Fieldworking: Cincinnati Brews

I love beer. Love it. So a brewery tour without a tasting might sound ludicrous. However, the promise of crawling around abandoned lagering caves set into Cincinnati’s seven hills more than makes up for a dry tour.

I used to work at the Ohio History Connection as a coordinator of teacher professional development. As a part of that job I was often tasked with organizing fieldtrips to historically significant parts of Ohio. Beer and brewing, drinking and temperance are deeply intertwined in Ohio’s history and uniquely so in Cincinnati with its German heritage. Cut to me and twenty or so social studies teachers taking in the view of Over the Rhine from the third story window of an abandoned brewery.

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View of Over the Rhine from Sohn Brewery, Photograph by Molly Uline-Olmstead

Bits and pieces of these breweries are left all over the Over the Rhine neighborhood and include remnants of ice-houses, bottling buildings, offices, and stables. By its heyday in the late 1890s Cincinnati produced four barrels of beer per resident – almost twice as much beer as any other city in the United States.

These buildings are beautiful, even if they are in rough shape. They feature details that highlight the rich history and symbols of brewing including hops flowers and beer sipping cherubs carved into the brickwork and ironwork beer barrels capping the interior banisters.

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Sohn Brewery Brickwork, Photograph by Molly Uline-Olmstead

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Sohn Brewery banister, Photograph by Molly Uline-Olmstead

Each one is another example of the Italianate Revival Architecture that made Over the Rhine one of the largest historical districts in the country and one of the most neglected. It is this combination of historical significance and dereliction that makes Over the Rhine so fascinating. The neighborhood follows a common demographic pattern repeated around the Midwest in which European immigrants build and industry and then move out to nicer neighborhoods to be followed by Appalachian immigrants and African Americans coming north in the Great Migration. Two wars, a Great Depression, and a highway system later and the neighborhood is gutted.

In the late 90s and early 00s Cincinnati artists began to move into the area setting up studio spaces and exhibition spaces and in some cases, squatting. Artists know great space. There is a lot of energy around the area now and debates that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a city where neighborhoods have experienced the irresistible story of boom, bust, and, revitalization, perhaps gentrification. Each of the places we visited with the teachers had the tell-tale signs of art making and the clash of past and present that a thoroughly current white walled gallery or site specific installation placed in a building from the early 1800s can cause.

So Over the Rhine is equal parts raw material for one’s own work and inspiration from one’s contemporaries. To get a taste of what this former brewing mecca has to offer (pun so intended) try visiting during one of their Final Friday Gallery Hops. If you are interested in seeing the breweries first hand check out one of the Cincinnati Brewery Tours.

Sources:

  • Morgan, Michael D. Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King. Charleston: History, 2010. Print.
  • “OTR History.” Over The Rhine Foundation. Over the Rhine Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.
  • “Tours of Cincinnati’s Historic Breweries – Part of the Brewing Heritage Trail.” Tours of Cincinnati’s Historic Breweries – Part of the Brewing Heritage Trail. Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, n.d. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.

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