The craft beer industry is thriving in many cities, but in Cincinnati, not only is it part of the city’s present and future, it’s also deeply embedded in the city’s past. The last half of the 19th century brought waves of German immigrants who brought their love of beer and knowledge of brewing to the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Before the 18th amendment ended this era, 18 breweries operated in this one neighborhood alone.
Prohibition changed everything, and by 1990, not a single brewery remained in Cincinnati. Since then, the brewing culture has returned to Cincinnati, along with an interest in restoring OTR’s Italianate buildings and remembering its brewing history. This is the mission of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.
One of their projects is the Brewing Heritage Trail. Executive Director Steven Hampton says, “The Trail tells more than just how much beer we made and how much we drank; it is the story of American immigration, ingenuity, ethnic conflict, industrialization, the labor struggle, working class society, nineteenth century living conditions, machine politics, the impact of saloon culture on families and government, and the impact of a constitutional amendment on local economies told through the production and consumption of a single commodity – beer.”
The first segment of the trail is expected to open in Spring 2018. According to Hampton, the trail will have “traditional elements such as bronze medallion way finding, permanent signage with photos and stories, and public art installations along with new elements such as smartphone apps and digital immersive experiences.”
Until then, the best way to learn about Cincinnati’s brewing heritage is to take a guided tour. My husband loves to accompany me on any research trips that involve beer, so we signed up for a tour. Tours are offered on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The 90-minute Cellarman’s Tour begins at Christian Moerlein Brewery and Malthouse Taproom. We arrived a little early and enjoyed some beer and a pretzel before the tour started.
We had two tour guides for our group of about 20 people. The tour started with a brief history of Cincinnati. As we walked, they pointed out different buildings, highlighting both their architectural details and historical significance.
We walked past a couple of Cincinnati’s many colorful murals. The murals that were along our route celebrate the city’s brewing heritage.
We learned about several of the pre-prohibition breweries that operated in OTR. Our guides told us about the brewing processes they used and how beer was chilled in underground lagering rooms. Toward the end of the tour, we followed our guides down into one of the rooms beneath the old Crown Brewery. It had Roman arches with limestone walls covered with clay.
We even got to walk through a tunnel that runs underneath McMicken Avenue. This was definitely the highlight and a tour is the only way to access one of these underground lagering rooms.
Our tour ended back at Christian Moerlein Brewery where we got to sample a couple of their newly tapped beers. We sipped our beer with a new appreciation for Cincinnati’s rich brewing heritage.
Disclosure: my husband and I received complimentary tour admission so that I could research and write this article.