Humble Monk is the latest addition to Cincinnati’s lengthening list of locally owned breweries. Specializing in Belgian-style beers, the Northside taproom — connected to the Bertke Electrical Services & Testing building — pours a mix of traditional Old World recipes with a healthy dose of experimentation.
When you walk through the taproom’s front door, you’ll face a modest wooden bar. Church pews serve as seating and industrial cable spools have been repurposed into tables. The tall ceiling twinkles with strings of lightbulbs that are reminiscent of a summer evening; festive and welcoming.
“Humble Monk is an everyday celebration. It all morphed from my homebrewing,” says brewmaster Michael Kemp, who claims 37 years of experience. “When I brewed in the garage, I always brewed way more than I could consume. If the garage door was open, that meant my neighbors could come in and pour a beer, take a growler and go home — or hang out. I had a large kegerator in there and it had that block-party feel.”
At present, the beer is brewed off site until Michael, who’s also the resident welder, can finish the necessary work to retrofit food-grade vats previously used to store refined vegetable oil into fermentation tanks. This equipment is a holdover from his family’s former venture in biodiesel. While the brewing is done in a different location for the time being, everything is fermented in the facility.
Paul Kemp, the brewery’s CEO, is Michael’s son. The two of them can be found working in the taproom together nearly every day. While they’re very satisfied with the building, their landlord and the neighborhood, there’s still a lot of work to be done before their plan reaches its full potential.
“Dad and I joked that a lot of the tanks that we used to store the veggie oil after it had been refined would make great fermenters,” Paul says. “We thought it was too capital intensive, (that) there’s no way we’d be able to do that right now, but dad said for me to just write up a business plan as a joke. But I went on and started looking at it and realized we could actually make it work. From there, we started looking for locations. We had to find a space that fit our existing equipment with a minimum of 16-foot ceilings — hard to find.”
The Kemps are self-described “bootstrappers” and have managed to open their taproom using their own funds and those raised by investors.
“We’re debt free. We enjoy using recycled equipment for cost, for environmental friendliness,” Paul says. “Our goal is to make excellent beer. Beer’s an experiential thing that brings people together.”
Regarding their beer, it’s a welcome addition to Northside. Humble Monk is 30 yards catty-corner to Urban Artifact, a brewery which specializes in tart, sour and gose beers. Humble Monk, however, makes beers more familiar to traditional palates, finding a way to slightly elevate standard recipes with a bit of luck and experience.
The Kemps aren’t infringing on their neighbor’s business and instead believe the two breweries complement each other. Like many Belgian-style beers, expect Humble Monk’s to have malty flavor, some higher alcohol by volume and positive esters lingering on the tongue.
Uncle Gid’s Farmhouse Ale is a saison named after Michael’s great uncle Gideon, a combat veteran of the first World War who brewed beer in the family barn until some over-conditioned bottles exploded during fermentation in the cellar, which got him kicked off the farm. The beer Humble Monk serves in his honor is refreshing and slightly spicy, but altogether easily crushable. There’s a slight tinge of barnyard funk and it’s a unique take on the classic farmhouse ale without straying too far from what’s expected from such a beer.
Humble Monk’s clever logo — an old man’s face with a hops flower for a beard — went through around 150 design iterations before designer Darren Vogt came up with something Paul felt confident would represent their new business. It was inspired by Rhinegeist’s skull logo, which is bold and immediately recognizable across the room.
The brewery’s name, “Humble Monk,” was suggested by a friend after the Kemps received a wave of backlash on Facebook for their first planned name, Rabbit Hash Brewery. In 2014, the same year they premiered their upcoming brewery on social media, the beloved Rabbit Hash General Store burned down.
“I lived in Boone County for years. People thought we were trying to take advantage of it, but the idea was already (hatched) and it blew up on Facebook,” Michael says. “A friend said, ‘What about Humble Monk?’ He’d been in the garage, saw that I made Belgian-forwards. I scratched my head and go, ‘That kind of matches the humble pie I’m eating.’ ”
Other beers currently on tap include an English mild ale, stouts, blonde ale, pale ale and an IPA. Follow Humble Monk on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the rotating taplist. The taproom is currently open Thursday through Sunday.
Humble Monk Brewing, 1641 Blue Rock St., Northside, humblemonkbrewing.com.