Richard Croasdale meets the iconic Cincy brewery that’s helped set the scene for a true brewing renaissance
Saturday 23 September 2023
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My first trip to the US for Ferment was in 2017, flying into Cincinnati airport to start an epic road trip through Kentucky’s best breweries and distilleries. Arriving at my hotel in Covington, tired and dishevelled, I headed to the bar and ordered a pint of something on draught that looked local. It was Rhinegeist’s Truth, its flagship west coast IPA, and rarely has a beer hit the spot more effectively. I ordered another and, by the time I departed to visit the nearby Braxton Brewing Company some time later, I was quite restored. Truth, and the brewery that made it, have held a special place in my heart ever since.
Rhinegeist’s origin is a classic ‘all roads lead to Rome’ tale, which starts in the early 2000s, with founders Bob Bonder and Bryant Goulding both quitting their corporate consulting jobs in San Francisco in search of something more fulfilling. From here, our heroes took very different paths, with Bob heading to Cincinnati to start a chain of coffee roasteries, and Bryant leaning into his craft brewing obsession, first traveling to South America, then returning to work with craft powerhouses including Anderson Valley Brewing Company and Dogfish Head. In 2011 though, his coffee business flourishing, Bob reconnected with Bryant, with an idea for a Cincinnati craft brewery. The result wasn’t just Rhinegeist, but the rebirth of a 200-year-old brewing tradition in the city.
Over the following months, the duo fleshed out their plans for a brewery in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood; the historical heart of the city’s pre-prohibition brewing empires. They were soon joined by Jim Matt, a former chemist with a passion for hop-forward beer, who had wowed them with his homebrews after a chance meeting at a mall. With Jim on board, the small team finally managed to secure (after much bureaucratic wrangling) the magnificent 250,000-square-foot former bottling hall of Christian Moerlein, one of the giants of pre-prohibition Cincinnati brewing, which made its home in Over-the-Rhine.
On 29 June, 2013, Rhinegeist made its debut, with an event attracting more than 2,000 beer lovers. It offered four brews: Uncle British Mild, Spikelet Hoppy Wheat, Cougar Blonde Ale, and the magnificent Truth IPA.
The eagle-eyed reader will no doubt have spotted that, despite its name, location, and indebtedness to the Germanic heritage of Cincinnati, Rhinegeist’s brewing doesn’t have the kind of lager focus you might expect. Although it brews lagers, the brewery primarily ferments ales in the British tradition.
“It's kind of a conundrum, right?” says the brewery’s Rom Wells. “We're housed in a former pre-prohibition German brewery, our name is German – meaning ‘Ghost of the Rhine’ – and we're in the Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood, which is historically a German immigrant part of Cincinnati. But actually we mostly brew ale, taking our inspiration from your neck of the woods.
“Our seasonal Oktoberfest, Franz, while in many ways follows the German brewing tradition, we ferment it with ale yeast. This choice was due to our rapid growth and when we first brewed Franz we couldn’t afford the extra time required to make lagers. We chose German Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops and a traditional grist of Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich malts, but decided to ferment with an ale yeast strain. We now have time and space to make lagers, but we prefer Franz the way it was initially designed, as a somewhat traditional, but with a twist, Oktoberfest ale.”
While we’re on the topic of Oktoberfest, I’m keen to hear what Rom makes of the enduring affinity that Cincinnati has for this quintessentially German beer-drinking experience. After all, one in five people here claims German lineage and the city hosts the world’s largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany.
“I think it's a really cool part of the Cincinnati experience,” he says. “Obviously, we didn’t originate Oktoberfest, but we’ve made it our own and for me it’s a really big part of the culture in Cincinnati each year. Sure, it’s great for tourism, with people dressing up as monks for Bockfest in March, or wearing fake lederhosen for Oktoberfest, but for the most part it's like T-shirts and baseball caps. It’s a thing that local people really enjoy, because it’s just part of the city.”
Having just hit its 10th birthday, Rhinegeist is a top 25 independent brewery in the US, which in the UK would place it firmly at the larger end of the spectrum. Its success has mirrored and reinforced the wider resurgence of brewing in Cincinnati, an adventure Rom says is still very much underway.
“There’s still a decent amount of work going on in Over-the-Rhine, revamping the historic brewery buildings,” he says. “On my ride to work every day, I see the scaffolding out and construction dudes everywhere. It's really cool to look around and feel this buzz of activity, smelling the malt and hops, it's a beautiful, floral smell in the air.
“There's a reason they're choosing to set up here. I mean, there’s the historic element of the neighbourhood, but I also think there’s kind of an active choice to be in this space, where you can pop from brewery to brewery, and it creates this amazing community. We're doing a series of tours right now, where we're looking at all the brewery-based murals just for education about this neighbourhood, and how its history feeds into its present.”
With Rhinegeist maturing into a kind of elder statesperson for Cincinnati’s 21st century beer boom, the city couldn’t hope for a better standard bearer. Straddling the worlds of modern US craft and traditional German brewing heritage, its appeal never comes at the expense of authenticity and – barring the US having another crack at the whole prohibition thing – it’s a formula that will hold Rhinegeist and its home city in good stead.
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