Over-the-Rhine and under the ground.
Much like Philadelphia, the city of Cincinnati has a rich history of brewing. At its peak, it was one of the four biggest beer-producing cities in the country. Breweries such as Christian Moerlein, Conrad Weindisch, and Gottlieb Mulhauser were leading the way for this Ohio city. Most of the brewing production is traced back to the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of the city, and in its prime, that neighborhood was home to thirty to forty thousand people, most of whom all worked at these breweries. Beer was big business in the late 1800s. It may have died with Prohibition, but its shadow still lingers largely over Cincinnati today.
Over-the-Rhine is going through a renaissance and the historic brewing roots are once again helping the city grow. Many of the buildings which housed these historic breweries are still standing today and there is much work being done to restore them and share them with the public. Massive lagering cellars, which were hidden under the city for years, are being stumbled upon, and Cincinnati is getting behind making beer an instrumental part of the city once again.
The Christian Moerlein Brewery, which during the pre-Prohibition era was Cincinnati’s largest brewery and forth largest in the country, still stands today, though in a much different capacity than back in the 1800s. However, it is still the city’s largest brewery. Underneath still lies the original brewery lagering cellars, which make for one of the most adventurous and interesting brewery tours one can go on. Narrow, makeshift stairwells, massive piles of rubble, and no clear paths add a sense of excitement to this historic tour. You feel as if you can be the one that makes a new discovery, as the restoration process is still in such an infant stage. You can’t consume a beer on the tour, but standing in the lagering cellar, taking in the immense spaciousness and vaulted ceilings, makes you forget about drinking the beer of today. It brings about thoughts as to what it must have been like over a century ago, drinking a fresh lager that came from within one of these cavernous rooms. It is one of the clearer depictions you will find of just how much the brewing industry in the States has changed, and all you experience are these empty rooms and a few tunnels.
There are a number of other old breweries aside from Christian Moerlein, but you don’t need to go underground to see the rest of the history, as brewery names are still engraved on the outside of the old buildings. In one location, there is even an original tile mosaic of a brewery’s logo that drapes the floor upon entering the building, which now serves as a children’s dentist, among other businesses.
Every March, the beer history of this city takes center stage during Bockfest, a weekend now in its 22nd year. It’s during this anticipated weekend that the breweries are opened up for special tours and the city becomes focused on beer for three days. Bock-style beers take the lead and the local breweries put out their best of the style. Events happen throughout the city, but the festival has its home base at the Christian Moerlein Brewery, officially referred to as Bockfest Hall, where the brewery is open from morning to night each day of Bockfest, with a non-stop celebration. Food vendors, guest breweries, bands, games and more all help with the celebration, but it’s the traditional events such as the crowning of the Sausage Queen, the Bockfest 5k, and opening parade that really set this weekend apart.
Bars, breweries and other local businesses all get involved in the parade, marching the streets on their decorative floats. People walking the length of the parade atop kegs, bands providing musical entertainment and the many goat costumes reminiscent of the dragon costumes during a Chinese New Year’s parade, make this a truly special event that the people of Cincinnati seem to genuinely cherish.
Beer in Cincinnati goes beyond history and the Bockfest though, as a burgeoning scene of young breweries and a growing bar scene are adding to the revival. Located not far from Bockfest Hall is one of the city’s youngest and fastest growing breweries, Rhinegeist Brewery. Located on the top floor of an old factory warehouse, the brewery occupies a massive open space that is a sight to behold. Two bars serve up beers such as their Truth IPA and Panther Porter, along with a few guest taps, in case you decide to drink someone else’s beer for some reason. The brewhouse itself sits to one side of the room, leaving what feels like a football field-sized space alongside it, which is filled up with German beer garden-type seating, ping pong tables, can-jam, and bag-toss games. The space is so large, they even have an indoor wiffle ball league, and then at other times, they move the games to the side and hold concerts, which have so far included names as big as Talib Kweli.
The Christian Moerlein Brewery also opened up a fancy new second brewery just a few steps from the Bengals and Reds stadiums. That new brewery, along with Fifty West Brewing Co., Listermann Brewing, MadTree Brewing and others, are becoming the new face for local craft beer.
With new bars popping up and more tap handles being opened up to these breweries and craft beer in general, Cincinnati seems to be moving away from a city famous for its chili, and finding its way back to being a city famous for its beer. Though, while you’re there you can put in your two cents as to whether Skyline or Gold Star makes the better chili, but you might be better off just skipping both and going for the fried chicken at The Eagle. a