Over the Rhine: When Beer Was King - Excerpts
Click on the chapter titles below for excerpts from the book
My history with Cincinnati beer started as a young beer representative for a distributor that serviced the Athens, Ohio market. While I was working for that distributor and selling Cincinnati beer, I just happened to be in the city to watch one of the last days of production at the old Hudepohl brewery on Gest Street. I watched those bottles roll off the line and I saw the faces of the people around me, and the sense of loss was heartbreaking. Even though I wasn’t from here, I understood what they were feeling. Beer is a huge part of the city’s history. When Cincinnati lost local ownership of its brands, I felt like it was losing a big part of its soul as a city, and I bought the Christian Moerlein, Hudepohl, Burger, Schoenling, Little Kings, and over sixty other local brands both to build a business and to try to do the right thing for Cincinnati -- to bring back its brewing heritage.
After I met Mike Morgan during Bockfest 2006 and learned more about the history of the Brewery District in Over-the-Rhine, I started to get increasingly interested in the neighborhood because most of the brands I now own came from there. I already planned on bringing the Cincinnati brewing heritage back to town, but as I learned more about the history of Over-the-Rhine and started getting involved in its revitalization, I knew that there was one place above all others where Moerlein and Hudepohl should be brewed. It had to be their original home -- Over-the-Rhine. A lot of very smart, suburban advisers tried to steer me in other directions, but I knew that I wanted to be part of the neighborhood’s future. I wanted to authentically restore Over-the-Rhine’s brewing heritage.
My commitment to Over-the-Rhine started by learning about its history. That’s what brings it alive. That’s what makes you understand what is so important about saving it and rebuilding it. In the time that I have been involved in Over-the-Rhine, I have seen very few people who are as committed to the neighborhood, as knowledgeable about its history, or as passionate about sharing it as Mike Morgan. He has been essential in both inspiring me and helping me bring Cincinnati’s brewing heritage back to the city, and I’m glad that he has made his contribution to telling this early history of Over-the-Rhine.
How To Find a Building Under Your Building (back to top)
Chris Frutkin and Fred Berger bought a building that used to be part of the Kauffman Brewery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Chris and Fred are both in the real estate development, rental, and management business and they bought the building in the early 1990s to convert the industrial space to loft apartments.
The real estate agent who sold Chris and Fred the building had also sold it to previous owners. About a year after the sale to Chris and Fred, the agent decided to retire and was cleaning out old files. In the file from the 1956 sale of the property, he found architectural drawings of the Kauffman brew house (not copies, but the original architectural drawings from the 1880s construction.) The agent was thoughtful enough to give the copies to Chris. As he looked them over, he became more intrigued by what the plans showed. Neither Chris or Fred are architects, but they have both been around enough development to be able to read architectural drawings, and even someone who lacks this skill can identify the fact that the drawings showed an additional floor to the building that didn’t exist. At first, they assumed that plans had changed during construction; but upon closer examination, another possibility emerged.
Chris went down to the basement with a sledge hammer and knocked a hole through a sealed archway. In most basements, this would lead to dirt. In Chris’s, it lead to a tunnel that wrapped around the sides of his basement, and that had been sealed for decades. Exploration continued. In the tunnel, Chris found a hole. In the hole, Chris found an extra 11,000 square foot of building that he didn’t know he owned – below the basement....
Whiskey, Pigs, and Adulterous Lust: Birth of a City (back to top)
The Queen City of the West traded in almost all major commodities of the day, but some staples stood out. Corn was a very common crop grown in the large swaths of farmland served by the canal system, but because it was bulky and plentiful it was also a bad commodity to sell as an export. Instead, farmers either used it to raise pigs or distilled it into whiskey. In 1829 pork was the city’s key export and bacon was the second (apparently distinguishing between livestock and….bacon.) Together, the value of pork and bacon exports was $702,796. By comparison, only $182,236 worth of whiskey was exported. This early boon to the economy produced by swine gave the city its “Porkopolis” nickname, but forgetting the importance of whiskey is a bit of revisionist history. Pork was the king of the early Cincinnati economy, but whiskey had a three-fold advantage. First, whiskey doesn’t die, get diseased, or spoil in route. Second, whiskey doesn’t smell like a pig. And third, it will get you drunk. These advantages helped make whiskey a much larger export than pork in the coming decades. By 1881 the value of all forms of livestock passing through the city was $26,000,000 compared to the $30,972,000 in whiskey exports. A decade later, roughly $9,000,000 more whiskey was being exported than all types of livestock combined, and the export value of whiskey and beer together had reached $39,300,000.....
America vs. Over-the-Rhine (back to top)
To the Know-Nothings, the Germans were not “real Americans.” In fact, the area above the canal called Over-the-Rhine was contrasted with the area below the canal often referred to as “ America.” From the Know-Nothing perspective, residents of Over-the-Rhine were foreigners who refused to accept the traditional concept of American culture, and therefore posed a threat to the city’s very way of life. To the Know-Nothings, the April 2, 1855 election was nothing less than a decision between whether the city would be ruled by “Americans” or “foreign invaders.”
Afraid of being outnumbered in an honest election, Know-Nothings went to Maysville, Kentucky to recruit residents for a journey to Cincinnati. Early Monday morning, men from various, local Know-Nothing lodges from several Kentucky towns began congregating at the public landing in Maysville, roughly sixty miles upriver from Cincinnati. They boarded the steamship Daniel Boone and 300 men, “armed to the teeth with revolvers and Bowie knives, and headed by prominent members of the Kentucky legislature” disembarked onto the Cincinnati shore at about 10:00 AM on April 2, 1855, Election Day. According to the position of the Know Nothings, these men were present to help keep the peace and ensure that the election was conducted fairly, without fraud perpetrated by immigrants or the party bosses who manipulated them. In fairness, Know-Nothing concerns about elections had a legitimate basis. By the time the Know –Nothing movement started to build steam in the 1840s, urban elections had become booze-laden carnivals of vote buying and fraud. For weeks leading up to an election, saloon patrons could drink free courtesy of political parties and their candidates. In addition, both voting laws and citizenship requirements were subject to manipulation. There was no unified, federalized system of obtaining citizenship. The process occurred through local courts. There was also no meaningful voter registration system. This made it easy for immigrants who had not yet become naturalized citizens to vote, and in the later era of machine politics it lead to systems that directly exchanged naturalization court rulings for votes. There were legitimate problems with the democratic process caused by the fact that it was ill-equipped to handle large waves of immigrants.
The Democratic-leaning Daily Enquirer took a different perspective on the Know-Nothing poll recruits, wryly noting that they had arrived to “protect the Cincinnati polls from the Irish.” The paper observed that “armed as they were, they would be much more likely to excite than repress disturbance.” The words were prophetic.....
The Golden Age of Golden Beer (back to top)
Beer has always been a part of our national culture. Colonial America was full of home-brew recipes with varying ingredients and fermentation periods as short as a day. There seems to have been several problems with early beer as a commodity, but the largest might have been the fact that a lot of it – maybe most or of it – wasn’t very good. Beer fermented in a day may work out nicely if you’re in prison or concerned that the local water supply will give you dysentery, but you wouldn’t drink it if you had a better choice. Beer as we know it today is a relatively modern delicacy that was first crafted around the mid-1800s. Before that, Cincinnatians did have beer options, but a thirsty Cincinnatian was more likely to drink whiskey or wine.
In fact, the Ohio River Valley was the early nineteenth century version of wine country. Cincinnati’s first café, given the austere name of “Pegasus and the Fallen Poet” was opened by a Frenchmen in 1793. He cultivated grapes in lot next to the café and established the Ohio Valley’s first vineyard. It would not be alone in the region for long. Vevay, Indiana, about sixty miles downstream from Cincinnati was producing 2,400 gallons of wine a year as early as 1810. Production had more than doubled by 1817. Vevay’s vintners predicted that their output, quality, and access to Cincinnati as a shipping port would soon eliminate America’s need to import European wine. While this prediction didn’t come true, the area’s vintners had reason for optimism. By 1848 there were 743 acres of vineyard within a twenty-mile radius of Cincinnati
Even Cincinnati’s early Germans had a closer connection to wine than beer. Nicholas Longworth was Cincinnati’s most noted vintner, covering much of the hills overlooking the city with grape vines. Longworth was not German, but the majority of his vineyard employees were. By the late 1840s German immigrants were supplying the majority of vineyard workers, and they were producing respected wine. During a trip to Cincinnati, former President Martin Van Buren compared local wine to the best wines that he had tasted in Europe; and Cincinnati’s famed Catawba won a medal in an 1850 London competition.....
Drunkenness and Bloodshed: The Parallel Perspective (back to top)
At a time when the public was outraged at crime run amok, a senseless murder was committed on Christmas Eve 1883. Two stable hands, William Berner, described as “a young German,” and Joseph Palmer, “a light mulatto,” murdered their employer, William Kirk. Mr. Kirk was savagely beaten and strangled to death. His body was tossed into the back of a wagon, taken to the outskirts of town, and dumped in a thicket of bushes. The motive was $285 that Kirk had earned on the sale of a horse. After apprehension, the killers demonstrated no signs of remorse. Berner confessed no less than seven times and he admitted that the plan was hatched weeks in advance. The crime was a clear example of First Degree Murder, a capital offense -- a hanging offense; but Cincinnatians had good reason to believe that justice would be denied.
The system didn’t seem to be working and there was immediate public speculation in the Berner case about the relationship between the defense attorney and his former law partner, the presiding judge. All of the speculation surrounding the trial was heightened when Berner’s attorney had the trial bifurcated, meaning that Berner and Palmer would be tried separately. Berner was going to be tried first. To many, the writing on the wall was clear: The young German would be acquitted and the black guy would hang for the crime of both men. No one seems to have been bothered by the fact that Palmer was likely to hang, but the public turned pre-trial speculation into irrefutable proof that the justice system was inept and corrupt. This sentiment had merit. Five-hundred-and-four men were called in jury selection in order to adequately hand pick a jury of twelve. Jury selection had been drug on so long that it was said to have cost the State $5,000, and Berner’s father reportedly paid the defense attorney $4,500, a legal fee that drew outrage in 1884.
As the trial got underway, it became a primary topic in beer gardens and saloons. Saloon windows displayed caricatures of the jury and the attorneys with derogatory and violent captions. Rumors of bribery, collusion between the attorneys and judge, and jury tampering ran rampant. Booze and trial news were being blended in an increasingly combustible cocktail.....
Wink and a Nod (back to top)
In 1831 the State of Ohio passed a statute that read: “Whoever sells or barters any spirituous liquors on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, shall be fined not more than $5.00.” With some modifications primarily aimed at making it more stringent and increasing the fines, this remained the letter of the law for the next eighty-nine years. It also started a long Cincinnati tradition: ignoring the Sunday closing law.....
America Wins (back to top)
On August 1, 1914, Cincinnati’s German-American community received the news that Germany had declared war on Russia, commencing its involvement in what would become World War I. Although disruption with ship traffic prevented them from making it out of the country, droves of Cincinnati’s German community who were not yet citizens reported to the Austrian and Hungarian consulate in Over-the-Rhine, ready to join the German army. Cincinnati’s German-born Mayor Spiegel announced that “the sympathies of the Americans should be with Germany, not only because of the justice of Germany’s cause but also because Germany has always been a better friend to the United States than any other of the contending countries.” Phonograph players blared German waltzes out of the windows of Over-the-Rhine apartments, and its beer gardens and saloons filled with people seeking news about the war. “The German community, or at least that part which was wont to gather nightly in Over-the-Rhine, soon settled down around its beer tables to fight the war with all the more gusto.”
The rhetoric of the German societies and the German press was ratcheted up in ways that would be regretted in the following years. By genuine coincidence, Ohio had another state-wide Prohibition amendment vote on the November 14, 1914 ballot. The Volksblatt warned voters: “Just as our brothers and sisters are presently sacrificing goods and chattels, body and soul, across the ocean to save Germandom from its enemies, so must we, with the same readiness for sacrifice, overcome our enemies” (i.e. prohibitionists.) The Freie Presse rallied voters with similar rhetoric: “we are at war too, at war against hypocrisy, intolerance; and against nativist presumptuousness and moralistic pretentiousness.” German societies responded to the Freie Presse editorial by marching to its offices interchangeably singing “Die Wacth am Rhein” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” After the measure was defeated, the Freie Presse rejoiced with an equally divisive tone: “The American Allies – Reformers, Grapejuicers, Watersimpletons, Bullmoosers, Suffragettes, etc. – have now learned what the Entente has known for some time: how German blows taste.”....
The Road to Dryville (back to top)
Following the Civil War, prohibition seemed like an idea whose time had come and gone. Many rural soldiers became exposed to drinking and male saloon culture for the first time during the war, and large numbers of them decided that they liked it. German-Americans were also noted for valor and patriotism during the war. This helped remove some of the nativist stigma on German-American culture and made non-Germans more comfortable with entering German neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and enjoying the increasingly popular German lager beer. Both state and municipalities were also starting to understand that they couldn’t afford to outlaw alcohol even if they wanted to.
By the time of the Woman’s Crusade in 1873, the distilling and brewing industries had a capital investment in the city of over $33,000,000, and the number of saloons exceeded 2,000. Directly and indirectly, the alcoholic beverage industry was estimated to employ between 30,000 and 40,000 Cincinnatians. In 1875, one-third of the nation’s federal tax revenue came from beer and whiskey, and by the 1890s Cincinnati was paying more of this tax than any other district in America. Distilleries in Cincinnati, Covington and Newport paid one sixth of the entire internal revenue of the United States in 1897. Brewing accounted for less total tax revenue, but it was one of the largest industries in Cincinnati, producing 1,325,000 barrels of beer annually by the later part of the 1890s. Locally, the tax on beer alone amounted to $1,250,000 in tax revenue.
The positive economic impact that alcohol had on society did not sway prohibitionists. They believed that the elimination of the social ills attributable to alcohol would easily offset some lost tax revenue, and most had little sympathy for people who chose to earn a living making, dealing, or pushing liquid evil. Denied outright prohibition, dry Ohio legislators started passing legislation to whittle away at Personal Liberty. The Ohio Constitution of 1851 had been drafted to state: “No license to traffic intoxicating liquors shall hereafter be granted in this state, but the general assembly may, by law, provide against evils resulting therefrom.” At their least creative, new pieces of legislation dramatically increased fines and penalties for selling on Sundays or breaking the common labor law. They also tried to better regulate behavior inside saloons. It became a crime to buy a drink for “a person who is at the time intoxicated, or in the habit of getting intoxicated.” Furnishing alcohol to a minor became illegal. Anyone who recalls the “just say no” campaigns of the 1980s (“this is your brain on pot”) can imaging the nature of class materials used to fulfill a state statute that required instruction on “the nature of alcoholic drinks and narcotics, and their effects on the human system in connection with the subjects of physiology and hygiene.” Text books were approved by politically powerful temperance groups; and the law required firing school staff who refused to teach the material.....
Rot & Redemption (back to top)
Louis Hudepohl (born Ludwig Hudepohl II) had a business model that would raise a few eyebrows in modern state regulatory agencies. He had a combination real estate office and liquor store on Main Street. The real estate thing must not have worked out because his business was listed solely as a wholesale liquor store a few years later; but he definitely had a bright future in the alcoholic beverage industry. Along with his partner George Kotte, Hudepohl sold the liquor store on Main and bought a fledgling brewery on Buckeye Street (now East Clifton) in 1885. Born in Cincinnati by German immigrant parents, Hudepohl would become the first American-born member of Cincinnati’s great pre-Prohibition beer barons. Although Louis Hudepohl died in 1902, his family-run brewery also bridged another generational gap: The Hudepohl Brewing Company was only one of four Cincinnati breweries to survive Prohibition. As the last to still be brewing near beer, the Bruckmann Brewing Company was the only Cincinnati brewery poised to immediately return to production of real beer. Hudepohl, Foss-Schnieder, and Schaller also resumed operations within a few months, and under their pre-Prohibition names. Within a year, these breweries were followed by a series of others that breathed new life into pre-Prohibition breweries. Windisch-Muhlhauser’s Lion Brewery became the Burger Brewery. The Gambrinus Stock facility re-opened as the Vienna Brewing Company. George Weber’s Jackson Brewery re-opened as the Jackson Brewery. The Mohawk Brewery became the Clyffside Brewery. In the West End, Red Top was born in part of the John Hauck brewing complex, and Schoenling Brewery was born just north of the Burger facility.
Some of these breweries had more staying power than others. Foss-Schnieder lasted less than four years. Vienna Brewing Company folded in 1940, followed by Schaller’s Main Street Brewery in 1941, and the Jackson Brewery in 1942. Bruckmann survived until 1949. Clyffside was purchased by Red Top in 1945. Using the Clyffside facility to increase its production, Red Top rose to become one of the largest breweries in Ohio, but consolidation and changes in the industry forced Red Top to close in 1957, leaving only Hudepohl continuing commercial brewing operations in Over-the-Rhine.....