6 Enticing Breweries in Historic Buildings
Beer may be a globally beloved libation, but it has long been an important part of American history and culture. Dutch settlers brewed beer during the 17th century, and evidence exists that a few Native American tribes made corn-based beer long before that. When droves of German immigrants arrived in the 1800s, they brought brewing secrets and a lighter, crisper lager.
These days, with almost 7,500 craft breweries across the United States, beer tourism is officially a thing. Some breweries and beer-focused restaurants have transformed not only abandoned works of architecture but the neighborhoods around them, drawing visitors from all over the country and the world.
That’s the case with Rhinegeist, in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Thanks in part to the company’s renovation of more than 250,000 square feet in three abandoned buildings, this once-endangered neighborhood is thriving. Rhinegeist opened in 2013 in an 1896 former packing facility for a major pre-Prohibition brewery. “We’ve brought this building back to what it was built to be,” says T.J. Di Nino, Rhinegeist’s tour manager. The taproom occupies a 1912 addition, which includes 20-foot windows and a banquet space. A 1924 addition that was once home to a tailoring company now houses the brew system beneath a restored sawtooth roof.
In Astoria, Oregon’s Downtown Historic District, Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill set up their brewery in the 12,000-square-foot Fort George building in 2006. The structure, built in 1924 on the site of the city’s original settlement, Fort Astoria, was definitely hurting. “Most of the windows were broken, and there were birds living in it, and standing water,” says Harris. But he and Nemlowill could see the potential in the former auto body shop, with its walls of windows and enormous wooden beams. They leased the space and named their company Fort George Brewery + Public House. In 2010, they purchased the building and the former car dealership next door, which now houses a second brewery and a taproom; both buildings are listed in the Oregon Historic Sites Database. “We’ve really tried to honor what the buildings looked like before,” says Harris. “The reason we were able to succeed was because of city leaders in the late 1980s and ’90s who had preserved the waterfront and made it accessible, and [because of] the strong historic preservation culture we have in this town.”
City leaders were also key to the success of the Georgia Beer Company, which started as a joke among friends. “We said when we won the lottery someday, we were going to hire all our buddies to hang out and drink beer,” says Chris Jones, Georgia Beer’s director of business development. Soon enough, it became serious. Jones and his college friend Jack “J. Ryce” Martin entered the local chamber of commerce’s business-plan contest, which led to a series of fruitful partnerships with city agencies. A friend in the zoning office alerted them to a vacant 1906 utilities building with soaring ceilings and arched windows. Because the city wanted the brewery and the tourism it would bring, it deeded the building to the Valdosta-Lowndes Development Authority, which offered the company a 15-year lease-to-own deal and funded the $850,000 renovation. Along with restoring the windows and exposing the original brick, Jones and Martin used an assortment of local and salvaged materials. “We wanted this building to look like it had been a brewery for 100 years,” says Jones. For their efforts, they received a City of Valdosta Distinguished Merit Award in 2019, the same year the brewery opened.
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Some buildings really were breweries 100 years ago. The Pearl Brewery in San Antonio opened in 1883 and was acquired by other companies before it shuttered in 2001, leaving a vacant 26-acre property in the heart of downtown. Silver Ventures bought the entire site and adapted it into a popular mixed-use destination, saving the original brewing structures. But it was missing one thing central to its history: beer. So the company brought in chef Jeff Balfour in 2015 and opened Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery in the 1894 brewhouse, which still has its 32-foot ceilings, original light fixtures, and enormous tanks from the 1950s.
Tivoli Brewing Company made beer in Denver until it closed in 1969. Listed on the National Register, the enormous, Victorian-era building later became a mall and added a movie theater. In 1994, it began housing the Tivoli Student Union, which supports the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver. A group of investors leased a portion of the building in 2013, using that space to reopen the brewery along with a taphouse. The $8 million renovation, which was assisted by state historic tax credits, preserved more than 10,000 square feet of the historic brewing facility, including its two-story-high copper kettles and its original columns, plasterwork, and brick walls. Students in MSU of Denver’s beer industry program don’t just drink there; they can intern at the brewery, learning everything from fermentation science to business operations.
There may be less learning at a former printing building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, built circa 1915, but there are plenty of happy customers. The place had been abandoned for more than a decade when the owners of Appalachian Brewing Company first toured it. “I could see the beauty of the building, but I told my partners that if they took on the project, they were crazy,” says ABC’s director of operations, Artie Tafoya. They were just crazy enough. Over two years, the company rehabbed the building, restoring the original center-cut Douglas fir beams and steel I-beams. It also sandblasted and repainted the old steam registers. The Pennsylvania capital’s first brewery since 1951 has since become a statewide mini-empire with several more breweries and brewpubs, many in restored historic buildings such as an old VFW post, a railroad freight transfer station, and a stable house.