Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King

Michael Morgan, The History Press

My first thought was, given Over-the-Rhine’s lengthy (if roller-coaster-styled) history as a drinking and entertainment district, “When wasn’t beer king in OTR?” But, really, the modern volume of lager pales in consideration of the way things used to be. A century ago, the embattled city core was home to several hundred taverns and more than a dozen breweries. It was, according to Michael Morgan, “an early, 19th-century version of wine country.”

When Beer Was King does a splendid job fleshing out the skeletal remains of the OTR that once was home to brewers and burlesque players. And given the history of street wars and political upheaval, the author’s tales of libation and intrigue have touches of The Gangs of New York (the book, which is well worth a read).

Morgan makes a reasonable play at answering the natural question of what happened to the Queen City of the West (Prohibition dried up some of Cincinnati’s brightest lights) and raises some unexpected issues, too. The racism and xenophobia that plagued the German-American immigrants of OTR has eerie parallels to the modern issues that undocumented Hispanic-Americans face. The issue of who constituted a “real American” was a major point of political and cultural contention in the 19th century, as it is today. German immigrants ran contrary to Anglo values such as extreme temperance and workaholism and threatened to destabilize WASP America.

Using primary sources and interspersing the political history with as many ground-level stories as he could find, Morgan weaves a compelling tale of the OTR of yore. The details about the tunnels and subterranean beer factories hidden below the streets are especially scintillating, though I found it difficult to visualize the spaces and wished the author would have provided some maps and illustrations to pinpoint where these cavities are and how they are arranged. But When Beer Was King does a fine job of portraying a troubled, romantic slice of local history and it deserves accolades. Grade: B

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