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Cincinnati's rising brewery district capitalizes on its past as beer mecca

| Sunday, June 23, 2013, 5:36 p.m.

CINCINNATI — Kentucky has its bourbon distilleries, St. Louis its Budweiser factory, Napa and Sonoma their wineries, and cities from San Diego to Philadelphia have turned into meccas for beer lovers looking for local craft brews.

Now business owners and history buffs in Cincinnati want Ohio's third-largest city to carve out its own niche in alcohol tourism and transform a bedraggled, crime-prone neighborhood into a thriving brewery district.

A plan approved by the City Council last week identifies a slew of problems in the Over-the-Rhine Historic District, a picturesque but troubled neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati, and how to begin solving them. The goal is to restore some of the former glory of the district's enormous brewing and warehouse buildings, weed out drugs and prostitution, inject new residents and businesses, and create some buzz.

“Most people don't know that Cincinnati was one of the biggest brewing centers in the country,” said Steve Hampton, a local architect and executive director of the nonprofit Brewery District Community Urban Development Corp., the group behind the plan. “That's something we've not done a good job of sharing, and we want to remedy that and use it to revitalize the neighborhood.”

Over-the-Rhine — or OTR as locals call it — was founded by German immigrants in the 19th century but fell on hard times in the 1970s and '80s. It was the site of the city's race riots in 2001 and once was dubbed the most dangerous neighborhood in America.

In the past decade, OTR has been undergoing intense gentrification amid criticism that the city's poorest are being pushed out, and the southern half of the neighborhood has become the trendiest spot in Cincinnati, with bars, restaurants and high-end condos taking the place of rundown and often-vacant buildings.

The northern half, where the brewery district is, has been largely untouched by gentrification.

Back in the late 19th century, the district was at its peak, with 18 large breweries in operation, some on a national scale, Hampton said.

One of them, the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., became the fifth-largest brewery in the nation and could have reached the heights of Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors had its founders not decided to close when Prohibition hit in 1920 and lasted 13 years.

All but one of the pre-Prohibition breweries in the district eventually shut their doors and several were demolished. From 1957 to 2010, only one beer-maker was in business in Over-the-Rhine, leaving the ornate and colossal brick breweries empty and crumbling.

Now, three companies are brewing beer in the district. One of them, Rhinegeist, is brand-new and will open a taproom to the public on Saturday in what used to be part of the Christian Moerlein complex.

“I'd love to turn Cincy into a beer tourism place,” said Bryant Goulding, co-founder and co-owner of Rhinegeist, a name that gives homage to the neighborhood and plays off the German word “Zeitgeist,” or the spirit of an age.

Goulding, 31, who moved from San Francisco to Over-the-Rhine a year ago to start the brewery, said he and his business partner were not dissuaded by the challenges in the neighborhood despite the naysayers.

“Even the contractors are skeptical,” he said. “There are some streetwalkers in the neighborhood. I let them know we're building a business here, there's going to be foot traffic and things are going to be different. I just wanted to let them know, ‘This is our block now,' in a friendly manner.”

Goulding said he's seen similar areas in San Francisco turn around seemingly overnight, and OTR's rich history and great potential sold him.

Goulding's brewery will open just a stone's throw from the popular and charming Findlay Market, one of the nation's oldest farmers markets, and sits in the middle of a historic brewery tour that runs on Saturdays and Sundays during non-winter months.

A planned $130 million streetcar set to open in 2016 will run right next to the brewery and take passengers through OTR, downtown and the Ohio riverfront.

Rhinegeist is close to the new Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., which was revived by Greg Hardman, a longtime beer seller and executive who fell in love with Cincinnati's brewing roots and began operating in a pre-Prohibition brewery in Over-the-Rhine in 2010.

The brewery has a taproom open to the public, but Hardman has bigger plans to turn the brewery into a multimillion-dollar tour facility that includes tours of underground lagering cellars and a rooftop beer garden overlooking the neighborhood and downtown skyline.

If the success of the brewpub Hardman opened last year about 1.5 miles away from the brewery in the city's downtown along the Ohio riverfront is any guide, Hardman said he expects his plans for the brewery to catch on.

“There's really a demand for this,” Hardman said. “They want that hands-on experience of going into an authentic underground lagering cellar from the 1880s. They want to see how the beer was made back in the day; they want to touch authentic, rich brewing history. And they want to drink the beer.”

Although a thriving brewery district in Cincinnati, if successful, is likely years down the road, the idea just might work, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the national Brewers Association, based in Boulder, Colo.

“Anchor things, like a group of breweries or a regular annual beer festival that grows in size year after year, are putting towns on the map, increasing tourism dollars and increasing notoriety and recognition for those locations,” Herz said. “It's definitely a movement.”

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