A slice of Bavaria in the US Midwest
Cincy Region's dramatic return to brewing greatness
Saturday 23 September 2023
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Stand in the middle of downtown Cincinnati and start digging (don’t – you’ll get arrested) and you’ll quickly find the city was literally built on beer. In fact, the same is true in Northern Kentucky, on the other side of the wide Ohio River; in the mid 1800s, this entire Cincy Region was home to 36 German-style breweries, producing 30 million gallons of beer each year, lagered in a vast warren of cool cellars and tunnels that sprawl under the modern city streets.
Cincy’s Teutonic brewing heritage dates back to the massive influx of German migrants that arrived here throughout the 19th century, seeking fresh opportunities in the new world. These migrants brought many skills to the region, including brewing, and the area dubbed Over-the-Rhine – north of the Miami and Erie canal – quickly became the epicentre of a beer revolution that made Cincinnati the beer capital of the United States, and arguably the world.
While prohibition between 1920 and 1933 decimated this thriving industry – not a single pre-prohibition brewery remains in the Cincy Region – beer never left the city’s soul. Like a vine that’s pruned back to a stump over winter, Cincy has bloomed once more in the age of craft beer, with the number of breweries today comfortably exceeding its 19th century peak.
Today, beer lovers thronging to the region can tour the historic brewery buildings and lagering tunnels, and learn more about the rich heritage, then head back to the surface and enjoy the thriving modern scene. The air in Over-the-Rhine is once again heavy with malt and hops from the breweries that have sprung up in the lavishly architectural homes of their forbears, many of which brew in the spirit and style of Cincy’s original brewing barons.
Fittingly, Cincy Region also boasts the largest Oktoberfest in Amercia, with celebrations kicking off during the first week of September and typically running through the first week in October. The main event, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati takes place in mid-September (14th-17th this year), but it really is a region-wide phenomenon here, and other festivals in Newport and Covington are also well worth a visit.
Of course, an Oktoberfest beer is nothing without some appropriate food to line your stomach, and fortunately Cincy has you covered, with another Germanic-inspired regional obsession: Goetta. This grilled sausage of ground pork, oatmeal and spices is such an institution here that it’s become part of the region’s very identity. And, yes, of course there’s a festival; Goettafest runs in late July and early August, giving aficionados the opportunity to savour their favourite sausage in every variety of preparation and serving you could imagine.
But if Goetta and Cincinnati Chilli (a somewhat sloppy, Greek-influenced take on a classic chilli con carne, served over spaghetti) don’t tickle your fancy, the region offers plenty of great food options to pair with your pint, from high-quality street food to multiple James Beard award finalists.
For the beer lover though, Oktoberfest isn’t the be-all of Cincinnati; there’s fun to be had here all year round. Having travelled about the wider Cincy Region on our own beery travels, our lasting impression was that these cultural celebrations aren’t just for the tourists, but represent a genuine, living heritage of which people are very proud. Both sides of the Ohio River have popular, German-style beer halls, many brewing their own excellent lagers, which flow cheap and plentiful, and which are always packed full of locals. If you prefer your brews top-fermented, you’ll also find a lot of traditional British-style brewing, reflecting a general Europhile tendency in this corner of the American Midwest.
And of course if you really want to get into the local spirit, Cincy Region also has its ‘B-Line’ tour, a string of seven distilleries from the longer Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, as well as nine bourbon-centric bars, and nine amazing restaurants. For the booze nerds, these breweries and distilleries draw their water from the same underground aquifer that helped make the region synonymous with excellent brewing and distilling two centuries ago.
Beer and brewing are literally in the stones here, both burrowed beneath the streets and towering over the sidewalk, with iconic and attention-grabbing pre-prohibition architecture. This isn’t just about drinking great beer – though Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have those in abundance – today’s Cincy Region is a celebration of the best of beer culture, and its Oktoberfest festivities are the perfect embodiment of this indomitable spirit.
A pint of brewing history:
Visit the iconic Over-the-Rhine area, whose stunning, showy brewery buildings stand as a testament to Cincinnati’s history as one of the world’s most important brewing cities, and the folly of prohibition. Pay particular attention to the old Felsenbrau-Clyffside Brewery (built 1887) with its carved cherubs and six-point brewer’s star on the roof. Tie a walk around the area with a visit to Rhinegeist’s fantastic brewery and taproom.
The ground beneath your feet
The lagering tunnels below Cincinnati, disused for almost a century, were all but lost to prohibition, two world wars and the relentless development of the city above. But in 2008, a group of intrepid urban exploration (‘UrbEx’) enthusiasts discovered a sealed off chamber. Jackhammering ensued, and now large sections of this subterranean beer labyrinth are open to tourists. Fascinating stuff.
Make a B-Line
Seven great bourbon distilleries – New Riff Distilling, Neeley Family Distillery, Second Sight Spirits, Boone County Distilling Co, The Old Pogue Distillery, Augusta Distillery and Pensive Distilling Co – as well as a string of bourbon-friendly bars and restaurants, make up this weekend-friendly booze trail though Northern Kentucky. For when your beer suddenly needs a chaser.
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