How an Accidental Discovery Led to Cincinnati's Best Beer Story
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Oktoberfest is upon us. Here’s your chance to go deep — literally — into beer history.
By Stephanie Vermillion
The workday started like any typical HVAC installation: Unload equipment, confirm the location and connect the lines. Sometimes, particularly in renovations, the work also involves breaking through bricked-up doorways. In Cincinnati’s historic German neighborhood, Over the Rhine (OTR), that can mean uncovering a lost piece of beer history.
That’s what happened when workers plowed into a brick wall in OTR last year. Instead of the usual hookup lines, they found a pre-Prohibition lagering cellar with an intact, centuries-old vat in the center. Anywhere else, this would be big news. But in OTR — a neighborhood so beer-rich you can smell it (thanks to yeast from nearby breweries) — this discovery became just another dot on the new Brewing Heritage Trail map.
The Brewing Heritage Trail, which opened in OTR in April 2019, is an immersive stroll through the city’s beer-soaked roots. Cincinnati’s culture was built on German-immigrant traditions — that’s why it’s home to Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, the largest Oktoberfest celebration in America that draws 600,000 visitors downtown with all things lederhosen and lager. But when it comes to the city’s beer history, brew aficionados also head for OTR, where the brewing tradition runs deep — literally.
Here in these dark, damp spaces, guides recount tales about the brewing days — and processes — of old.
The rustic neighborhood sits above a maze of underground lagering cellars built in the mid-1800s. The Brewing Heritage Trail traverses these subterranean landmarks, plus a variety of former brewing sites like Hudepohl and operational breweries like Christian Moerlein. The trail, decorated with colorful wall murals, is part of the Brewery District’s nonprofit neighborhood redevelopment program and is modeled after Boston’s Freedom Trail, with a series of beer-related bronze markers leading the way.
Visitors have two options for experiencing this 3/4-mile (and soon-to-expand) walking trail. The first is a free “Hop On” tour, where visitors navigate the route via interpretative signs (there’s also a free audio-guide app that highlights Cincinnati’s original beer barons). The second, a $25 guided tour, includes historical narration along the route and the chance to descend 30 claustrophobia-fueled feet below ground into one of two lagering cellars, the former Crown Brewery and Jackson Brewery. Here in these dark, damp spaces, guides recount tales about the brewing days — and processes — of old.
“These were the days before mechanical refrigeration, so they basically built artificial caves underground,” explains Steve Hampton, executive director of Cincinnati’s Brewery District. Lager beer requires yeast to be kept around 40 degrees Fahrenheit — without modern refrigeration, underground stones and cooling tubes with ice water did the trick, he says.
Prohibition and the evolution of refrigeration technologies led to these lagering cellars being sealed up and all but forgotten. Now, construction workers regularly plow into them. “There’s at least a good dozen and a half sites” that are known, Hampton says, plus another handful where underground cellars are likely. “There may be even more we don’t know exist,” he adds.
Hampton had suspicions about the former F. & J.A. Linck Brewery cellar, discovered by that unsuspecting HVAC crew in 2018. What he and fellow beer historians didn’t anticipate, though, was the treasure trove that awaited inside.
The cellar’s vat was so intact that it actually preserved viable brewer’s yeast from the 19th century — a very rare event. Local brewery Urban Artifact used the yeast for its Missing Linck lager, bringing this piece of Cincinnati’s beer history back to life in June 2019.
Drinking beer made from age-old yeast and climbing into tiny underground lagering cellars might sound a little OTT, but for the avid beer lover, it’s a chance to taste the history — and mystery — of a buried chapter in the annals of beer.
Go There: Cincinnati Brewing Heritage Trail
- Location: It’s easiest to catch the trail at OTR’s Grant Park or Findlay Market. The neighborhood is about a half-mile from downtown, and about a 20-minute drive from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).
- Grab a bite: Findlay Market is Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market. Offerings include everything from waffles at Taste of Belgium to fresh ’za at Harvest Pizzeria. The Findlay Market Biergarten spotlights a different local brewery every week.
- Best time to visit: Oktoberfest obviously, but March’s Bockfest is the next best opportunity. This celebration of all things bock beer draws an eclectic crowd that comes for the brews and stays for the (gender-neutral) Sausage Queen pageant.
- Pro tip: If you’re visiting for Cincinnati Oktoberfest, kick off the weekend with a beer-themed race that traverses the Brewery District. The Hudepohl 14K Brewery Run ends with an Oktoberfest kickoff party (bottle-opener medal included).
- Stephanie Vermillion, OZY Author Contact Stephanie Vermillion