Online and on the street, Cincinnati brewing artifacts are going public to honor our history of drinking

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is actively seeking brewing artifacts to scan for digital copies.

click to enlarge Cincinnati Library’s digital collection includes this photo of the early Christian Moerlein plant. - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Cincinnati Library’s digital collection includes this photo of the early Christian Moerlein plant.

Much of Cincinnati’s 200-year-old brewing history has been lost to both the neglect and renovation of the industry’s old buildings, but a lot is still out there in the hands of collectors and others.

There is a two-part effort going on right now at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to honor that beer history. The library is actively seeking out brewing artifacts to scan for digital copies, and it currently has an online exhibit, Cincinnati’s Brewing and Drinking History, to collect and display beer ephemera, which is available by searching the “digital library” drop-down window at cincinnatilibrary.org.

The library teamed up with the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation on this project. The district’s executive director, Steven Hampton, and curator Mike Morgan have helped compile such artifacts as black-and-white photos of men standing outside the original Christian Moerlein Brewing Company with their horses (1887), a letter written on Jung Brewing Company letterhead (1903), an ad for Lion Brewery (1877) and a blueprint for Sohn & Company’s brewing facility (1887). The library itself has also been collecting this type of paraphernalia for a long time.

Patricia Van Skaik, the library’s manager of genealogy and local history, says they’ve been collecting for the library’s archive since the late 1800s. “Something that was created in 1870, that is in all likelihood when we started collecting it,” she says. “One of the things we do as a library, and particularly in the history and the special collections here, is try to think about what someone would be interested in 50, 100 years from now, and we acquire it at that time. We try to collect things at the moment of conception, so to speak, because you just increasingly run the risk of something happening to it.” 

The second part of this project occurs next spring when the Brewery District breaks ground on its Brewing Heritage Trail in Over-the-Rhine. It will use images from old photos, augmented-reality experiences and interactive signs posted outside of historic buildings to tell Cincinnati’s role in regional —and global — beer history. It has funds for the first phase of the two-mile-long trail but is seeking donations for further development.

As curator for this Brewery Heritage Trail (and founder of walking-tour company Queen City History & Education), Morgan has the tedious job of sifting through people’s collections. 

“My job is to do all of the primary research and to bring it all together in a way that tells a story — to lay it out on the signs and online and to find these images,” he says. 

Morgan wants the visual images to demonstrate to trail-goers what the city looked like back in the day, and to make the “experience of the past real to people,” he says.  

He joined the Brewery District when it began in 2005, when Over-the-Rhine was just starting revitalization efforts. 

“The idea of the time wasn’t really to do so much literally with brewing,” he says. “Our interest was more with the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine. We weren’t necessarily interested in seeing breweries return to being breweries. We were more interested in using that history as a way to make people appreciate the neighborhood.”

German immigrants settled in Cincinnati in the early 1800s and started brewing beer, especially in Over-the-Rhine. In 1829, Jackson Brewery became OTR’s first brewery. Today, Rhinegeist resides in the 1890s Moerlein bottling plant, and a new Christian Moerlein Brewing Company operation (with a taproom) lives inside the old 19th-century Kauffman Brewing Company malt house.

At the apex of beer production, Morgan says the city was churning out a lot of beer: In 1880, Cincinnati brewed 25,645,711 gallons of beer, which equates to 218,851,200 glasses  — and 1890 had even higher numbers. “A lot of people were drunk a lot of the time,” he jokes. 

Last weekend, in an event called Digital Brew, the Brewing Heritage Trail and the library asked the community to come out to the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company taproom in Over-the-Rhine and bring old photos and collections to be digitized. 

Linda Ziegler, who came with her collection, focuses on the old Schmidt Brothers Brewery, formerly located at 135 and 138 E. McMicken Ave. and once run by Friedrich and Heinrich Schmidt. She has spent a few years compiling hundreds of pages of documents on four different branches of Heinrich’s family, and she has a comprehensive binder that is several inches thick.

Whereas Ziegler’s binder is plump with text, Carl Grohs brought five photo albums filled with meticulously preserved beer labels from 35 different breweries, some of which date back to the 1800s. He’s been collecting — or “male scrapbooking” — solely Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky labels for five or six years, including Burger, Big Jug Malt Liquor, Schaller Brewing Company and Red Top Brewing labels. He even includes brand new labels from MadTree and Moerlein in his books, and says he stops by Moerlein once a week to pick up unused labels. 

“That’s what I love about the labels,” he says. “You put them in photo albums and take your whole collection with you in a backpack.”

Besides the labels, he brought a John Hauck Brewing Company beer bottle, Weidemann coasters and a Foss-Schneider Brewing Company golden serving tray. Some of his labels had what’s called a U-Permit code on them, a mandatory tax code printed on labels from 1933-1935. 

It remains to be seen what other troves the library’s online archives and the Brewing Heritage Trail will unearth, but what is clear now is how vital Cincinnati’s brewing history is to the city — and beyond. 

“Many people think about Porkopolis, but there were more people engaged in the beer industry (here) than ever in the pork-packing industry,” Van Skaik says. “It’s just so tied culturally, historically and economically to who we are. I think it’s really important in understanding our city’s history.” 


Find out more information by visiting the PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY or BREWING HERITAGE TRAIL websites: cincinnatilibrary.org and brewingheritagetrail.org.

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