceiling and a dusty metal grain bin in the floor. Considering it’s been abandoned off and on for a few decades now, this building is in pretty remarkable shape. What lies beneath is in even better shape.
DIGGING UP THE PAST Somewhere between Prohibition, two world wars and urban sprawl, the tunnels beneath Over-the-Rhine, Newport and Covington that brewery workers used to access lagering cellars and transport goods between buildings were all but forgotten. Then in 2008, urban explorers came across original brewery blueprints, curiosity led to jack hammering, and the tunnels were rediscovered. More continue to be uncovered today.
You can see the curious underworld for yourself on a Cincinnati Brewery Tour. One tour ends in a cellar beneath the original Kauffman Brewery malt house. Built in 1860, Kauffman grew to be the fourth largest brewery in Cincinnati, but never reopened after Prohibition. Now, that cellar is finally getting a new lease on life, as are other historic brewing structures and brands.
THE GREAT REVIVAL Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s past is now its present, just waiting to be explored. On a brewery tour in Over-the-Rhine, see one of the largest collections of pre-Prohibition brewery architecture. Have a pint in the former Kauffman malt house, now home to the taproom of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, the latest project by modern-day beer baron Greg Hardman. Given the region’s storied brewing history, collecting vintage beer memorabilia, or breweriana, is also a popular hobby here. So much so that there’s a Queen City Chapter of the Brewer’s Collectibles Club of America, which annually hosts shows open to the public (queencitychapter.com).
There’s always a way to drink in the area’s brewing history, with more coming soon. Jon Newberry recently relaunched the Wiedemann brand and has plans to open a taproom in Newport. A Brewing Heritage Trail, brewery/theatre hybrid called Grayscale, and Taft’s Ale House—a threestory brewpub inside a former church—are also in the works in Over-the-Rhine. Plus, there’s a growing list of breweries where you can take tours and clink pints.
Written by Cait Barnett
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