Brewing up a storm: Learn about OTR's prolific and boisterous beer-making history

The story sounds like something right out of a binge-worthy TV series.

A wealthy businessman dies suddenly. His sons nearly ruin the once-thriving business. The meddling mother demands her son divorce his wife. The wife turns violent and goes on a shooting spree. She is later redeemed as a successful lounge singer.

It’s a wonder HBO hasn’t secured the rights yet.

It’s a true story that happened in the mid-19th century, and largely took place in the Northern Liberties area of Over-the-Rhine, a place of lawlessness and debauchery. More on the story later.

It’s one of the more titillating tales told on Cincinnati’s fledgling Brewing Heritage Trail, an urban walking (or riding) trail that tells the story of Cincinnati through the lens of its prolific, boisterous beer-making past.

The trail founders reached a milestone in late April when they opened the first phase of what is planned to be a two-mile tour through Over-the-Rhine and what remains of a beer-making economy that affected nearly every aspect of 19th century Cincinnati.

The opened section is three-quarters of a mile long and is dotted with historic markers that detail the neighborhood’s storied history. Visitors can download an app that reveals more stories, as well as photos and augmented reality experiences. Several guided tours are also available and details can be found on the trail’s website.

It’s a major step in an ambitious $5 million plan to bring alive Cincinnati’s brewing history, a history whose stories and physical landmarks were in danger of being forgotten.

“Beer was so integral and such a part of every aspect of our history we can literally tell the story of Cincinnati through the lens of beer,” says Steve Hampton, executive director of the brewery district. “It was part of the economy, it was part of politics. It was part of popular culture.”

Among the sites in the initial section is the original Hudepohl brewery, which dates back to 1853, when it was the Koehler & Co. brewery. Louis Hudepohl II bought it in 1885, renamed it, and expanded production.

There's the site of the John Kauffman Brewing Co., which opened in 1859 and became one of Cincinnati’s biggest beer makers, but did not survive Prohibition. And the Schaller Brewing Co. on Main Street, which dates back to 1853, and whose owner snubbed his nose at the federal Prohibition laws and continued making his profitable full-strength beer until the feds raided the place and Schaller was jailed, making him the first brewery exec to be imprisoned for violating the National Prohibition Act.

The idea of the beer heritage trail goes back to 2003, to grassroots, neighborhood efforts to capture some of the colorful history of that part of Over-the-Rhine. In 2006, a group organized the first tours of some of the old brewery sites. They were well received by the growing number of people with a thirst for beer history.

“With the response we got from that, the light bulb clicked,” Hampton says. “We realized we had an asset that could be an economic engine for the neighborhood as a whole.”

The trail pioneers organized themselves into a community urban redevelopment corporation, a nonprofit designation that allows them to raise money, buy property, and generally work to improve the neighborhood. The Brewery District CURC now includes a good swath of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street.

They raised $2.2 million for the portion of the trail from a variety of sources, including city and state capital funding, the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation, the John Hauck Foundation, the Charles Moerlein Foundation, the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., individual donors, and special events.

The ultimate goal is to bring life back into the northern reaches of Over-the-Rhine, which has not seen nearly the same level of development as the portion south of Liberty Street, which has been accelerated by the funding and efforts of 3CDC.

“At its core, the trail is meant to preserve and share our history,” Hampton says. “But as an economic engine, heritage tours are very powerful tools.”

And they can reveal some intriguing stories. So back to that 19th century drama:

The aforementioned Kauffman Brewery was one of Cincinnati’s most successful. But when John Kauffman died suddenly, his sons took the brewery to the brink of collapse even as his widow, Maria Anna Kauffman, was the nominal head of the business. The widow Kauffman eventually gave up her role as president and turned control over to her son-in-law, Emile Schmitt. Schmitt was given broad authority to manage the brewery, including the power to hold family members accountable in ways that Mrs. Kauffman did not.

This included giving John Kauffman Jr. an ultimatum: Either divorce your wife or lose your job. Mrs. Kauffman and others felt John Jr.’s marriage to a French beer hall singer with a volatile temper — and their taking up residence in an apartment in the brewery — were causing problems in the family business.

Kauffman chose the job over his wife. The spurned and enraged Blanche Kauffman laid in wait for Schmitt to leave the brewery one day and tried to shoot him, but the gun misfired. She was arrested.

While out on bail, she became jealous of a woman who worked in a bakery across the street from the brewery. Taking pistol in hand again, she fired at John Kauffman Jr., this time hitting her target in the head. Although bloody, the wound was not fatal.

Blanche pleaded insanity and a sympathetic jury found her guilty only of simple assault. After a three-month jail sentence, Blanche resumed her singing career and packed theaters and beer halls, exploiting her fame as an attempted killer.

You can’t make this stuff up. And there’s no need to because the stories are all there on the Brewing Heritage Trail.

The trail is available for self-guided tours seven days a week. The streetcar line is nearby, as is a Red Bike station and parking.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.