Soapdish: Rhinegeist taps into history to build future

Rhinegeist, a startup craft brewery located within the historic Christian Moerlein bottling complex in Over-the-Rhine, is a portmanteau of the neighborhood’s name and the word “zeitgeist,” which is defined as “the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.”

In this case, it’s clear that the “spirit of the time” is heavily invested in the burgeoning craft beer movement. While Christian Moerlein, Mt. Carmel and Rivertown kicked things off in our region in impressive style, they are now being closely followed by Mad Tree, 50 West, Blank Slate and Rhinegeist—all in an attempt to slake the reportedly interminable thirst for quality craft beer.

But the "spirit of the time" behind Rhinegeist is not rooted just in craft beer, but also in those “adventurous” doers and makers who are, in the words of co-founder Bryant Goulding, “looking to take Cincinnati in the right direction.” It is a spirit that echoes the history of OTR, in particularly its brewing heyday of the late 1800s up to Prohibition. And there’s no better place to channel that zeitgeist than in the storied Moerlein complex, which ascended to the throne as Cincinnati’s largest brewery in 1891.

While looking to be informed by the past, this new spirit is also going in a decidedly different direction—namely, West. 

The beers being produced by Rhinegeist will lean more toward the hoppier and dryer style prevalent on the West Coast. This makes sense, because before moving to Cincinnati, Goulding, 31, was the West Coast regional sales manager for Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, and prior to that, worked for California’s Anderson Valley Brewing Company.

But the story of how Goulding, a Connecticut native, ended up in Cincinnati, is an interesting tale. How someone who seemingly had never thought of moving to Cincinnati two years ago got caught up in the, well, let’s not mince words, in the “zeitgeist” of the scene.  

I caught up with him in the lower level of the bottling complex, where—in the true DIY ethos of the times—he was laying a coat of varnish down on some gorgeous, thick, rough-hewn pine planks that will form the basis of the long, beer hall-style tables that will occupy the tap room upstairs.

In September 2011, Goulding received a call from Bob Bonder, president of the Tazza Mia coffee house empire. Bonder, 31, met Goulding when the two worked in San Francisco. Bonder asked Goulding to visit Cincinnati to help work on the business plan for Rhinegeist.

Goulding responded: “Bob, I’m not going to move to Cincinnati,” but agreed to assist.  

The visit became a whirlwind of brainstorming while touring OTR: from dinner at A Tavola to drinks at Japp’s to Neon’s patio and the Lackman’s craft beers. 

When it was done, Bonder and Goulding had stayed up all night (Goulding no doubt energized by his West Coast time zone sensibilities; Bonder, no doubt, by prodigious amounts of his coffee). Goulding missed his flight back the next day. He ultimately returned to the West Coast, broke up with his girlfriend, and set in motion plans that led to his move here last June.

As the business plan began to take shape, the two realized that the physical operations needed to as well, a quest which ultimately found them staring up at the enormous ceilings and skylights that dot the roof of the massive Moerlein bottling complex at 1910 Elm Street.  

The massive structure is one of many buildings that once made up the Moerlein Brewing complex, which was constructed in 1895 (or some say 1910). Having endured some trials and tribulations in recent years, the building's survival depended, in part, on finding an attractive suitor.  

Purchased in 2008 by Walnut Hills grad and California-based developer Eddie Orton, it was envisioned as a unique mixed-use site that would feature upscale residential and retail. However, the “Great Recession” put a damper on the development, particularly in the still “frontier”-like blocks in the area north of Liberty (dubbed “NoLi” by local wags). Adding further fuel to the fire, the complex suffered a fire in 2010 that had some wondering if the structure would even survive.

Undaunted, Orton stabilized the building and repaired the fire damage. In June 2009, Brewery District President Steve Hampton was quoted in the Business-Courier as saying that the building presented a challenge for developers, and whatever happens, “it is going to have to be something a little outside of the box.”

Ironically, “outside of the box” in this case means returning the structure to its brewing heritage.  

In lining up investors in 2012, the Rhinegeist team landed upon, as Goulding described, “those whose vision is aligned with us...adventurous investors that want to see Cincinnati go in the direction that we want to go.”  

Into this mix were people like Jack Rouse, founder of Jack Rouse Associates and Murray “Mu” Sinclair, president and CEO of Ross, Sinclaire & Associates, LLC, who is a noted local restaurant investor and Orton's brother-in-law.

With the LLC formed in April 2012, and the funding coming through in November, Bonder and Goulding are finally seeing their dream take shape. The second floor of the complex is now home to shiny new stainless steel equipment. On my most recent visit, brewmaster Jim Matt was cleaning out the new tanks and getting them ready for testing.  Matt, 46, worked as a chemist at Eli Lily for 20 years and was most recently at Sun King Brewery. He moved to Oakley a year ago, and brings a wealth of craft brewing and technical know-how to the table. 

Indeed, Goulding and Matt beamed with pride as they showed off their walk-in cooler filled with a variety of hops, including Citra, Centennial, Simcoe, Crystal, Bravo and “the Holy Grail of hops,” Amarillo. 

These will be deployed, originally at least, in the brewing of four types of beer: Golden Ale, British Mild, Hoppy Wheat and an IPA. The latter two are a departure from historical Cincinnati beer styles and representative of the West Coast, hopped-up style of Rhinegeist.

The team is excited about what is going on in Cincinnati as well as OTR, with Goulding observing that they are “lucky to be in a place where people are really running and gunning.” He is also excited about the future. “I can’t imagine Cincinnati not putting in the streetcar and not [ultimately] extending it up to Clifton.”  

Rhinegeist hopes to be brewing by the end of the year, but they are optimistic about an even earlier start date. The facility’s tap room will be a chic mix of old and new, with ornate yet distressed ceilings and plasterwork amid the craftsman-style pine plank tables with iron pipe frames.

The mural currently taking shape above the tap room features, among other things, hops, a fish, a tiger, an elephant, the Roebling and Golden Gate bridges, the Grand Tetons and Moses. 

If that doesn’t capture the zeitgeist of Rhinegeist, then nothing will.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.