Beneath the streets of downtown Cincinnati lies a network of old tunnels once used for storing beer. Gaping and eerie, piles of dirt and rubble, dusty beer bottles and cobwebs lace each corner—it’s a place where Cincinnati’s rich beer history starts to unfold.
Cincinnati likes to say that it’s a city that’s built on beer, and the lagering tunnels are just the beginning of that story. In the 1800s, hundreds of German immigrants moved to the city, bringing beer traditions with them. Most men, women and children played a part in beer production, and before Prohibition began, dozens of breweries (36 by the mid-1800s) made lager-style brews in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, where the cellaring tunnels now sit abandoned.
Prohibition left its mark on Cincinnati, but the historic Over-The-Rhine neighborhood has continued to preserve its German brewing heritage with events like Bockfest and Oktoberfest (the largest outside of Munich). At the same time, brewers continue to preserve the city’s German heritage—some paying homage to German heritage-style brews while others push the boundaries of the craft beer movement. Here’s where to go for a mix of old and new, and some of the most delicious beers the city has to offer.
For fans of old-school European-style brews, start by getting a taste of tradition at this historic brewery. Founded in 1853, the original Christian Moerlein Brewing Company operated until Prohibition, re-opened during the microbrew craze of the early 1980s, and was recently revitalized by local Beer Baron Gregory Hardman when he took over in 2004. The modern riverfront Lager House is a local favorite hang for pre-baseball festivities. The house IPAs are hoppy, pine-forward award-winners, but the real soul of Moerlein is in the lagers. Try the easygoing Helles, the nutty Barbarossa or the OTR amber ale.
Built in the shell of the old Moerlein bottling facility in the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, this brewery’s name means “ghost of the Rhine.” The taproom is sprawling and often buzzing with parties, families and the occasional dog, with the bones of the old warehouse adding character to the modern attitude of the brews. Watch for the upcoming release of the house sour ales, which have been aging in the basement of the warehouse for more than three years, and in the meantime, try the super-dry Truth IPA with loads of bitter grapefruit and a floral hop edge. Ink is another standout—the Russian Imperial stout is surprisingly drinkable for a 10% ABV brew, flush with flavors of raisin, milk chocolate and marzipan.
With a recent expansion into a $18 million facility located a short car ride outside the downtown center, MadTree is a staple of Cincinnati’s brewing scene. The complex includes a large indoor taproom and welcoming beer garden. The brews are among the more ambitious in the city, with Happy Amber treading a line between amber and hoppy red, and the PsycHOPathy IPA offering a blast of hops. For those with a sweet tooth, reach for Rubus Cacao, a balanced raspberry chocolate stout made with local Maverick Chocolate.
Taft’s Ale House
Irreverence is the name of the game at Taft’s, a three-story bar and brewpub located in a renovated church in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. Food, cocktails and wine provide entertainment for the non-beer drinkers, while a great selection of rotating taps delights the beer-seeking crowd. Nellie’s Key Lime Ale is a local favorite, and other oddities like Liquid Advent, a chocolate brown porter with cinnamon, chilis and cacao (also from Maverick Chocolate) keep things interesting.
Braxton Brewing Company
Technically located in Covington, Kentucky, Braxton is just a short hop over the Ohio River, so it’s an easy addition to a Cincinnati beer crawl. As an homage to the garage where co-founder Evan Rouse started homebrewing (at the age of 16), the taproom and brewery are located in a warehouse with a reservable “garage” space for events space. A beautiful, airy space with comfy sofas and high tops, the brewery serves as a meeting place for locals. Come for the atmosphere (and the house coffee, made in collaboration with Carabello), but stay for the beer. Start with some of the year-round staples, like the Revamp IPA, a hoppy brew with tropical and citrus notes, or the Dead Blow, a Tropical Stout flush with dry cocoa and fruit flavors, thanks to the fact that it’s made with eighty pounds of macerated dates.
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