New wave of Cincinnati breweries take a lesson from the past to find recipes for success

In light of Cincinnati’s rich German heritage and history, a love of consuming and brewing beer is a given. Since the 1800’s, Cincinnati breweries have risen and fallen, multiplied and dwindled, and shifted location around the greater Cincinnati area. From wartime grain rationing and prohibition to the big brewery monopolizations of the 1970’s and 80’s, beer production has had its ups and downs.

In the early 1900’s, the brewing industry as a whole employed 30,000 to 40,000 workers in the area – from hops dealers to barrel makers. Beer was a large part of the population’s diet for men, women and children. This was not only due to cultural tradition, but because it was safer to drink than the local water.

Many German immigrants set up shop in Over-the-Rhine. The Miami-Erie Canal once flowed where Central Parkway is today, allowing grains to be easily imported from fields in Butler County. The canal was commonly referred to as the Rhine due to the enormous German immigrant population adjacent to it. Crossing the canal into this area was known as going “over the Rhine,” providing the neighborhood with its unusual name.

Moerlein, Hudepohl, Weidemann, Schoenling and Burger are monikers still uttered within old family stories of bygone good times – as well as in tales of corruption and spectacle from the industry’s colorful past. They quietly but sternly echo the city’s roots with their distinct Germanic intonation.

But the seeds of brewing in Cincinnati could not stay buried without yield for long. Today, a new batch of breweries is bubbling up, not only as part of the renaissance near the city’s center, but around the outer ring as well. Established by those who have learned from past pitfalls, this new wave is busily imbuing long-forgotten formulas with modern craftsmanship and savvy and creating their own unique and marketable masterpieces. Often housed in unusual structures out of a necessity for resourcefulness and desire for one-of-a-kind appeal, these distinctive craft breweries are putting some very inventive spins on the unsinkable Cincinnati tradition of brewing the finest beer around.

HighGrain Brewing of Silverton repurposed the city’s old municipal building to create its unique facility, adding a sharp, green edge to the archaic structure – which boasts a solar-paneled rooftop, geothermal HVAC, updated insulation and LED lighting. Even the parking lot is green, sporting several EV charging stations. HighGrain transports goods in a Ford E-Transit, while a Tesla Model 3 facilitates sales visits. A recent partnership with Cincinnati Nature Center enhanced the grounds with a native plant garden for patrons and community members to enjoy.

Sustainability and carbon neutrality is the goal of this three-year-old brewing startup, which also endeavors to benefit the surrounding community with local sourcing. Hops come from nearby Loveland, and grains from Marysville, OH. Any use of fossil fuels necessary to create HighGrain’s products is strictly calculated and balanced by allocating money towards planting new trees in the Peruvian rainforest.

Northern Exposure, HighGrain’s locally sourced Norwegian Table Ale, was designed to be not only delicious but completely carbon neutral. Just don’t forget to recycle the can!

50 West has been making strides since 2012. Owner Bobby Slattery says he traveled the country for a post-college gig in marketing and promotions and took note of the craft brewery trend gaining a foothold in other cities.

Slattery says he is passionate about his hometown, so when he returned to Cincinnati, he thought about how he could enhance the city’s offerings. It occurred to him that there was a lack of atmosphere-oriented craft breweries in the area.

“I came back to Cincinnati to help out with some restaurant stuff and kind of learned that aspect of the business. And then looked and said, ‘Okay, what does the city need? What would be fun to do?’ And you know, we went from there,” says Slattery, who set up shop adjacent to Mariemont on the Columbia Township stretch called Plainville, with a second location in Chillicothe.

“There weren’t a lot of breweries making their own beer and educating people about beer. And so that's kind of how we started, and then we just kind of evolved,” adds Slattery.

The evolution included fun activities to enjoy while imbibing, and an appetizing array of menu items. Next, a family friendly aspect worked its way in, and groups began booking events and large gatherings in the ample, accommodating space.

“We have our pickle ball and our volleyball leagues constantly going on. That's a big, big part of our business, along with the running groups. Fleet Feet runs down here and whatnot,” explains Slattery. “And in the last, probably, year or two we've become a gathering space for large groups wanting to get together – whether it's coming out to celebrate a 40- or 50-year-old’s birthday or coming out to celebrate a one-year-old’s birthday.”

“We really think of it as, like, this magical root beer stand for adults and children. We want mom and dad to come in and to grab a beer and get to pick from one of the 16 different flavors that are on tap,” continues Slattery. “And we want the kids that they're bringing with them to be able to pick from one of our wonderful milkshakes or special sodas.”

“What’s been fun for us is watching all of these kids from different schools write in and tell us that we’re their favorite restaurant,” says Slattery with a laugh. “We continue to focus on how we can be that special place,” he says of 50 West’s dedication to its all-ages, inclusive style.

The urban farm brewery

Today’s modern breweries are not just moneymaking machines. They are individual embodiments of their proprietors’ personal backgrounds, often reflecting the values they carry close to their hearts and the causes they support.  

For example, Betty Bollas has always been into gardening and farmers markets. Her background is in hospitality, workforce development and nonprofits. Her husband, Bob, worked as a software engineer and took up home brewing as a hobby. When they decided to start a business combining their hobbies of craft brewing and horticulture, the couple purchased the building that previously housed the flower shop where they bought their wedding flowers. A happy coincidence occurred when the farmhouse next door was also offered for sale. Now, Fibonacci, the country’s only urban farm brewery, offers locally sourced brews crafted with many ingredients procured right on the premises in Mt Healthy.

“We have about an acre and a half. And so, we really just got to marry both of our passions, you know, my husband with craft beer and then me with the whole plant side,” says Bollas. “We use local ingredients from different farms, or things we grow ourselves or that we forage, to make our beers. And on our farm, we have chickens, goats, honey bees. We have a pretty expansive beer garden that seats about 150. It's really awesome because it's grass and it's under a bunch of big, old mature trees.”

Longtime Mt. Healthy residents, Betty and Bob wanted to make a positive impact on their community.

“Community outreach is just kind of in my bones. That was a lot of my professional work,” explains Bollas. “Mt. Healthy has areas with food oppression, you know, food deserts. We do a monthly farmers market and offer SNAP and Produce Perks for that.”

Other community benefits include a free library for kids and adults, movie nights on Wednesdays, and Fib Farm classes where locals and those from other communities can learn about food waste prevention, native bees and pollinators, or how to make things such as kombucha and elderberry syrup.

“Since we also live in Mt. Healthy, it's important for us. I mean, really the only reason we put the brewery here is because we live here and believe our neighborhood deserves nice things too,” says Bollas.

The comeback of a 150-year-old brand

Over in St. Bernard, Jon and Betsy Newberry are continuing a Greater Cincinnati tradition that was once gone, but never forgotten, by reviving the Wiedemann brand.

“When George Wiedemann was inducted into the Beer Baron Hall of Fame a few years ago, a lot of the Wiedemann family members (descendants of George Wiedemann), were there, and they told Betsy and me that they consider us members of the family now,” says Jon Newberry, proudly.

This venture began when, in his career as a business reporter, Newberry met and became well acquainted with Dan Listermann of the Listermann Brewing Company. Newberry was covering the local beer industry. When he discovered that the Wiedemann trademark had been cancelled, he applied for it. Listermann agreed to assist him in making some Wiedemann beer and helped him with a new recipe based on the original Bohemian formula.

“Pittsburgh Brewing Company was the last out of town firm to make Wiedemann beer and ship it in here. They filed for bankruptcy reorganization at the end of 2006,” recalls Newberry. “I thought it'd be a shame to see this nearly 150-year-old brand just go out of business, because it was a huge thing here in Cincinnati. It'd be like somebody tearing down the Carew Tower. So yeah, you’ve got to preserve those things.”

Newberry says his choice of facility was all about location. He had begun serving his beer at Pompilios in Newport and knew there was a particular draw for the brand in that area, but says that every Northern Kentucky banker turned him down when he tried to finance a brick and mortar location for the brand.

A St. Bernard resident for 30 years, Newberry decided to consult City Hall in his own neck of the woods, at a neighbor’s advice.

“They walked me right across the street from City Hall to this 100-year-old, abandoned funeral home and made me an offer I couldn't refuse,” says Newberry. “And it's just great. We own this property outright, and we put a big addition on the back for where we do most of the brewing. The old building serves as our taproom now. And it's all worked out better than we could have dreamed. I live, like, three minutes away. I can ride my bike back and forth to work.”

“Everybody is thrilled with what's going on. A lot of people give Wiedemann’s a lot of the credit for the economic rebound St. Bernard's been undergoing for the past few years,” continues Newberry. “So, you know, I'll take whatever credit they want to give me! I'm sure we've helped. I'll take credit for doing part of it, but a lot of it has to do with other things too.”

The Wiedemann website also gives credit where credit is due and aims to share the wealth. It encourages those planning a trip to Wiedemann to also support other St. Bernard businesses while visiting, touting the area’s ample parking and safe, walkable streets as reasons to make a day of it.

Newberry is amazed at how many Wiedemann fans are still out there, and says he gets visitors from Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana, as well as local traffic from North Avondale and other surrounding areas.

“It's a great location. Most people don't even know where St. Bernard is, but it's centrally located,” says Newberry. “And we've got all this old memorabilia and advertising, photographs, and stuff, on the walls. So, it's kind of like a Wiedemann Museum.”

Overall, business has been good. Wiedemann’s distribution extends throughout Ohio and most of Kentucky. Newberry says Kroger hasn’t gotten on board yet, which is causing some hang-ups.

Half of Wiedemann’s taproom revenue is generated through food purchases.

“People want to eat, so we’ve worked on that for sure,” says Newberry.

Other offerings that cater to the community’s wants and needs include trivia nights, live music, chug-a-lug contests, and races benefitting local causes like the St. Bernard-Ludlow Grove Preservation Society.

Beyond the honor and pride of being able to carry on the historic Wiedemann brewing legacy, Newberry states he feels great about doing something positive for his community, as well as his family.

“I figured, well, if I can do good and get rich in the process, you know, why not try?” jokes Newberry. “I’ve accomplished half of that. We’re working on the second half!”


The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.

 

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.