Building the Brew: Historic Preservation & Breweries in Cincinnati
Written by Daniel Ronan, Site Projects & Public Engagement Coordinator, National Public Housing Museum
When I visited Cincinnati for the first time in March, I was amazed by the Queen City’s fervor for historic preservation. In particular, efforts to revitalize neighborhoods such as the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) -- one of the largest historic districts in the United States -- and the enthusiasm for local preservation enthusiasm encouraged me to look deeper into Cincy’s burgeoning cultural renaissance.
And what says culture more than a pint of beer?
On several occasions during my trip, I was told to visit the many breweries in Cincinnati. At its height, the city was home to 36 breweries, 17 of which were located in OTR and the city’s West End. Reportedly the city was so crazy about beer that in 1894, counting every man, woman, and child, Cincinnati residents drank 50 gallons of the devil’s drink every year.
To better understand Cincinnati’s cultural and economic development, I grabbed a pint with Steve Hampton, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation. Founded in 2003, the organization works to develop a cohesive brand for OTR’s history by supporting the local economy, its brewing legacy, and built heritage.
As we talk about the changes in the OTR neighborhood, it’s clear his organization has been a player in shaping the future and present development of our surroundings. Apart from its work in master planning for the district -- including a city-approved and citizen-initiated public process for shaping the neighborhood -- Hampton’s group sponsors tours of brewery sites. OTR visitors can see breweries, cellars, and tunnels from the pre-Prohibition era, which are just now being rediscovered by thousands of people since tours began in 2006.
“The brewery culture here is an untapped asset,” Hampton says. “It’s a history that is ours, it’s authentic.”
Uncovering Cincinnati’s brewery history is the Brewery District’s mission, which also serves to tell a piece of a broader American experience -- the story of German-American immigrants. Breweries were at the center of German-American culture and commerce. With the dawn of Prohibition in 1920, many German brewers and workers lost their livelihoods, and Cincinnati lost one of its largest industries.
Speaking with Tap Room Manager Jon Colasurd of Rhinegeist Brewery in OTR brings a sense of broader cultural restoration happening in Cincinnati. “The idea was to bring back the brewing history of this area,” Colasurd says. “To come in and already have that bit of history built into this building was a big selling point.”
As Colasurd speaks from the refurbished tap room aside a grand atrium for brewing and drinking frolic, it’s hard to picture that this large brewery operation began only a year ago. Housed in the historic Christian Moerlein bottling plant -- the city's oldest brewery and formerly one of its largest -- the Rhinegeist has set its sights on expansion into an adjoining warehouse. It continues to broaden its market reach in the Midwest and beyond.
Christian Moerlein itself was reintroduced to Cincinnati in 1981. Now housed in a historic malt house, blocks from Rhinegeist, its cavernous space is reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral -- fitting for a heavenly pint.
High above OTR in Eden Park, this same ethic rings true. Efforts to redevelop a historic Victorian pump station in Cincinnati’s signature urban park have also caught the brewery bug. Led by former city architect Jack Martin, Brewery X seeks to bring back a bit of Cincinnati’s brewery past through an adaptive reuse project.
With the building sitting as a vacant public property for more than a decade, Martin is honest about the project's difficulties, particularly in acquiring funding. Still, he acknowledges the building's appeal: "This is an opportunity -- a cool building, a cool location -- [and] if it wasn’t this building, we would have quit a long time ago."
The effort got some good news last month when the project received a $736,000 state grant to clean up the building.
The Brewery X project is a half-pint compared to the forthcoming $10 million project to create Taft’s Ale House in OTR, led by Head Brewer Kevin Moreland. Moreland and his development team are renovating St. John’s Church, once the third largest church in Cincinnati. With the help of redevelopment corporation 3CDC, the team hopes to breathe life into the historic German Pentecostal church and change the landscape of Cincinnati’s brewery scene, all the while channeling the story of Cincy’s native son and former U.S. President William Howard Taft.
“Cincinnati has great history, great stories, and we wanted to be a part of it,” Moreland says. Inspired by Taft’s whistle-stop campaigns, a large glass train car will seat beer enthusiasts in the basement, while Cincinnati’s Rookwood tile -- a nod to the local aesthetic and a boost for the local economy -- will grace the steps to the restored sanctuary.
In the middle of the Rust Belt, which has seen the worst of economic restructuring and slow recoveries, there are individuals who have a vision and are reaching for it. Collectively, Cincinnati is building the brew, all through acknowledging and celebrating its brewing history through historic preservation.
“Without each other, we can’t be successful,” Moreland says. “Together we can make Cincy a beer town.”
I can’t wait to experience the taste of these efforts on my next trip to Cincinnati -- undoubtedly over several pints.