History of the Brewing Industry in Over-the-Rhine

Detailed information about the remaining brewery structures coming online soon!

“Cincinnati is one of the great brewing centers of the continent…. The Cincinnati brewers fear no competition, because the excellence and fame of their brews create a demand for them even in cities whose brewers have a greater aggregate capital invested.”

Cincinnati’s breweries and associated activities such as shipping, cooperage, malting, farming, and of course drinking; at one time was one of the largest industries in the city. In 1890, Cincinnati was the 3rd largest beer producer in the country by population, annually producing 4.2 barrels of beer per resident and shipping it across the country and around the world. This economic and social powerhouse was primed by the city’s excellent transportation options and fertile farmlands, and fueled by the large amount of German immigrants that comprised over one quarter of the city’s population by 1840. The immigrants who settled in Over-the-Rhine brought with them a strong brewing tradition, work ethic, and cultural identity. The web that held this cultural enclave together was the neighborhood saloon and the beer that flowed there. consumption of beer drove production…from 354,000 barrels in 1870 to 656,000 barrels in 1880, and to the astronomical total of 1,115,000 barrels in 1890. Not quite half of it was exported, as far away as Brazil and Peru, but the rest stayed to supply residents. According to brewing industry figures for 1893, the per capita consumption of beer nationally was 16 gallons, but in Cincinnati the average per capita consumption was 40 gallons—40 gallons for every man, woman and child in the Queen City—or 2 1/2 times the national average...The annual report for 1863-64 of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce clearly did not exaggerate when it said that "a large number of citizens would dispense with their bread rather than their beer."

An Englishman named Davis Embree started the first commercial brewing in Cincinnati by 1812. By 1836, the number of breweries had substantially increased to ten, most of which produced porter, ale, and stout that was characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon industry at that time. The Over-the-Rhine brewing tradition began when a German immigrant established the first brewery in the neighborhood at the site of the Jackson Brewery in 1829, but it was not until a new lager beer that had been first brewed in the 1830’s in Bavaria became popular with the heavily German, fast growing urban population that the industry took off. By 1870 there were 36 breweries in the greater Cincinnati area, with at least 15 concentrated in Over-the-Rhine and another 3 in the West End. Many established themselves north of Liberty Street, in what is now the Brewery District, especially along McMicken Avenue (originally Hamilton Road). The location along McMicken Avenue, at the base of the hills ringing the river basin, provided the opportunity for deep basements and hillside tunnels under the breweries. The constant cool temperature assisted in the lagering of the beer. The brewery structures were of varying sizes, from one building to entire complexes covering five or six acres like The John Hauck Brewery.

From the very humble structures typical of the industry in the early nineteenth century, Cincinnati breweries grew larger, more complex, and more decorative, falling into two periods in terms of form and style. The first period, dating from the early lager period of the 1850’s to 1870’s, forms a transition between early and late nineteenth century brewery designs. Most often, breweries of this period were brick and used Romanesque Revival forms, probably influenced by the popularity of the similar “Rundbqgenstil” in Germany in the 1830’s and 1840's. These early lager breweries are marked by some specific brewery characteristics, but are more like ordinary industrial buildings adapted for brewing and less specialized in form than later examples. Surviving examples include the Bellevue Brewery and the Christian Moerlein Brewery bottling plant, which feature half-arched, inset windows, portals, and doorways, and more curved elements that were seen the sharply rectangular forms of earlier brewery structures. Window openings frequently were aligned vertically, and a decorative cornice accented the façade. Round, bulls-eye windows were place above single or paired round-headed windows. The second period dates from the mature lager period of the 1880's to about 1910. In this period, breweries often expanded greatly and their buildings began to take on more specialized appearances, distinct from earlier forms. As mechanical refrigeration and bottling was introduced, along with increased production, the need for specialized building forms to serve certain needs within the brewery complex emerged. The mature lager style blended the functional requirements of the brewery with more diverse stylistic features than common earlier. Surviving examples include the Sohn Brewery, which features richly articulated walls pierced by many windows. The forms were compact and upright with less emphasis on solid wall surfaces, more variation in color and texture, and a tighter spatial organization.

Prohibition in 1919 drove most of the city’s breweries out of business forever. A number of breweries were able to reopen in 1933, along with a few new ones, but changing market forces and the rise of modern, national breweries like Anheiser Busch and Miller hastened the end. The Red Top Brewing Company was the 14th largest brewery in the country around 1950, but by 1957 had gone out of business and closed the last operating brewery in Over-the-Rhine. Only one active brewery still remains in the West End. Over the years, the majority of brewery buildings were torn down or left to ruin. Approximately 47 buildings from 14 different breweries still remain in Over-the-Rhine and the West End today.