Behind the beer at BarrelHouse

The Downtowner

By Zachary Petit

CINCINNATI While the rest of us hunker down in cubicles crunching numbers, trading stocks, playing euchre on the Internet or scribing articles, it's hard not to feel a slight twinge of envy for the romanticized lifestyles of Rick DeBar and Brian Sprance.

They may just have the best damn job in the world.

As respective brew-master and brewer, the pair is paid to make beer "The best damn beer in town," as the slogan goes all day long at the BarrelHouse Brewing Co. on West Liberty Street, near Over-the-Rhine.

Surrounded by towering fermentation tanks and an earthy scent reminiscent of oatmeal, the two lone employees craft lagers, ales and Hefeweizens, German-style wheat beer, side by side, sometimes filling the frothy goodness into 60 kegs or 300 cases a day for the region.

Contrary to popular belief, DeBar and Sprance say, they don't just sit around drinking Boss Cox Double Dark IPA and Oktoberfest Lager to pass their time. They have to make the spirits before they can toast a BarrelHouse to any fall festivals, and from vat to bottle, that can be hard work for two people. In a season of Oktoberfests, it's good to know where your brew comes from.

"At times it's challenging," DeBar laughs. "But I wouldn't trade it."

Though he was born in Montana, DeBar's boulevard to brewing began appropriately and perfectly so in Germany, where he was stationed for three-and-a-half years with the Army. After getting into beer while in the country, he started at the proverbial bottom of the barrel by filling kegs and worked his way up until he joined BarrelHouse when the company opened in 1995. Now branded with the boast-worthy title of brew-master, DeBar is responsible for everything from drafting the company's recipes to meeting production needs.

Generally, four year-round beers are available from BarrelHouse: the Duveneck's Dortmunder Style Lager named after classic Queen City painter Frank Duveneck; the Cumberland Pale Ale; the amber RedLegg Ale and the Boss Cox Double Dark IPA, named after the infamous Cincinnati political power broker. As with the Dortmunder, which DeBar based on a beer he would often sip after work in Germany, the brew-master says many of his drinks are styled around products he has enjoyed throughout his life.

At the moment, his favorite libation is the Oktoberfest Mrzen, BarrelHouse's current seasonal offering that can be found August October.

"You drink as much as you can while it's out," he says with a chuckle.

If you want to get mildly technical about your suds, the annual beer blends American malts, the sweets, with German hops, the bitters, to create what BarrelHouse says is a symbolic bond between Munich, Germany and Cincinnati. DeBar defines the taste of the traditional Vienna lager as a malty, medium-bodied beer that's topped with a spicy-hot finish.

Clad in a gray T-shirt and khaki shorts, DeBar walks the red-brick floor of the small plant where his beer is usually brewed and bottled, one style at a time. When asked about the secret to a perfect beer, he originally replies "cleanliness and sanitation," but re-emerges from a wing of the brewery moments later with a new answer.

"The key to making good beer is just to have a passion for it," he says. "It takes dedication."

Working nearby, brewer Brian Sprance says with a light-hearted smile that he ended up at BarrelHouse eight years ago, when he got scared about the prospect of writing a thesis paper. Even though there are only two people on duty in here, one begins to get the impression to the backdrop of rock music on a nearby stereo that they have a good time at work.

"I'm not a cubicle type, I guess," Sprance says, adding that he's a hands-on guy who enjoys knowing that he created something.

Overall, Sprance and DeBar both agree that it's important for the Queen City to have its own breweries.

"Cincinnati has a great brewing heritage, and to let that slide away would be a tragedy," DeBar says.

Steven Hampton, executive director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., says it's great to see people continuing the historic tradition in town. While a Downtown restaurant chain makes beer and other brewing companies are involved within Cincinnati, he says BarrelHouse is the only brewery of its kind in the immediate city limits.

Because of an influx of German immigrants and the heritage they brought with them, Hampton says the heyday of Cincinnati's brewing era lasted from the 1850s to Prohibition, during which time the city was one of the largest U.S. brewery centers and, one of the biggest consumers of beer.

Over time, Prohibition would all but kill the hearty industry, and behemoth national brands would later make it nearly impossible for smaller companies to compete.

But, some places, like BarrelHouse, are keeping the tradition alive.

"The fact that they're still here brewing is fantastic," Hampton says. "We wish we had more brewers like them."