Past, present and frothy future

The Downtowner

By Zachary Petit

DOWNTOWN It arrives in waves: a fleet of brats, a flock of chicken wings, a crock of cheese, vegetables, bread, crackers, and, of course, a pitcher of beer.

Pulse has arranged a roundtable discussion at Arnold's Bar & Grill, and owner Ronda Androski is seeing to it that her fellow panelists don't go hungry or, in the case of the topic at hand, thirsty.

Within the city's oldest saloon, five people are chatting about beer. You might not know it, but sometimes some old-fashioned suds can offer a little bit more than a hefty buzz on a Saturday night. In Cincinnati, beer is history, and it just might help usher in the frothy way of the future for Over-the-Rhine.

Meet Steve Hampton, Greg Hardman, Androski, Bryon Martin and Mike Morgan. In between sips and nibbles of the table-top German barrage and occasional eruptions of laughter, they're chatting about the past, present and potential future of beer in the Queen City.

Pulse: Let's talk about Cincinnati's brewery history in the 1800s.

Hampton, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp.: Number one, it was just huge, in terms of the number of breweries and the number of people employed and how much a part of the industry the entire city was with all the other industries it supported with the barrel-makers, the malt houses and the farmers. It was a huge economic engine
Morgan, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation: And socially. There was that statistic that there were more than 130 bars just on Vine Street. Beer was every bit a part of the cultural aspect.

Hampton: It was a cultural institution.

What do you think the actual atmosphere was like back then, and how did beer fit into that?

Greg Hardman, Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. owner: I think it was a gathering place for the community to socialize. It was a form of entertainment. This is where they got their political messages, and where they also learned what was going on in their community. It was part of their social fabric.

Where were the major beer hotspots back then?

Hampton: There were so many of them.

Hardman: It'd be places like Arnold's.

Hampton: In all the bars you basically got the food for free. That's how they kind of drew people in. There would be tables piled with, you know, breads and cheeses, tables of sausages and stuff

Hardman: Get a free wienerwurst with a Moerlein beer. (Laughter.)

Hampton: So the food was free, to sell the beer.

Androski: People come in now because they're hungry. It used to be for a celebration. Now, it's all changed.

Do you guys ever wish you lived in that era?

Hampton: I'd like to see it; I don't know that's the thing, the density and the amount of people and all that stuff it'd be fascinating to be
there, but we forget about the smells and some of the other inconveniences. So, uh . (Laughter.)

Hardman: It's the romance of the era and the innocence and values that those people had that we all strive to want to relive. It's the purity of how they made beer; it's the purity of how they had produce or the butcher. It was a sense of community and pride.
Martin, Cincinnati Beer Co. proprietor: I think all that came over from Europe. It was more of a celebration, more of a community; you wanted to spend time with friends and family instead of working 50 hours a week.

Hardman: Which is kind of what urbanism is trying to create, and I think there's really cool pockets around the city of places where you can go and you feel, for lack of a better term, like everybody knows your name.

Hampton: I think Bockfest was a great example. Even with all the snow, you had the dedicated (visitors) and the people from the neighborhood.

Morgan: And the number of people we had walking up from Fourth Street in their Saturday afternoon was amazing. The people that are moving back to the cities are moving back to that sense of society that we've loss, and the thing that I love about this bar and I've said it a million times is the absence of a television set. In that era when the bar was your living room, you went there to see your friends and your family and your neighbors. Now, you go to a bar and your eyes are immediately drawn to some flat-screen TV, or if the bar is bad enough, one of the 20 or 50 TVs. There's all this crap; most bars now have all this stuff inside that is there to help you not have to interact with other people.

Going back a century or so, is Prohibition largely what everyone attributes the death of our brewery industry to?
Hampton: That's the biggest piece of it. The economies were changing, as you know, and transportation and the bigger national brewers and those kinds of things were starting to grow. The trends were moving away to bigger national companies versus more regional. But obviously Prohibition just cut out everybody's legs, and so the only ones that were able to survive and open back afterwards were the really large ones.

Morgan: It was kind of that perfect storm of World War I and Prohibition, and it became dirty to be German. And then World War II didn't really help a lot. You've got these two generations of people who ran away from being German. So Prohibition was a big death-nail for the economy here along with everything else that Steve just said, but we also killed a culture. Part of what we're doing, and a big part of the inspiration for the Brewery District and what the Foundation does ... is bringing back a pride in that culture.

Do you guys think a lot of people are aware of the huge history and impact of beer and that culture in Cincinnati?

Morgan: I would say no.

Hampton: I think in the general sense, they're kind of aware of it, but I don't think they're aware how much of that history is still here and viewable.

What is the status of beer developments in Cincinnati right now?

Hampton: BarrelHouse (Brewing Co.) is still going along there; Greg is doing his thing and continuing to build up his brands (Samuel Adams) has a very successful brewery. There's still a lot of that knowledge here in the city, and it would be great to capitalize on that some more.
Martin: I actually own property up on Elm Street the old Christian Moerlein home and office building. The potential of the district really is unlimited. We're trying to kind of calculate the best way to proceed with it. The streetcar is kind of driving our timeframe, but we're going to do what's going to be best for the Brewery District and to kind of recognize the history of the area.

How would you guys rate the success of the beer scene in Cincinnati right now?
Hardman: It's learning. (Laughter.) I saw a great report about six months ago; it said that Cincinnati was the highest indexing light beer consumption location in the United States.

Martin: It boggles my mind, for the history.

Hardman: It made me realize I have such a great opportunity with Christian Moerlein in order to change palates.

Speaking of that, let's have some comments about light beer and your standard (cheap brand).

Hardman: I believe there's a beer for every occasion. If you have a really nice steak, you want a big, bold beer, like a big double-bock, dopplebock; if you have a nice poultry dish, an excellent Munich hellis, a good quality, golden-colored beer with flavor. And if you're cutting your grass, well, there's beer for that, too. (Laughter.)

Mike, speaking from the Foundation, why do you think beer development is important for Over-the-Rhine in general?
Morgan: I think that one of the most important things we can do is change perception. I learned that out of the things that we started doing with the Brewery District. You change that perception, you change way more than you realize. The real problem with Over-the-Rhine is that Cincinnati hasn't valued it. It doesn't get it. It's the largest urban historic district in the U.S. It is a goldmine. It should be a neighborhood that is a tourist destination for its unique character; it should be an economic driver for the City of Cincinnati. And if you don't see that, you're an idiot.

Androski: You're not allowed to say that. (Laughter.)

Morgan: Unfortunately, it's common.

Hampton: I think what's important is not just that the neighborhood has that, but that the brewing history and the brewing industry has the potential to do all of those things. It has the potential to be an industrial and a tax base as the tourism, the entertainment; it's not just one piece of that, it has the potential to be all of those different things.

Hardman: I think the point is that you're trying to create a great mixed-use area. That's what we're trying to say here. Too much of one thing is not good, but having a good healthy community of mixed-use development is what we preach at the Brewery District.

Morgan: And the Foundation as well is about sustainable community. I'm kind of joking, I'm being flippant when I say "if you don't get it you're an idiot"; the thing is what you really are is mostly uneducated as to what the potential is

Hardman: You ever see one of those people? They have you down, "you're an idiot, now let me beat it into you." (Laughter.)

Morgan: Well, if you're then informed and you still don't get it, then you're an idiot. (Laughter.)

Greg, switching gears toward the future, in terms of Moerlein, what are you guys working on right now? Would you like to bring your brewery back to Cincinnati?
Hardman: What we're trying to do is a business model that's been done by many other brewers across the nation. The business model I use is the one that the Brooklyn Brewery used in New York, where for the first 10 years of their existence they built their base through brewing really quality, good beer. Currently, I'm using somebody else's kitchen [Moerlein is brewed outside Cincinnati], but I'm the chef and it's my ingredients, and it's my recipes. We're building a really good base, and it's our desire to hopefully be able to open something up here shortly. I'm committed for the long term to keep plugging away. That's what I do for a living.

Do you have any potential sites lined up?

Hardman: No, we don't have any potential sites lined up. We're all ears for everything that's happening at the moment.

Androski: I've got the second and third floors (at Arnold's) . (Laughter.)

What's kind of the ideal 10-year plan for building up the Brewery District in Cincinnati?

Hampton: In 10 years, we have a streetcar system not just one loop that's circulating people within the neighborhood Findlay Market is thriving; the bigger brewery buildings have been converted to condos, some of them are housing industries again; some of the industries that are there are still there and have grown; there's a great mix of unique businesses that can both be productive businesses but also are a tourist draw in terms of being very unique there's a lot of street traffic, and it's a true mixed-use, walkable neighborhood.

What kind of different paths do you want to take to get there?
Hampton: We're continuing to fight for the streetcar, which is moving along. It will be a really big piece of that development potential, but we're seeing that already. We're starting to see more business; we've got the Cliffside Condo redevelopment that's happening at McMicken Avenue. I think it's just promoting it and showing people the potential there.

Morgan: The streetcar is huge, and what a lot of this city doesn't get and even some people on City Council don't get is that it's necessary for the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine. It's necessary not because "Oh, it's a streetcar and it's cool," but it's necessary because Over-the-Rhine was not built for cars. Even though we have demolished a shameful amount of it, you still can't get enough parking to accommodate the amount of housing that's there.

How do you think beer factors into that, the overall future and the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine?

I think beer is a part of it, but I think that good quality restaurants are another great part of it; I think really excellent saloons and bars are a really good part of it. I think it has to be mixed-use: you have to have jobs, you have to have offices, you have to have people that are living there, and you have to have services that service those people. I think beer is a part of that, but it's not all of that. One thing alone isn't going to make it.

Do you think Cincinnati beer will ever attain the status of a Skyline or a Graeter's in its notoriety?

Androski: I think it already has.

Hardman: I have people e-mail me all the time saying "Graeter's, Skyline, Moerlein, Montgomery Inn." People from all over the world that come to Cincinnati think of it as an icon brand.

Hampton: Right now when you say "brewing center," people will say Milwaukee and St. Louis. I would love to see and I think you could at some point with enough getting it out there people say, "Oh yeah, Cincinnati is maybe not at the same level now, but it was a brewing center and has that heritage as well."