Beery Cincinnati

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Beery Cincinnati is a story of a visit to a city with one of the USA’s strongest beer histories and what I experienced exploring the beer culture of today by bike, on foot, and by public transport.

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Cincinnati and the Kentucky cities of Newport and Covington right across the Ohio River have a substantial beer culture and history owing to the congregation of German and East European immigrants there during the nineteenth century.  In the mid-1800’s, Beery Cincinnati had 36 breweries that produced more than 30 million gallons of beer annually.  Cincinnati is right there in my mind with Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and St. Louis as the most prominent American beer cities of that era up until prohibition.  The German influence led to digging extensive underground lagering cellars and tunnels some of which are being rediscovered in recent times. Most of the old breweries were killed by Prohibition and the last of the old line breweries, the Hudepohl Brewing Company closed in 1999 after 114 years in business.

The town where I lived growing up was close enough to Cincinnati that there were plenty of family ties and it was a close place to go for baseball, concerts, and other amusements.  My first notice of beery Cincinnati goes back to high school times and frequent drives from where I lived in Indiana across the border into Ohio where 3.2% ABV beer could be purchased by 18 year-olds.  I think I could pass for 18, but not very well for 21 which was the legal age in Indiana.  There were a variety of Cincinnati brands and Schoenling Red Label became a beer of choice with me and my cronies – I can’t remember if it was a price or a quality-based decision.  Schoenling’s Little King’s Cream Ales in 7 ounce green bottles was another popular choice although they tended to create too much rubbish for the volume, I think.  They weren’t a 3.2 product either so they required someone who looked older to be along.

Cubs win!
Cubs win!

In the many intervening years, beer has made a comeback in Cincinnati and I’m told that there are now more breweries in the area than ever.   There is one “big” brewery these days although I think it is still considered “craft” by some definitions.  What had been the old Schoenling brewery is now owned and operated as a Boston Beer Company brewery and is a big part of the Sam Adams story – I read that the majority of Sam Adams is brewed there.  Boston Beer founder Jim Koch has roots in Cincinnati and his father once worked for Schoenling.  Hudepohl and Schoenling became one company in the late 1980’s and while their physical facilities were sold to Boston Beer when the company closed, their brands and recipes were acquired by one of the city’s newer craft breweries (a revival of a historic brewery), Christian Moerlein Brewing Company — more about that in a minute.

Bockfest poster
Bockfest poster

It caught my eye that there are several interesting sounding beery events held each year and I expect to back to check out one or more.  Cincy Brew Ha-Ha (beer & comedy festival – August), Cincy Winter Beerfest (March), Rare Beer Fest (November), the International Craft Beer Festival (craft beers from around the globe – summer), Cincy On Tap (April), Bockfest(March), Bacon, Bourbon and Brew (July), Cincinnati Craft Brewer’s Starkbierfest (high ABV beers – April), and Oktoberfest Zinzinnati (bills itself as largest in U.S. -September) are among the many events.

My preference to get around by bike and on foot made choosing lodging in the “Over-the-Rhine” or OTR district just north of the downtown a good bet.  Cincinnati wasn’t a particularly attractive city for biking or pedestrians, but there were a couple of greenways not far from the OTR that had concentrations of breweries and interesting beer venues within striking distance.

Cincinnati Brewery District

Over-the-Rhine was historically a neighborhood where German immigrants concentrated.  The Miami and Erie Canal separated the area from the downtown to the south and some locals compared the canal to the Rhine River in Germany and crossing the canal to crossing the Rhine.  Being north of the canal was referred to as being “Over-the-Rhine”.  Love of acronyms being a thing in some circles, the neighborhood became commonly referred to as “OTR”.  The canal was paved over after falling into disuse in the early 20th century and is now covered by Central Parkway.

Beery Cincinnati’s historic brewery district is the northern part of OTR above Liberty Street, a major east-west connector.  There is an impressive set of historic buildings throughout OTR and many are in the Brewery District – some in use by current-day breweries.  The area is a mixture of gentrified streetscapes, run-down properties, and some sketchy feeling stretches but there is a great deal of interesting architecture and a good amount of interesting street art.

rediscovered beer cellar
rediscovered beer cellar

A non-profit called the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation is doing an impressive job of highlighting the beer culture to be found here and has established a Brewing Heritage Trail program that incorporates a visitor center, events, guided and self-guided walking tours.  I joined a guided walking tour with a volunteer (I think) guide who possessed a wealth of information and local lore.  We met at the “beer garden” at Findlay Market, an old school public market said to be the oldest in the state.  The walk included lots of interesting architecture, stories, and the descent into a lagering cellar complex beneath the pre-prohibition Crown Brewery.  The underground system has been “rediscovered” since 2000.

Several current-day breweries are located in the Brewery District and OTR including Rhinegeist Brewery, Samuel Adams Brewery, Taft’s Ale House, 3 Points Urban BreweryNorthern Row Brewery & Distillery, and Christian Moerlein Brewing Company.  These are all within an easily walkable area.  Moerlein was hands-down the best visit for me due to their interesting story and the excellent hospitality I encountered there.

Located in a building of the former Kauffman Brewery, the taproom/beer hall is in a huge room with massive pillars that I guessed may have once been a malting floor.  It wasn’t too busy so one of the staff was generous with his time and showed me around the brewery a bit.  Moerlein is definitely vested in the beer history of Cincinnati.  They take their name from a noted 19th century brewery and they have acquired rights and recipes and produce beers once made by venerable local brands such as Hudepohl and Schoenling.  Through their work, you can once again drink Little Kings and Hudepohl’s.

In addition to the interesting architecture of the OTR neighborhood, there is a lot of interesting public art there (and in Cincinnati in general) in the form of murals of all shapes and sizes.  Many of these tie into the city’s history including the beer history.  An organization called Artworks Cincinnati fosters the creation, protection, and promotion of the murals and provides a map and other information on their website.

OTR figures prominently as a venue for many of the annual events.   One of the few bock festivals of any significant scale that I’ve heard about in the U.S. takes place each March.   Bockfest has been held for more than twenty years to celebrate Cincinnati’s brewing heritage and feature bock beers made by local breweries.  The festival includes a beard competition, the crowning of a Sausage Queen, bock tappings, the Bockfest 5K, a parade, and more.

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Beery Kentucky

George Wiedemann Brewing Co. in Newport was once Kentucky’s largest beer producer, and Bavarian Brewing Company was in adjacent Covington. The Bavarian Brewery building is all that remains of this slice of brewing heritage but it has been renovated into office space.  Several craft breweries have taken root in a bikeable line across the two cities and made for a pleasant ride.

I crossed the river on the 1/2 mile Purple People Bridge, a historic span that offers great views of the city skylines and is now pedestrian-only.  From there I worked my way from west to east with stops at Darkness Brewing, Braxton Labs, Hofbrauhaus (yes … they brew on-site at this one),  Wooden Cask Brewing Company, and Braxton Brewing Company.

All of these are fairly smallscale operations each with their own interesting aspects.  I particularly enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and the beer at Braxton brewing – kind of felt like a cross between a coffeehouse and a taproom – very good for just hanging out.  Braxton Labs is a nearby alter-ego of the brewery – a geekier feeling experimental brewery embedded in the back of a huge liquor store.

Cincinnati Elsewhere

I spent some time biking around on the limited bikeways I found in the city and stopped at several beer venues and other places that caught my interest.  The Ohio River to Lake Erie Trail tracks a good bit of the riverfront as it starts north for hundreds of miles to Cleveland and Lake Erie.  There are still missing segments along the way and one of them makes for ugly riding along a stretch in the east part of the city.  There are a couple of beer venues I stopped at while biking a stretch of this.  Moerlein Lager House is a slick, modern restaurant and microbrewery across the street from the City’s baseball park operated by Christian Moerlein Brewing – it’s as modern and slick as the brewery’s OTR taproom is retro and funky.  I stopped in before the Cubs and Reds game.  Streetside Brewery is a pleasant stop to the east – I had a catastrophic flat tire that ended my Sunday afternoon ride just as I was nearing the place and had to UBER back.

The Mill Creek Greenway emerges from city streets north of OTR and provides an opportunity for stops at Urban Artifact, a funky brewery inhabiting a big old church building and Humble Monk, a Belgiany-style brewery nearby.  The only clue I noticed while approaching that Urban Artifact wasn’t a church was the handful of people sipping beers on the side-lawn.  The feel of the taproom is not all that far removed from the feel of church basements I visited as a youth.

Between the Greenway and OTR is an opportunity to stop at a local institution named the Camp Washington Chili Parlor.  Cincinnati chili is its own unique thing and is different than what you’ll find elsewhere.  It is thinner than other renditions and the meat is cooked with a blend of spices including cinnamon, chocolate, allspice, and Worcestershire.   When ordering, you have to decide which “way” you want your chili among the five common “ways”.

East of OTR are some big hills that host Mecklenburg’s Garden, the oldest restaurant in Cincinnati and a venerable beer hall and beer garden serving a good array of German beers.  Mecklenburg’s Garden has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.  The structure was built circa 1865 and converted into a restaurant by 1870. In the 1880’s it became branded as a beer garden catering to the extensive community of German immigrants who were arriving by then. I arrived early afternoon and enjoyed talking to members of the Cincinnati United Fan Club who were gathering there for a pre-match beer before the march to Nippert Stadium at the nearby University of Cincinnati.

Buzzed Bull Creamery (back in OTR) is a novel idea in the frozen treat world.   This tiny, franchised chain specializes in making ice cream to order on the spot using fresh ingredients mixed in Kitchen-Aid mixers and chilled by shooting liquid nitrogen into the mix.  In addition, they are fully stocked with spirits and liqueurs that can be added to allow unlimited creativity.

A good friend, knowing that I like both good jazz and craft beer, suggested I should check out Caffe Vivace.  Although I ran out of time and didn’t get there for jazz and a beer in the evening, I was able to stop by for a nicely prepared mocha the morning I left town.  They had a good array of craft beers available and I could imagine paying another visit on another trip.

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