A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in Cincinnati, OH. My oldest daughter moved there back in February. She recently graduated from Nursing School at the University of Toledo and is now working as a Registered Nurse at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. I like Cincinnati. It was, in fact, the first large American city that I visited after I arrived in the United States from Scotland in 1985. I was a graduate student at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Oxford is a college town and so a day-trip to Cincinnati, which was a short fifty minute drive to the south, was arranged within the first few weeks of arriving on campus. It was the first of numerous trips I made to the Queen City during my two years as a student at Miami; on one of those I even toured the now closed Hudepohl Brewery.
For the beer lover, Cincinnati is a wonderful place to visit. Not only does the city have some fantastic craft breweries but it also has a rich brewing history. On this particular visit my wife, daughter, and I decided to spend part of Saturday afternoon learning about some of this history by taking a tour of the city’s historic Over-the-Rhine brewery district. We opted for a one hour walking tour that was offered by the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (BDCURC). The BDCURC was established by local residents in 2005 as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. It’s mission is to “make the Brewery District a healthy, balanced and supportive neighborhood economy by preserving, restoring and redeveloping our unique brewing history and historic urban fabric.” The tour started at the Rhinegeist Brewery on Elm Street. It was led by two volunteer guides, Bill and Mike. Mike, as it turned out, had a connection with the city I live in, Toledo, OH. He is a retired English teacher who completed his undergraduate education just down the road from Toledo, at Bowling Green State University. He had done his student teaching at McTigue Elementary School in Toledo. Mike and Bill’s tour was well-organized, did not involve too much walking, and was highly informative. The cost was $15, with the money being reinvested in the neighborhood; some of it going to help preserve historic brewery buildings.
The Over-the-Rhine District was settled by German immigrants. Overall, during the 1850s close to one million Germans arrived in America, making it the peak decade for German immigration to the U.S. Not surprisingly, as was the case with migrants from other countries, the Germans tried to preserve many of their cultural values and traditions after they arrived in the United States. According to one commentator “when they settled, they often established German-speaking communities, setting up their own churches, schools, newspapers, and other institutions, and keeping their cultural traditions alive in the New World.” Many of the German immigrants settled in the industrial Midwest in cities like Milwaukee, WI, St. Louis, MO, and Cincinnati, OH. Indeed, such was the size of their German populations, these three cities comprised points on what was referred to as “the German triangle“. By the end of the nineteenth century an estimated sixty percent of the Cincinnati’s population was of German heritage.
Preservation of cultural identity is easier when immigrants cluster together in space and interact on a daily basis at work and at home. In the case of Cincinnati, German immigrants settled primarily in what would become known as the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. According to Colin Woodard, contributing editor to Politico Magazine:
“By the 1870s it [Over-the-Rhine] was one of the densest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere, with German-speaking churches, German-language schools and newspapers, and a network of breweries built atop enormous beer cellars, themselves connected to taprooms and beer gardens by clandestine tunnels, built to circumvent city ordinances.”
The name, Over-the-Rhine was coined by locals who would visit Cincinnati’s German neighborhood. The Germans had settled in a part of the city which was close to the Miami and Erie Canal. Residents often referred to the canal as “the Rhine” and so crossing the canal to visit the German neighborhood became known as going “Over-the-Rhine”.
As we learned on our tour, the Over-the Rhine neighborhood is an architectural gem. It is one of the largest historic districts in the United States, boasting over 350 acres of densely-packed 19th century brick Italianate and German Revival buildings. We saw many of those buildings on our tour. These included buildings that had been homes to some of the Christian Moerlein family, as well as buildings that had served as offices for brewery operations. The Rhinegeist Brewery, where our tour started, was an old Christian Moerlein bottling plant. Christian Moerlin was a German immigrant who established a brewery in 1853. The Christian Moerlein Brewery was one of over three dozen breweries in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. It grew to be the largest brewery in Ohio and the fifth largest in the United States.
By the end of the nineteenth century Cincinnati breweries were producing over a million barrels of beer annually. Almost all of this beer was consumed by the local population, In 1893 forty gallons of beer were consumed for every man, woman and child who lived in Cincinnati – this was two and a half times the national average. Cincinnati was home to over 1,800 saloons; one for every one hundred and sixty residents. The brewery workers themselves were huge consumers of beer, receiving free beer as a perk of the job. The volume of beer consumed by brewery workers was astonishing. Employees at the city’s Kaufmann Brewey, for example, typically drank 18 kegs of beer a day. This was an average of 35 glasses per worker.
A love of beer was one of the cultural traditions that the German immigrants brought with them to the United States. Up until around 1840 American beer was dominated by ales, which are darker beers made with top-fermenting yeast. Ales were popular in the United Kingdom and had been brought to the Americas by the first British immigrants. In contrast, in Germany, lager was the preferred beer style. Unlike ales, lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast. Lager yeast was introduced into the United States in 1840 by a German immigrant by the name of John Wagner. Wagner, who was from Bavaria, arrived in Philadelphia, PA, and used the yeast to brew lager for his friends and neighbors. He gave some of the yeast to a fellow brewer, John Manger, who then opened a brewery in Philadelphia . One of the key differences between between ales and lagers is that, as part of the brewing process, the latter undergo what is termed cold conditioning. During this cold conditioning stage, which may last anywhere between four and ten weeks, the beer is stored at a temperature between 33 and 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Indeed the term lager is a German word meaning to store. So the process of lagering is that of storing the beer. During lagering some of harsh flavors that result from the fermentation process are mellowed. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, breweries would lager their beer in lagering tunnels that were located underneath the brewery. These tunnels provided an environment that was cooler than above-ground storage facilities. As part of our tour we visited the lagering tunnels of Cincinnati’s old Jackson Brewery. The Jackson Brewery was open for thirty-two years, between 1887 and 1919.
The walking tour finished where it had started, at the Rhinegeist Brewery. Back at Rhinegeist we were given a tour of that brewery’s facilities. Rhinegeist is a relative newcomer to the craft brewing landscape, having been founded in 2013. In that short time it has experienced phenomenal growth; in 2016 Rhinegeist brewed fifty-seven thousand barrels of beer. The name Rhinegeist translates as “ghost of the Rhine”. It seems an appropriate name for a brewery that is (a) housed in an nineteenth century bottling plant and (b) is a key player in the brewing renaissance that is occurring in Cincinnati. In addition to Rhinegeist I also enjoyed a beer at Rivertown Brewery and Madtree Brewing Company on this visit to Cincinnati. On a previous trip back in February I had lunch at the brewery Taft’s Ale House. All the breweries were full of young people enjoying the fruits of the brewer’s labor. Today’s brewing landscape in Cincinnati is quite different than it was in the nineteenth century. The breweries are more geographically dispersed and are producing a much greater variety of beer styles than their nineteenth century counterparts. But there is no question that locally brewed beer in Cincinnati, as in almost every other American city, is back in vogue. To that I say “Prost”.
Stephens, Sarah. 2010. Cincinnati’s Brewing History. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Morgan, Michael D. 2010. Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King. Charleston, SC: The History Press.