There are few locations outside of Europe with the brewing pedigree of Cincinnati, Ohio. Spread among seven hills along the banks of the Ohio River, the Queen City once had thirty-eight breweries (1872) and in 1890 had more than 1,180 saloons—one for every thirty-seven men. Beer was delivered to many of Cincinnati’s drinking establishments via elaborate underground tunnels to keep the lager fresh and at the appropriate temperature.
Back then, Cincinnati had an enormous German American population, and there are tales of pigs wandering the streets, feasting on spent grain. “Where Pigs Fly” is an oft-used phrase around the charming city, and one can understand why when you sit down to enjoy some of the best German food in the country while your cheeks are warmed by generous glasses of handcrafted ales made with the same pride and patience as the German ancestors had.
There are also tales of mass consumption. As Sarah Steven’s fantastic book, Cincinnati’s Brewing History, records:
“In an 1879 article in The New York Times, an incredulous reporter recounts the insatiable drinking habits of Cincinnatians: ‘At the Kauffman brewery, the employees drink 18 kegs of beer daily. They average 35 glasses apiece. . . . The employees of Moerlein’s brewery average 25 glasses of beer a day. J.G. Sohn and Co allow their 30 employees 5 kegs of beer daily.’ Many apparently credible witnesses attest to having seen men drink an entire keg of beer in two hours, sometimes 100 glasses in one day, and the most mind-boggling consumption rates allegedly occurred in the breweries themselves.”
Prohibition brought an end to that, cutting the number of saloons down to four, at a time when Vine Street alone boasted more than 136 saloons and beer bars. But now, after decades of consolidation in the beer industry and economic recession, progressive alcohol legislation reform in combination with the national surge in craft-beer popularity has allowed Cincinnati’s impressive brewing DNA to be thrust back into the spotlight.
With a city population of about 400,000 and more than 2 million people in the metro area, Cincinnati again hosts many breweries within the city limits, and more open every couple of months. Boston Beer Company, the largest craft brewery in the United States and maker of Samuel Adams, brews the majority of its beer in Cincy. Christian Moerlein Brewing Company has been producing beer here on and off since 1853 and at one point produced about 500,000 barrels annually—a total that would make it one of the largest craft breweries in the United States today.
Pair all of that great craft beer with a tradition of being one of the best-kept secrets when it comes to the culinary scene (Cincinnati was host to The Maisonette, the longest-running Michelin 5-star–rated restaurant in the United States until it closed in 2005), and you have a recipe for a fantastic time in this resurging city.
Named by German immigrants, the northern neighborhood of Over-The-Rhine (OTR) was once a “you definitely don’t want to be in this neighborhood after dark” part of town. But OTR has seen a renaissance in the past five years that has brought swagger back to Cincinnati and plays up Cincinnati’s tremendous art scene (their orchestra, ballet, and art museums are world-class). Enter Rhinegeist Brewery. Meaning “Ghost of the Rhine,” Rhinegeist (pictured above) has been an integral part of the resurrection of this area of town, turning an abandoned warehouse at 1910 Elm Street into a jaw-droppingly beautiful brewery, taproom, and indoor Biergarten (complete with ping pong, corn hole, and 50-foot ceilings). Truth IPA, Cougar Blonde Ale, and Zen Session Pale Ale are year-round favorites that you’ll find packaged in cans at local bottle shops and on draft in bars and restaurants city-wide. Rhinegeist has ambitious expansion plans that include a full-service restaurant, an expanded barrel-aging program, and a line of limited-release beers that you’ll just have to make a visit to the taproom to check out. This is one ghost you’ll be happy to meet.
Also located in OTR is one of the city’s newest breweries, Taft’s Ale House. Named after Cincinnati native and former U.S. President William Howard Taft, this brewery is located in Cincinnati’s oldest Protestant church with a taproom that delivers a religious experience through their handcrafted ales.
MadTree was founded in 2013 by a trio of entrepreneurial homebrewers. The “beards” have a great thing growing—and you need to try it. These guys quit their corporate day jobs to make delicious suds, creating a community-focused brewery that’s experienced rapid growth and doesn’t appear to have any plans of slowing down. Their PsycHOPathy IPA, Gnarly Brown, Happy Amber, and Lift Kölsch can all be found year-round, but hit their Oakley taproom for some pilot beers and casks. MadTree cans all their beers and puts as much attention into their can designs as they do into their beers. You can find them in the Oakley neighborhood on the east side of town, just a stone’s throw of I-71.
Looking for something a little different? Check out Blank Slate on the east side of town near Lunken Airfield. This 7.5-barrel brewing operation is making some of the most interesting beer in the city, and doing it well. “We take a traditional style and break it down to its bare essence, creating that ‘blank slate,’” says Owner/Proprietor/Brewer/Janitor/Yeast Farmer Scott LaFollette. “We then build the beer the way we want to, often putting our own twist on it. You want an IPA? There are a bunch of other places in town making great IPAs that you’ll love. If you want something different, then you should come have a pint with us.” Well, we did. And we fell in love with Blank Slate’s well-balanced Shroominous, infused with shiitake mushrooms, and RyeSing Up, their rye saison fermented with peppercorns. After finishing your sample tray at Blank Slate, grab a growler to go and head to Eli’s, a tremendous Texas-style barbecue joint just down the street where you BYOB.
Across the street from Xavier University in the Walnut Hills/Avondale Area is Listermann Brewing Company. The go-to location in Cincinnati for homebrewing supplies for decades, Listermann started brewing their own beers in 2008 and shares space with Triple Digit Brewing Company at 1621 Dana Avenue. Both of these breweries have experimentation in their blood. From barrel-aged chicory-coffee imperial porters to smoky bock beers and the occasional sour, their beers are creative, fun, and delicious.
One of the most spectacular tap houses in the city is Moerlein Lager House, located on the north bank of the Ohio River and a stone’s throw from Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team; and Paul Brown Stadium, the “Jungle” that the NFL’s Bengals call home. They serve up brews from The Christian Moerlein Brewing Company as well as a wide variety of rotating guest taps, and you can catch great views of Cincinnati and northern Kentucky as well as take advantage of their full-service kitchen.
Travel farther east and you’ll find yourself at 50 West Brewing Company, a family-friendly brewpub that is churning out high-quality beer and great food. With live music most weekends, 50 West is located in an old house and has a tremendous vibe. Get there early and grab a seat on the weekends because their taproom fills up fast. Luckily, expansion plans are underway.
Mt. Carmel Brewing Company celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015 and was one of the first to usher in the new era of Cincinnati brewing success. Founded by Mike and Kathleen Dewey, the brewery occupies an old farmhouse originally constructed in 1924. One of the oldest craft breweries in the city, Mt. Carmel has a strong selection of year-round and seasonal beers as well as their more experimental Snapshot Series.
Northeast of the downtown in the Lockland area is Rivertown Brewing Company. One of the older craft breweries in Cincinnati, Rivertown has expanded its brewing focus and has increased its production of sour and barrel-aged beers. With five year-round beers, four seasonals, and a plethora of limited-release beers (including Death, a Russian imperial stout with ghost peppers), there’s something for everyone at Rivertown.
Just across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky, is Hofbräuhaus Newport. The first authentic Hofbräuhaus to open outside of Germany, this massive beer hall showcases authentic German lagers that are brewed on premises following the Reinheitsgebot, the German law of purity. On nice days, enjoy a cold Dunkel in the Biergarten while you admire the Cincinnati skyline or warm up inside while you listen to polka and marvel at the dirndl- and lederhosen-attired staff’s ability to carry six to eight hearty steins at once.
Cincinnati’s craft-beer growth doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Within the last year, all over the city new breweries have sprung up, including Urban Artifact in Northside that focuses on wild and sour beers in addition to the standards.
When to Go
There’s never a bad time to visit Cincinnati, but spring and autumn are when the city is the most beautiful. That being said, timing your trip to coincide with one of the many beer festivals isn’t a bad idea, either. Here are a few to consider.
Taking place in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, Bockfest has been going strong for more than twenty years. A celebration of Cincinnati’s brewing heritage, this is the largest bockfest in the United States and takes place just as Cincinnati’s flora is coming into bloom. Culminating with the crowning of the Sausage Queen, this festival includes beer tappings, the Bockfest 5K, craft chow, dinners, and much more.
Cincinnati Craft Brewer’s Starkbierfest (April)
If you don’t like big beers, then Starkbierfest is not the festival for you. Inspired by the Belgian monks who purportedly used to consume great quantities of high ABV beers to help them survive their Lenten fasting each spring, Starkbierfest, hosted by Listermann Brewing Company, focuses on locally made beers with ABVs higher than 7.5 percent.
Taste of Cincinnati (May)
If you’re a foodie, consider planning your Cincinnati beercation for the end of May, when it will coincide with Taste of Cincinnati (May 28–30, 2016). This weekend-long event draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and features more than forty of the best restaurants in town.
Cincinnati Beer Week (June)
Taking place over seven different counties in the Greater Cincinnati area, Cincinnati Beer Week focuses on featuring the best the city has to offer with beer tastings, beer dinners, and brewery nights.
Cincy Brew Ha-Ha (August)
Love stand-up comedy? Then Cincinnati’s annual Cincy Brew Ha-Ha is for you. Taking place over three nights in August, this event features more than fifty comedians on four stages and more than 100 beers. And the comedy is free!
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati (September)
Can’t get to Munich? Experience the next best thing by visiting Cincinnati in September (September 16–18, 2016). The largest Oktoberfest celebration in the United States, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati attracts more than 500,000 attendees. Expect lots of German food, dancing, games, events, and beer!
Cincy Beer Fest on Fountain Square (September)
The 2015 Cincy Beer Fest featured more than 250 beers and six bands, drawing thousands to picturesque fountain square in the heart of downtown.
Perhaps what truly sets Cincinnati apart from its Midwestern cousins is how much beer tourism there is that focuses on the deep history of the place. In 2013, a local builder bought an abandoned building in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and discovered one of the most extensive lagering cellars in the United States. These cellars are not uncommon beneath the city’s streets, and in some areas, tunnels still exist that were used to transport the precious lager without raising its temperature.
These types of discoveries pervade Cincinnati’s history, and taking a beer tour in this town means taking touring to an entirely new level. There are numerous tour companies in town, including Cincinnati Brewery Tours, which will take you on a walking tour of Cincinnati and finish with tasting beers at one of the downtown’s local breweries.
For those interested in being shuttled from brewery to brewery with a guide who knows the local scene, check out the Cincy Brew Bus. Choose from a variety of different tours focused on different areas of the city. Tours take about 5 hours and cost $50–$60 per person, tastings included, of course.