Beer buffs descend into Cincinnati brewery history

February 15, 2008

OVER-THE-RHINE - They look merely like industrial buildings, but many Over-the-Rhine sites used to be breweries, complete with caverns. Newberry takes a look.

According to the Brewery District's slogan, it's "an entire neighborhood built on beer money," but even at today's escalating prices it's going to take more than beer money to rebuild Over-the-Rhine.

Attracting the people and capital needed to make the area the thriving residential and commercial district that Over-the-Rhine once was is what's behind the upcoming Prohibition Resistance Tour on Bockfest weekend (March 7-9).

The idea is to get people excited about the neighborhood's storied past, expose them to the unique assets that remain from its 19th century heyday as the heart of Cincinnati's German-American community, and spur them to commit their ideas, money and energy to realize its potential.

From the mid-1800s until Prohibition in 1920, a big part of the community's social life centered around beer and its many beer gardens, and most of the beer was produced by dozens of breweries in Over-the-Rhine and the West End. At one point around 1870, there were 36 breweries in the neighborhood.

"It was a huge economic engine, and most people don't realize how much of this stuff is left," said architect Steve Hampton, the Brewery District's executive director who has lived and worked in Over-the-Rhine since 1999.

This year's version of the Prohibition Resistance Tour - a fundraising event previously held in the fall of 2006 - begins at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, which is staging an exhibit of Cincinnati brewing history. From there it will travel by bus and foot to or past about a dozen former breweries and brewery-related sites, eventually winding up at the Bockfest celebration on Main Street before the bus heads back to Union Terminal.

Caverns very cool - and very cool
The first stop upon departing the Museum Center will be the John Hauck House Museum on Dayton Street in the West End. Hauck was one of the area's foremost brewers, and the nearby Hauck Brewery (later known as the Lion Brewery and eventually as Red Top Brewing Co.) building also will be on the drive-by part of the tour.

Since the Brewery District is a nonprofit community development corporation, it's fitting that most of the stops are development sites, or at least potentially so. Most are now empty or very underutilized. The 2006 tour included stops at the former Clyffside and Jackson breweries in the Mohawk section of Over-the-Rhine northwest of Elm and McMicken streets.

The Jackson Brewery was the main attraction, with its multiple-level underground caverns carved into the base of the hill below Clifton Avenue. They were very cool - literally - perfect for aging barrels of beer in the days before cheap commercial refrigeration.

The vaulted, 20-foot stone walls and ceilings made for some fascinating spaces, but what really stirred people's interest were the bricked-in arched passageways that, legend has it, led to a system of uncharted tunnels that once connected the breweries and many of the brewery-owned saloons in the area. No one seems to know how many of them are still there.

The Jackson Brewery caverns are not on this year's tour, but the former Kauffman Brewery near Vine and Liberty streets will provide much the same experience. The pre-Civil War (1856) building now operates as the Guild Haus, and the above-ground industrial space has been converted into artist studios and apartment lofts.

Guild Haus owner Chris Frutkin, who runs a real estate development business called City Center Properties, said he hasn't figured out any commercial use for two levels of sub-basements, including tunnels beneath Hamer Street to another part of the complex. But they were more or less a bonus, so Frutkin's not complaining.

"When we bought the building, we had no idea it was down there. It was bricked up," Frutkin said. Then several years later, a real estate agent who'd sold the building in the '50s gave him some old drawings indicating subterranean rooms 40 feet below ground level.

"Lo and behold, we had all this space. It was really cool," he said. "It'd make a great nightclub. That's about the only use I could think of. It's a pipe dream, (but) it's cool. It's cool to own. ... You've gotta be passionate to own this kind of space."

Mike Morgan, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation and a Brewery District trustee, is credited with the "built on beer money" slogan. The Prohibition Resistance Tour concept came during a brainstorming session of the group's marketing committee "that consisted of several of us sitting around drinking beer," he said.

"It occurred to us that the spaces were really cool, but most people just thought they were old industrial buildings, not realizing they were breweries," Morgan said.

Drinking inspires tour name
The nature of the sub-basements - which were referred to as "felsen" tunnels, from the German word for "rock" - largely determined the location of the Brewery District, much of which lies along McMicken Avenue at the base of Clifton hill. The caverns had to be dug back into the hills or deep enough until they hit cave temperatures, a constant 55 degrees year-round, Morgan said.

They were great for making lager beer, which has to be aged for weeks at cool temperatures. But they now pose problems for modern-day developers who have to meet 21st century building and fire codes. By nature the caverns don't have windows, and they're hard to get in and out of.

Still, Morgan thinks that finding a use for them is only a matter of time.

"They're such cool spaces that somebody will eventually," he said.

And just where did the name "Prohibition Resistance Tour" come from?

"Over beers. We just drank until somebody came up with a great idea," said Morgan, who credited it to fellow Brewery District trustee Ted Fischesser. "We're looking back at that time when beer was the lifeblood. Prohibition destroyed the economy and social fabric of Over-the-Rhine."

Photo Credit : Mark Bealer | Courier
Brewery District Executive Director Steve Hampton, left, and City Center Properties owner Chris Frutkin explore caverns in Over-the-Rhine.