New Urbanism Is Fueling Cincinnati Craft Brewing

New Urbanism Is Fueling Cincinnati Craft Brewing

I’m walking alongside the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the country. The buildings are all narrow, densely packed onto their adjacent neighbors. Seeing all of this, it comes as no surprise that at its peak of 44,000 residents, this neighborhood was the second most dense neighborhood in the country behind Manhattan.

Today, however, there is a mixture of revitalization and abandonment after decades of embarrassment, neglect, prohibition, suburban sprawl and now return migration. New businesses and mixed-use apartments stand triumphantly on Vine, Race and Main Streets. Brightly-colored facades seem to stick out even after sunset.

I am of course referring to the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood which is playing host to the Cincinnati beer Renaissance and the forthcoming Cincinnati Streetcar.

Over-the-Rhine was Meant for Brewing

Steven Hampton, executive director of the OTR Brewery District, meets me at Findlay Market on a cloudy and humid Saturday morning. The market, a member of the national register of historic places, was until recently the only reason for many to visit this neighborhood troubled with poverty and crime as the population dwindled to just four or five thousand.

Wearing a Bockfest tee shirt, a nod to the annual community celebration over three days with a strong emphasis on beer, Hampton walks me to the former home of the original Christian Moerlein Brewing Company. The Moerlein brewing empire stretched for blocks in its heyday during the mid to late 1800s. Just a handful of the original buildings still stand, including one facility that now houses Rhinegeist Brewery, which just so happens to be celebrating their one-year anniversary this evening. Rest assured, I shall return later.

Hampton shares stories of Over-the-Rhine’s brewing past as he guides me through a series of intricately planned underground brewing tunnels that are still being discovered and excavated today. Though it’s easy to become nostalgic, Hampton has no delusions of Over-the-Rhine reclaiming its 18 historic breweries. Instead, he simply wants to develop a mixed-used neighborhood where people walk and use public transit, like the Cincinnati Streetcar. He says this, because that’s how the neighborhood historically functioned at its best.

Unsurprisingly, Prohibition annihilated Christian Moerlein Brewing and the rest of OTR’s brewing industry, of which there was no shortage of. With strong roots in the German culture, this was a neighborhood meant for brewing. However, anti-German sentiment throughout both World Wars decimated the neighborhood. Cincinnatians were no longer proud to be German or to have anything to do with OTR, stalling the comeback of brewing after prohibition for over half a century.

The introduction of the automobile, too, did this neighborhood no favors. Without the brewing industry or reason to be proud of their home, many fled to the first suburbs. Streets like Liberty Road were widened in hopes of bringing freeways, accelerating the exodus.

Luckily the highway never came, but it created an unnatural separation in the heart of a neighborhood meant for people and density, not cars speeding through.

Ironically, Over-the-Rhine was in such a dismal state of affairs, the neighborhood escaped many of the urban renewal projects that hollowed out and segregated American cities—projects we now know were foolish and unsustainable.

“Have you ever seen District 9?” asks Derek Bauman, a community activist largely responsible for keeping the Cincinnati Streetcar project alive. “That’s how people saw this neighborhood. Keep these people isolated from the outside world.”

Though life seems at a relative standstill near the old Christian Moerline block and current home to Rhinegeist, there is new development happening. Outside of Rhinegeist, surrounded in yellow caution tape and orange construction cones, sits a future Cincinnati Streetcar stop alongside newly tracked rails.

Craft Beer and Streetcars

The Cincinnati Streetcar was long the subject of heated debates and local editorials. Voters twice approved construction of the project, but came into a roadblock when an anti-streetcar mayor took the reigns of City Hall late last year.

Mayor John Cranley unilaterally declared the project dead upon his election, arguing he would ask the federal government to re-appropriate the federal dollars toward road projects. Recent history had shown that this was an unrealistic ask after Ohio Governor John Kasich failed to turn passenger rail dollars into highway spending after his election in 2010.

Streetcar supporters, including Hampton, Christian Moerlein’s Greg Hardman, the Rhinegeist crew and Bauman, did not go quietly into the good night. They flooded city council meetings with powerful testimony in support of the project, questioning the fairness in singling out an affordable public transit project over highway projects that almost always seem to be given a blank check. Men and women who had made investments in properties along or near the proposed line rallied for the mayor to reconsider. Even Santa Claus showed up to the December hearings.

Greg Hardman, CEO and President of Christian Moerlein and the OTR Brewery District, was one who invested early on in Cincinnati’s Banks project, anticipating that the much talked about streetcar line would come within a three-block radius of his Lager House near Great American Ballpark on the Ohio River. His production brewery also happens to sit just a block away from the streetcar on Moore Street in OTR.

“The idea of the streetcar was developed by the brewery district,” Hardman tells me over lunch and a Northern Liberties IPA at his 15,000 square foot lager house—one of the largest in the world.

Hardman recalls suburban friends scoffing at his plan to “restore Cincinnati’s grand brewing tradition,” calling any investment in the city a waste. However, Hardman was steadfast in his mission and believed urbanism was making a comeback. A recent visit to Portland has cemented his view.

“Rogue isn’t even on the streetcar line there,” he says. “Any building that is within a three-block radius of [the Cincinnati Streetcar] will be in pretty good shape.”

“Head To Rhinegeist”

After an ill-planned pause of the project that will end up costing the project more and delaying the line’s opening from in time for the Major League All-Star game in Cincinnati next summer to early 2016, Cincinnati City Council came together and defied a mayor who many agreed overstepped his bounds. A plan to finish the project’s initial three-mile loop around downtown and Findlay Market was agreed upon just in time for the holidays. Supporters gathered that night at Rhinegeist to celebrate the victory, which makes sense considering the brewery’s support for the project. Bryant Goulding, co-founder of Rhinegiest, calls the streetcar “an obvious boon” to their business plan.

“That night was special because the vote went down to the wire and we were getting updates as votes came in,” Goulding recalls. “Then as momentum built, people started texting us and tweeting ‘Head to Rhinegeist for the afterparty,’ and we were bowled over by a few hundred people who came directly from City Hall, including each of the City Council Members who voted for the project.”

Goulding’s description is not unlike what I saw Saturday evening on June 28 as Cincinnatians poured into Rhinegeist’s hallowed halls (hallowed, at least, in brewing history) to celebrate a year of brewing. A local band performed in front of 100 and 120 barrel brewing tanks for a sweaty crowd attempting to cool off with a glass of Rhinegeist’s blonde ale Cougar or Zen session pale ale.

Walking back along the rails toward redeveloped Washington Park (easily one of the finest urban parks in the nation) and Symphony Hall, you could see the potential of the streetcar as it traces alongside properties that have not yet seen the tender love and care that other corners of the neighborhood have. Those that have seen the love are largely the work of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), an organization that has poured millions into redevelopment of the neighborhood.

One of their latest projects, and perhaps most ambitious, is the Taft’s Ale House—$8 million to rehab a church into a 15,000-square-foot, three-level brewpub. Right outside their front door are tracks for the Cincinnati Streetcar.

“This resurgence of brewing in the urban core of Cincinnati is a fantastic solution for reusing some of the very large vacant buildings that were left over from the days of intense population density,” says Nick Dewald, senior development officer at 3CDC. “Adding an establishment with varying levels of activity around the clock makes for a healthy urban environment that will encourage further revitalization and help legitimize widely debated urban-focused projects like the streetcar.”

This is why Cincinnati’s urban brewing community was such steadfast supporters of the streetcar project, I’m told. It’s about improving the community for everyone. It’s about, as Mr. Hardman and Hampton noted repeatedly, returning Cincinnati’s brewing heritage to its former greatness.

Historically, Cincinnatians moved their beer from Over-the-Rhine down Main Street to the banks of the Ohio River where the Port of Cincinnati was located. Hardman’s Christian Moerlein Lager House juts out just so on the upper-level in order to offer a view of the former route.

This, in part, is how Hardman and his colleagues envision Cincinnati recapturing its brewing heritage. Except this time it won’t be on the backs of horses and carriages. It will be along the Cincinnati Streetcar.

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