Beer brewing once helped define us

February 1, 2009

Devastating. An industry that has been the part of the city's culture and history would be destroyed. Unemployment, bankruptcy, poverty and decay would follow like the Four Horsemen of the Regulatory Apocalypse.

But here's a revelation: That wouldn't even be close to the damage done to Cincinnati on Jan. 29, 1920, when Prohibition took effect and turned off the tap at Cincinnati's thriving breweries.

For decades, Over-the-Rhine was a thriving neighborhood, with a dozen breweries: Germania, Bellevue, Hauk, Schoenling, Clyffside, Jackson, Lafayette.

The names are almost mythical now - just fading paint on towering brick buildings.

"It was part of the culture," said Steve Hampton, president of the OTR Brewery District, as he led me on a walking tour past ancient ice-houses, lagering tunnels, churches and neighborhoods that were all part of the lost beer world.

"There were barrel makers, farmers, stables, malt houses and brewers. When Prohibition came, it ripped the life out of this community," he said.

Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933. President Roosevelt called it "a failed experiment."

But too late for Cincinnati.

Most of the proud German breweries were gone - mothballed like giant tombs for lagers and bocks, never to be tapped again.

Just west of the corner where McMicken meets Elm, hard against the steep hillsides of Clifton, one of those relics is the Felsenbrau, where kegs last rolled out the doors 50 years ago.

Under brick arches, tunnels reach back into the hillside - cool, damp places with four-foot walls, where the beer was lagered in precise conditions to keep the yeast happy.

A black iron grain bin extends to the third floor, where old flywheels are all that's left of conveyors that carried wagonloads of barley to the brewer's pantry.

"The bars were all owned by the breweries," Hampton explained - like gas stations owned by Shell and BP. If someone wanted a Red Top premium, they filled up at the Red Top pump.

Those lagering tunnels proved useful. During Prohibition, the network was expanded to link breweries to bars and speakeasies.

Turns out Cincinnati had a second Underground Railroad - for beer.

"There are tunnels under tunnels," Hampton said. "We constantly find them when someone's digging."

Deep in the shadows of the old Felsenbrau-Clyffside brewery, where the tunnels fade to black, it's easy to imagine ghosts. They wear derbies and black suits and brew golden nectar under a sepia sky, rolling barrels of German lager into streets crowded with horse-drawn beer wagons and workers.

"There were 45,000 people living in this neighborhood at one point," says Mike Morgan, director of the OTR Foundation. "Now, we're down to 4,900."

But where there's beer, there are dreamers.

One of the oldest and proudest breweries in Cincinnati, Christian Moerlein, is providing the beer. President Greg Hardman now owns 47 of the historic brands, including Hudepohl, Burger and Little Kings.

Guys like Hampton and Morgan are standing by with a stein full of dreams.

They look at the derelict old breweries that crowd the streets in the north end of OTR, and they see condos, lofts, businesses, even breweries. "The architecture here is of historic significance," Hampton says, pointing out the intricate beer barrel, grain and brewer's tools that decorate the front of the old Clyffside building.

"This district is key to the economic revival of the city," says Morgan. "It's one of the most significant historic districts we have in Cincinnati. The city's roots are in this neighborhood."

Yesterday at 5 p.m., Christian Moerlein tapped a keg of its special Moerlein Emancipator Doppelbock, brewed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.

Hampton and Morgan were looking forward to that to kick off their Bock Fest that begins on March 6, with a parade, ceremonial sampling of bock recipes and Prohibition Resistance Tours of old breweries:

Besides, they're beer drinkers.

"We're professionals," Morgan laughed.

Once upon a time, so was Cincinnati.

Steve Hampton, president of the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District (left), and Gregory S. Hardman, president and CEO, Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., show off one of Cincinnati's many "beer caves."