Beer Goggles

A look at the past, present and future of Cincinnati's breweries

CITYBEAT By Bob Driehaus

Kaldi's owner Jeremy Thompson has a kegerator in his garage. It's his duty as a true-blue Cincinnatian and West-sider, he says, a tradition passed onto him from his dad, uncles and neighbors.

And you won't see Bud Light or Pabst Blue Ribbon flowing from that tap in his Westwood home. That would be heresy. In his garage -- and at Kaldi's -- he serves only Christian Moerlein, Barrelhouse, Little Kings or other beers that are brewed or owned in Cincinnati.

"Growing up on the West side, I didn't know anything but Hudepohl-Schoenling beer," Thompson says. "In Cincinnati in general, we didn't know what Pabst was because we drank Hudy Gold, Hudy Delight, Burger, Little Kings."

Thompson isn't alone. His devotion to locally brewed beers and to sharing them with friends and patrons is part of a tradition that began 160 years ago when the first wave of German immigrants flooded into Cincinnati. The immigrants thrived in the neighborhood they named Over-the-Rhine after Germany's Rhine River, and their descendants kept spreading their good cheer ever further from the city center.

The brew masters among those immigrants and their legions of customers built Greater Cincinnati into one of the great brewing centers of the United States, rivaling Milwaukee and St. Louis. At its height around the turn of the 20th century, Cincinnati boasted nearly 150 breweries.

How much local brew did Cincinnatians drink? Fifty gallons per person a year, counting every man, woman and child in 1894, according to Robert J. Wimberg's Cincinnati Breweries.

Breweries and beer halls were a major force in shaping Cincinnati's culture and economy. Beer halls and taverns were community centers as much or more than they were places to get drunk.

Photo By Matt Borgerding
Bringing back Over-the-Rhine's "Brewery District": (L-R) Greg Hardman, Steve Hampton, Jennifer Walke, Denny Dellinger, Mike Morgan and Omar Childress
It's a tradition that was dealt a heavy blow by Prohibition in the 1920s and '30s and a nearly fatal blow by the consolidation of the brewing industry in the last half of the 20th century. But the city is still home to Cincinnati beer partisans fighting the tide of national brands brewed in anonymous breweries.

They're brewing the old lagers, creating new ones and, oh yeah, drinking them. Some even hope to resurrect the old brick breweries themselves, creating a "brewery district" development in Over-the-Rhine (see "Tapping into Brewery Heritage").

Before and after Prohibition
Cincinnati's domestic brewing history was actually imported.

"The brewing industry rose and blossomed along with the German immigration, which introduced lager brewing here," says Don Heinrich Tolzmann, director of the German-American Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati. "It had a tremendous impact on Over-the-Rhine. It was a very important part of the business life and employed an awful lot of people. But it was always important for social life, too. Beer was a dietary ingredient."

Breweries were built all over town, but especially in Over-the-Rhine. The No. 1 brewer in the late 1800s was Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., founded by Bavarian immigrant Christian Moerlein in 1853. He built his brand into a regional powerhouse with such slogans as, "Do not fail to try it!"

In 1894, the year Moerlein died, the brewery produced 500,000 barrels of beer annually and employed more than 500 workers directly, according to Cincinnati Breweries.

But Moerlein had a lot of competition, big and small.

The John Hauck Brewing Co., founded in 1863 on Dayton Street near Central Avenue, also produced hundreds of thousands of barrels by the end of the 19th century. With the fortune the Hauck family built with brands like Golden Eagle Lager, philanthropic work was done throughout the Tristate, Tolzmann says.

Competition made beer drinking a buyer's market. Saloons offered free lunches with the purchase of a beer. The ripple effects spread through the community.

"There were a lot of related industries, too, like the bottling industry, and entertainment," Tolzmann says.

Mike Morgan, a real estate agent with Huff Realty who's trying to revitalize Over-the-Rhine, says the brewing industry was a cornerstone of the thriving neighborhood.

"We maxed out at about 36 breweries (in Over-the-Rhine), and 25 closed as a direct result of Prohibition," he says. "Cincinnati was starting to become a major exporter. Brewing was a major part of the culture here. It was a major employer here, and it defined the city in a lot of ways."

Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who once owned Arnold's Bar and Grill downtown, says brewing and drinking were indirectly responsible for the creation of some of Cincinnati's core institutions.

"Vine Street was replete with cafés, dance halls, taverns," he says. "It's chicken and egg. As a result of the breweries and Cincinnati becoming a noteworthy entertainment destination, cultural institutions were born. Music Hall and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra came out of that era."

The industry's good times didn't last, though, thanks to Prohibition.

In 1920, the U.S. Constitution was amended to make alcohol sales illegal. Overnight, a thriving industry was extinguished and the fabric of the community torn apart.

"Once Prohibition came into place, it really hurt Over-the-Rhine economically and a lot of related industries," Tolzmann says. "After Prohibition, we lost a lot of those beer gardens."

Brewers tried to stay afloat through the Prohibition by making other products like non-alcoholic beer and soft drinks, but most went out of business, including Christian Moerlein. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the number of brewers here dove from nearly 150 to a few dozen.

Still, the age of national brands, television advertising and vast marketing budgets was decades away, and the surviving brewers began a new Golden Age of sorts by cornering the market on Greater Cincinnati's growing population of beer drinkers.

The heavy hitters through the mid-20th century included Cincinnati's Schoenling, Hudepohl and Burger breweries, Newport's Wiedemann Brewing and Covington's Bavarian Brewing. Burger and Wiedemann were founded after Prohibition.

Ken Lichtendahl, the last president of the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. while it was family owned, said production peaked for local brewers in the 1950s and '60s.

Local beer flowed from many a tap, can and bottle in the Tristate's booming bedroom communities. Burger sponsored Reds baseball. Hudepohl sponsored countless festivals, including the first Riverfest celebrations.

Beer drinkers declared their loyalty to a brand, and they stuck to it. Personally, I grew up in a Hudy 14K house. My Uncle Bud was a Burger man, and my dad's best friend drank Schoenling.

The local beer-drinking culture was entrenched. At Crowley's, the 69-year-old Mount Adams bar, the Highland Social Club was formed after World War II and thrived for decades on monthly dinners and all the Burger beer members cared to drink.

Hudepohl even brought back the Christian Moerlein brand in 1981.

Arnold's Bar and Grill, Cincinnati's oldest bar at age 145, was one of the first to have an account with Hudepohl. Tarbell says the bar's love affair with Hudy and other local beers remains strong.

"I was at Arnold's when Hudy Delight was put back on tap recently, and it was just a hoot," he says. "I mean, people were celebrating. And Christian Moerlein was a big deal. When (Hudepohl) brought it back, it brought back images, stories. You don't get that kind of enthusiasm, that sort of warmth for national brands."

Other bars became local brand beer-drinking institutions throughout the area: Loyal Café in Bellevue, the Crow's Nest in Price Hill and Arnold's downtown, to name a handful. Neighborhood taverns were everywhere, usually within walking distance of home, and most had their names plastered on signs made by local brewers.

Beginning in the 1960s, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing and other national brewers started to slowly crowd out local competition with massive marketing budgets and distribution power.

Lichtendahl said Cincinnati brewers used different strategies to stay alive. Hudepohl focused on building market share within Greater Cincinnati with beers like Hudy 14K, Hudy Gold and Hudy Delight.

Schoenling sought market niches throughout North America and Europe and succeeded for a time.

"We worked with niche products that reached way out past the regional and local brewer," Lichtendahl says. "Little Kings was the flagship back in those years. We shipped overseas to Europe and as far as Canada and California. And that's how the smaller guys are surviving today, and they do it well outside of their primary selling area, which used to be in sight of the brewery smoke stack."

But market share and profits continued to dwindle for all the local brewers. Bavarian Brewery, whose castle-like plant later became Jillian's in Covington, closed in 1966.

Burger closed in 1973 and was bought by Hudepohl. Wiedemann moved out of Newport and the Tristate in 1983, leaving only Hudepohl and Schoenling as major brewers in Greater Cincinnati.

Faced with further market pressures, Hudepohl and Schoenling merged in 1986. They held out until 1999, when Cleveland-based Snyder International Brewing Group bought the brands from the Lichtendahl family.

"I think we were facing a reality that while we survived and had a very modern facility (on Central Parkway and Liberty Street), we couldn't compete with the big national brands," Lichtendahl says.

Snyder continued brewing many of Hudepohl-Schoenling's brands, but the era of full-scale Cincinnati-owned brewers was over.

Beer's history and romance
We're not dead yet.

Greg Hardman was the U.S. president of Germany's family-owned Warsteiner brand for 18 years and worked with Hudepohl-Schoenling, which was Warsteiner's U.S. distributor. In 2004, he decided to bring ownership of Christian Moerlein back to town.

"I became very involved in Hudepohl-Schoenling," he says. "I became very enamored with that whole thing and everything they're doing. It never made sense to us that these guys from Cleveland owned Cincinnati's beloved brands."

In May, he bought the rights to just about every other Cincinnati brand that living drinkers can remember and a few that they might not, including Little Kings, Burger, Red Top, Hudepohl, Hudy Delight, Hauck and Windisch-Muhlhauser.

The Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., under his ownership group's leadership, now brews the original Moerlein lager and Moerlein Dunkel, Hefeweizen, Dopplebock, Select Light and Oktoberfest beers.

Hardman has stopped brewing Burger -- much to the chagrin of the Highland Social Club and many others -- to focus on building the Hudy Delight brand. If sales go well, he'll add more brands.

So far, Hardman's biggest challenge has been keeping bars and stores stocked with Hudy Delight.

"We've actually been rationing the product," he says.

He is passionate about revitalizing the Cincinnati brands.

"We can't compete against the major brewers, so we march to the beat of our own drum," Hardman says. "It's about promoting Cincinnati with our beer. It's about making sure we have a great quality product for fans of our beer."

Hardman wants to make Hudy Delight the retro beer of choice among young bar-goers in Greater Cincinnati.

"We're really trying to do the right thing here, and it's working," he says. "There's no reason that Hudy Delight shouldn't sell more than Pabst in the local bars. It's based on the 1978 original recipe. That was actually Cincinnati's number one selling light beer until 1985."

Moerlein beers and Hudy Delight are mostly brewed in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., but Hardman hopes to grow the business to a point that he can build a new brewery in Cincinnati. Though the beer is brewed elsewhere, its heart and future are here, he says.

"Our goal is to build a brewery here in Cincinnati some day," he says. "But it's our brew master, our recipes, our ingredients right now."

And there's a relatively new kid on the block in BarrelHouse, the 11-year-old microbrewery that brews on West Liberty Street in the West End.

BarrelHouse Brewmaster Rick DeBar says the company's expansion in July to bottled beer as well as kegged beer is off to a good start.

"We're starting a new tradition," he says. "We're glad to be a part of the city. We do a lot of festivals and do a lot of community events."

BarrelHouse produces 3,000 barrels of beer annually, DeBar says, and plans to grow steadily in its West End location, where it moved in March 2004 after the BarrelHouse brewpub lost its lease on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine.

The bottled beer is being distributed throughout Ohio and will begin sales in Kentucky within a few months, DeBar says.

BarrelHouse is owned by Nick Seber in Gary, Ind., and employs DeBar and Brian Sprant as a two-man jack-of-all-trades crew.

Finally, there's the Samuel Adams family of beers in the old Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery.

Cincinnati native Jim Koch, founder and chairman of Boston Beer Co., returned to his roots by buying the Hudy plant, which makes the majority of Sam Adams beer sold.

Koch is a beer romanticist and pays more than lip service to Cincinnati's brewing tradition. He's a third-generation Cincinnati-born brewer and sixth-generation brew master, dating back to Europe.

"Dad worked at virtually every brewery in Cincinnati at the time in the 1940s and '50s," he says. "When I was growing up, there were five breweries: Wiedemann, Schoenling, Burger, Bavarian and Hudepohl."

Koch brought his enormously successful Sam Adams beers to Over-the-Rhine to tap into the wealth of experience within the Hudepohl-Schoenling staff -- as well as for less pragmatic reasons.

"Beer has history and romance, and the opportunity to acquire a brewery that had a lot of history was to me romance that you wouldn't get if I put it in Mason or Batavia or something," he says. "Cincinnati has a very deep beer culture that goes back really to the beginnings of the city. In the early days, it was German immigrants who were one of the key groups that built the character of Cincinnati."

The marriage of Boston Lager and Cincinnati labor has worked out well.

"We've been very happy," Koch says. "There is a great group of people working there. I understood the work ethic, the devotion to quality, the German technical heritage. It's cool for me and my family. It's pretty cool to think that that historic brewery in this very historical German city in the New World is now making beer surpassing the Old World beers."

Boston Beer invested $11 million in the brewery in 2005 and is considering the site for an additional expansion to meet growing demand.

Kaldi's Thompson is banking on that romance with local beer, too.

"I have people who have never been to Over-the-Rhine come down because they hear about the beers I carry," he says. "It's worked well for us. We do happy hour 95-cent 10-ounce glasses of beer just to tap into that history of old men sitting around drinking little glasses of beer. Now to see that our number one selling beer is Hudy Delight is great."

Thompson says he's happy to have taken the leap to an all-local beer menu.

"I did it because I just believe in our city.".