Rebuilding Cincinnati’s Brewing Legacy

cincinnati breweries

Rebuilding Cincinnati’s Brewing Legacy

By Michele Herrmann, Epicure & Culture Contributor 

At one point, Cincinnati breweries produced so much beer there was no need to export it. By 1890, the Ohio city was said to be the third largest beer producer per person in the country. This feat was initiated about 60 years earlier, when the first wave of German immigrants to the United States came to Cincinnati and established an early neighborhood known as Over-The-Rhine, where their native language and traditions could flourish.

Particularly beer making. More than 30 breweries thrived here, as did establishments that served what was brewed.

Sadly, Prohibition changed everything in 1920. Breweries closed, Over-the-Rhine’s residents moved away and the city’s prosperous beer making empire disintegrated.

Tough years ensued, though city officials and entrepreneurs stepped in in the early 2000s to focus on returning Over-The-Rhine to its original splendor — and that includes brewing. Historic producer Christian Moerlein Brewing Co, founded in 1853 and reintroduced 1981, went through a number of ownership changes before being purchased by a Cincinnati native in 2009 who wanted to return the brand to its roots. More on this below!

Another exciting milestone connecting pre-Prohibition history in Over-The-Rhine to present day is a recent discovery of abandoned underground lagering tunnels and caverns. Before the turn of the century, these were used to cool and store beer before refrigeration was invented. Nowadays, you can go on an escorted tour of them through a local company called American Legacy Tours.

Speaking of beer, Cincinnati is now home to about 25 craft breweries and gastropubs producing suds throughout the region. This span includes what’s known as the Over-The-Rhine Historic Brewing District, plus neighboring northern Kentucky. To get a start on tasting Cincinnati’s beer legacy, check out these five stellar brew houses.

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cincinnati breweries

1. Rhinegeist Brewery

Not far from Findlay Market, Rhinegeist Brewery is housed inside the original skeleton of the circa-1895 Christian Moerlein bottling facility in Over-The-Rhine. Make the long trip up the stairs to enter the spacious tasting room, filled with games like corn hole and ping-pong . Long picnic bench tables seat patrons wanting to socialize, although the rooftop bar is also worth checking out. Since brewing its first batch of beer in 2013, Rhinegest’s selections extend to many drafts, canned and limited bottles, plus two hard ciders. Consider the “Cougar,” a light blonde ale with Pilsner and Flaked Wheat malts and magnum and crystal hops; or “Truth,” a tropical fruit India Pale ale with a foursome of hops including amarillo, citra, simcoe and centennial.

cincinnati breweries

2. Taft’s Ale House

Near to Rhinegeist, this artisan gastropub resides inside a former Protestant church, getting its name from Cincinnati native William Howard Taft. Taft was the 27th president of the United States before becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Poor Taft is also remembered for his portly size, as seen in the logos for his namesake ale house. After heading up the church step entrance, the dark wooden panel interior features a bar area near what was once the altar, with tables along the center. The drink list includes in-house originals and collaborations with other local breweries and culinary businesses.

Try the “Nellie’s Key Lime Caribbean Ale,” an American Ale brewed with citrus and a hint of coriander named for Taft’s wife, or the “Maverick Chocolate Porter,” made with cacao nibs and husks from Cincinnati’s Maverick Chocolate. For food savor the smoked chicken wings or the tri-trip sliders.

Don’t leave without peeking inside Nellie’s Tap Room, a smaller connected venue.

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cincinnati breweries

3. Urban Artifact

In Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood, this craft brewery inside an old church features a full bar, tap-room and live music venue. Its taproom is constructed in the building’s lower level, while the brewery resides inside a former gymnasium just behind this former house of worship. Plus, there’s outdoor beer garden seating.

The brews here are sour and wild beers. With the latter, each is brewed with locally caught wild yeast, bacteria or mixed cultures of both. These untamed microorganisms then get used to create tastes that run from tart and crisp to tropical to just plain out of the box.

Start with a “Calliope,” a wild fresh hop ale, or “Otso,” a double tart brown with cold-pressed Ethiopian coffee. The food menu is just as unusual as the names of the beers, with sandwich orders like “Nachos Cheese Doritos” or smoked pulled pork in homage to Cincinnati’s then-nickname “Porkopolis,” due to its past days as a major pork producer. There’s a regular calendar of performances, as well.

cincinnati breweries

4. Fifty West Brewing Company

Inside a rustic building dating back to 1827, the microbrewery features a fun US Route 50 theme and works with local providers for hops and roasted coffee beans to produce about 15 different craft beers. The property also has a cellar for barrel aging beers, giving their suds bourbon, oak and vanilla characteristics.

Beers change weekly, with a range of IPAs, ales and Pilsners, plus a “Coffee Please Nitro Stout” with the java portion provided by Coffee Please in Madeira, Ohio. “Fuzzy Feeling,” a fruity golden ale, has apricots and American yeast, and “Tastee Whip ICA” is an ice cream ale with a base of sweet, toasty and nutty malts fused with house-toasted pecans and house-made bourbon vanilla bean extract. Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner menus extend to contemporary American choices like hors d’oeuvres, sandwiches, soups and salads, as well as entrees like an artichoke gorgonzola bisque and lamp dip.

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cincinnati breweries
5. Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.

A German immigrant named Christian Moerlein began his beer production in Cincinnati in 1853 and became one of the largest volume producing breweries in America until Prohibition. While another company reintroduced the label in 1981, Cincinnati resident Greg Hardman purchased Christian Moerlein in 2004 as part of a plan to revitalization the city’s brewing legacy. At this spacious downtown malt house, just blocks away from the beer company’s original site, order a pint of a lager or ale in the tap-room for as low as $5. Notables include the “Barbarossa,” a Bavarian style double dark lager, and “Friend of an Irishman,” a stout with a mild coffee aroma. The company also offers free tours of its facility, which features a trip to the once-used underground caverns. Christian Moerlein also owns a lager house in Smale Riverfront Park, near the Cincinnati Reds Great American ballpark.

What are your favorite Cincinnati breweries? Please share in the comments below! 

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The Beer Bible by Workman Publishing Company [Great Reads]

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Michele Herrmann splits her time between New England and New York City, and has gotten much better at packing light with her back and forth trips. She has jaunted across Europe and up, down and across the United States and even as far as the South Pacific. She's grateful for being able to dispense travel stories and advice through media outlets and companies (as well as putting her BA in English to good use). Her blog She Is Going Places serves as her way to encourage others to get out and exploring!

1 Comment

  1. Great write up on the Cincinnati beer scene! So many great breweries that it is hard to pick just a few to highlight but you did a great job. I would add MadTree and Rivertown to the list of must visit breweries. Both are adding new locations late this year/next year. Beer is alive and well in Cincinnati!

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