Cincinnati is an old city by American standards, with a history much richer than most. When California was still a foreign country, Cincinnati was a Mecca to German and Irish immigrants who traveled thousands of miles to reach this place of seemingly limitless opportunity. These people defined the city’s identity. They worked hard and they played hard. They gave Cincinnati a reputation for progress, industry, and excess. Legendary work ethics and voracious thirsts – both the renowned and the notorious aspects of the collective past – combine in the story of Cincinnati’s brewing heritage. When Chicago was a muddy little outpost in the wilderness, Cincinnatians were already rolling kegs out of commercial breweries, turning thirst into an industry.
German-Americans settled north of the canal in such numbers and concentration that Cincinnatians unofficially renamed the Miami & Erie “the Rhine.”
The City of Cincinnati was established by East Coast land speculators and western pioneers in 1788. Cincinnati earned the moniker “Porkopolis” because of the volume of live and cured swine that passed through it to ports to points up and down the Ohio River. While livestock and pork products had a significant impact on the early economy of Porkopolis, a different commodity – beer – had a much larger and lasting impact on its culture, growth patterns, institutions, and the identity on a city that was also known as “Zinzinnati.”
Although initially few in number, Cincinnati’s early residents included ethnic Germans. Letters from these early German-Americans back to the Fatherland extolled the virtues of this settlement in the temperate climate and rolling hills of the Ohio River Valley. The geography resembled the German Rhineland, providing some sense of familiarity to people travelling thousands of miles on dangerous and precarious journeys to new lives; and the booming growth in industry and trade facilitated by the canal and river traffic made Cincinnati a logical destination for the first waves of German and Irish immigrants to leave political persecution and poverty across the Atlantic.
Early Cincinnati was confined geographically in a half-bowl-shaped basin between the river and steep hillsides surrounding the early city. The Miami & Erie Canal cut this basin roughly in half, running along the northern border of the early city. Following the completion of the canal, German immigrants began arriving in significant numbers and settling predominantly north of the canal. This migration quickly turned the area north of the canal into both one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America, as well as one of the most distinctly Germanic. German-Americans settled north of the canal in such numbers and concentration that Cincinnatians unofficially renamed the Miami & Erie “the Rhine.” Walking the bridges crossing the canal into what was originally dubbed Cincinnati’s “German Quarter” was a trip known as going “over the Rhine,” a tongue-and-cheek reference that morphed into the neighborhood’s formal name.
German-Americans dominated immigration numbers in Cincinnati. They changed the political balance of the city, and their extraordinary affection for German-style “lager bier” lead to cultural and sometimes violent conflicts with the city’s Anglican residents.
The Germanic transformation of Zinzinnati corresponded with the rise of a new beverage in the Germanic states. Beer is an ancient beverage, modified only slightly throughout most of human history. The drink went through a revolution in Europe during the 1830s due to the discovery of a new yeast strain, a type of yeast that made a lighter, crisper, golden-colored beer. Germans arriving in Cincinnati in the 1840s and beyond brought a thirst for this commodity, and many brought the knowledge of how to make it. Commercial brewing has been conducted in Cincinnati since almost as long as the city has existed, but it did not become a defining aspect of the city’s culture or economy until the introduction of a German-style beer called “lager” (meaning “to store”) because it required longer fermenting times to produce. Lager also required cooler temperatures than traditional brews, requiring the production of massive stone cellars dug over two stories deep or back into hillsides.
Lager beer initially attracted a very thirsty and loyal German-American constituency, but its popularity quickly spread across ethnic lines throughout both Cincinnati and the United States. Demand, coupled with the significant capital investments in breweries and the progressing introduction of mechanization, transformed beer production from small businesses into a major industry and built a neighborhood economically, politically, and culturally.
For most of its history, Cincinnati has failed to celebrate and preserve its brewing heritage. Dozens of historic breweries have been demolished, once proud names were forgotten, and Over-the-Rhine – the former epicenter of Cincinnati Brewing -- was neglected and left to rot. Over the last 100 years the community has been plagued with blighted buildings, crime and little investment or interest from the public and private sector.
The BDCURC organized to change this, to help transform the area known as the Brewery District starting with a transformation of its image and its value. For most of the last decade, the organization has helped carry on the annual Bockfest festival, a neighborhood celebration of beer and history. For six years, the BDCURC has operated the popular Biergarten at Findlay Market, the oldest public market in the State of Ohio. In 2006, shortly after completing a Master Plan with the community, the BDCURC started the first large scale heritage tours of Over-the-Rhine, taking thousands of visitors a year through the streets, historic buildings, and underground brewery spaces of the neighborhood.
Evidence of Cincinnati’s German ingenuity, architecture and the long-standing relationship with entrepreneurship are quickly becoming points of pride among residents and points of interest for visitors.
Through these creative re-introductions to the Cincinnati’s relationship with beer, the community has become re-energized by plans for what this neighborhood could look like in the future. The tours, the festivals and the opportunities to tell our unique story have intrigued and inspired the public and local government. Visitors and residents are beginning to see the majesty of these important buildings and the significant contributions of the beer industry to the City’s economic and social development. Even more significantly, tour and festivalgoers are comprehending Cincinnati’s influence and role on the larger, national stage. Evidence of Cincinnati’s German ingenuity, architecture and the long-standing relationship with entrepreneurship are quickly becoming points of pride among residents and points of interest for visitors.
In early 2011, the BDCURC revised the 2006 Master Plan, leveraging this growing excitement for Cincinnati’s beer history and of course with a steadfast commitment to putting this community on a national stage - creating a vibrant, healthy place to live, work and play. The professionally driven process sought targeted input from key stakeholders, and people with expertise in a wide range of fields. The BDCURC gathered ideas openly and vetted those ideas rigorously. The resulting plan and its initiatives are based on those ideas, what is known about the neighborhood, and what is known about proven, successful urban planning practices. These include establishing new and more user friendly historic districts, developing Complete Streets throughout the neighborhood for better bike and pedestrian use, improved neighborhood parks and recreation areas, and attracting craft-based businesses to the large amount of vacant commercial space in the neighborhood. The primary initiative the BDCURC agreed to lead was the building of a Brewing Heritage Trail.
The Cincinnati Brewing Heritage Trail is the story of American immigration, ingenuity, ethnic conflict, industrialization, the labor struggle, working class society, nineteenth century living conditions, and the effect of War and a constitutional amendment on local economies told through the production and consumption of a single commodity – beer.
The approximately two-mile Trail follows Cincinnati streets through the Central Business District, Pendleton, and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. Visitors will experience the Trail through both physical and virtual installations. Cincinnati’s unrivaled collection of brewing architecture and its associated cultural resources will draw national and global attention to historic Over-the-Rhine, one of America’s most historically significant neighborhoods, and will allow the Cincinnati region to benefit from its most underappreciated asset – its history.
In addition to traditional signage, public art, gateways and other physical markers of the Brewing Heritage Trail, visitors will have the unique opportunity to engage with digital and virtual elements that will bring history to life. The combination of website, audio tour apps and digital installations will deliver content in a memorable and engaging way, setting this trail apart from any other in the world.
Time and flow of the experience limit the perspectives that a traditional tour guide can convey. Virtual tour guides do not share this limitation. While the Trail will tell one, overarching story, apps will let visitors choose a perspective. For example, the Gilded Age may be seen through the eyes of a beer baron or a brewery worker. The same streets full of saloons may be seen by a young German man or a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. These options will make the Trail welcoming to a broad audience and let the same visitors have a different experience during multiple excursions.
Augmented reality will permit visitors who remain standing on the sidewalk to enter cellars two stories below, let them witness the reconstruction of demolished buildings in empty lots, and feel a quiet street restored to the bustling, noisy density of the 1800s. While other trails can only describe physical landmarks that have been destroyed, the digital Trail will allow visitors to experience the city around them in the context of another time.
Installations embedded into the community, such as interactive storefronts, will give casual passers-by a better understanding of the history around them. By utilizing technology such as motion-capture devices, augmented reality, and real-time components, these installations will generate buzz and entice people to take the full Trail experience.
Cincinnati’s unrivaled collection of brewing architecture and its associated cultural resources will draw national and global attention to historic Over-the-Rhine
Cincinnati’s story is as rich as those found by the multitude of tourists who flock to Charleston, SC; Savannah, GA; New Orleans, LA; and Boston, MA. The only reason that the world — even Cincinnatians — do not prioritize this fact is that Cincinnati has never capitalized on its history as an economic asset. With your help, the Brewery District CURC will change that with the Brewing Heritage Trail.