History, Hops and Hope

Cincinnati’s Brewing Heritage Trail aims to turn the Brewery District into a world-class tourist destination

Feb 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

For years, the potential of some of Cincinnati’s most historic neighborhoods and urban locales sat unrealized. The past decade has seen enormous change, however, as re-urbanization efforts heavily target the architecture and spirit of neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills.

As crime declined in these areas, developers and neighborhood organizations began reinvestigating the gems hidden within. The Over-the-Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation is among those championing part of Over-the-Rhine’s (and Cincinnati’s) most unique heritages — its brewing history.

The Brewery District CURC began operating large-scale heritage tours of the Brewery District in 2006, bringing thousands of people per year through the city’s historic breweries, malt houses, bottling factories, cellars and lagering tunnels. Their spring Bock Tour, which runs during the Bockfest beer festival (March 6-8), takes visitors to the historic Schmidt Brothers/Crown Brewery and into the lagering tunnels below McMicken Avenue. Other tours throughout the year include the Industrious Tour, a walking tour where guides regale guests with stories of Cincinnati’s historic brewery workers; and the Lager Tour, which travels up Elm Street to the original Christian Moerlein brewery complex location, the Sohn/Clyffside brewhouse and under the Jackson brewery, into lagering tunnels built into Clifton’s hillside.

But now the Brewery District CURC has its sights — and hopes — set far beyond operating basic heritage tours for meager thousands of people. The organization’s new vision for the Brewery District involves creating a Cincinnati Brewing Heritage Trail, which will incorporate signage, bronze sidewalk markers and other directional castings with art installations along the way and even augmented reality experiences at specific historical stops. The hope is that a historical walking tour so unique and innovative will lure hundreds of thousands of people to visit the city center, either from out of town or those who want to add value to day-trips and staycations in Cincinnati.

“We use the tagline that if Boston is known for the Freedom Trail, and Kentucky is known for the Bourbon Trail, Cincinnati should be known worldwide for the Brewing Heritage Trail,” says Steve Hampton, executive director of Brewery District CURC. “Heritage tourism is something that can’t be replaced. It’s an asset that’s ours.”

The organization last summer released a major pre-implementation plan for the trail, which highlights the inimitable past of the city, with beer as a focal point, taking advantage of our history and architecture as an economic asset. Greg Hardman, CEO of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, believes there will be plenty of interest.

“It’s going to be a huge economic driver for the city of Cincinnati as a whole,” he says. “It’s going to fill hotel rooms; it’s going to get people to eat at restaurants and visit many of our great bars and breweries. It will be another thing people can experience in terms of the soul of Cincinnati and where we come from.”

While still in the fundraising stage — the budget outlines almost $5 million in total costs — Hampton expects it to take around three or four years for all the integrated parts to be in action. That said, there will be signage going up this year in some high-profile areas that have yet to be announced, and more physical infrastructure starting to appear in 2016.

The proposed Brewing Heritage Trail route will follow roughly two miles, mainly through Over-the-Rhine and into parts of the West End and downtown. With four main launch sites that utilize local attractions and ease of access, people will be able to hop on the trail via foot, bike or even some streetcar outlets. Points close to Horseshoe Casino, Smale Riverfront Park and Findlay Market are intended to put the city’s hotspots at walkers’ toes.

“We’re looking at those locations where we can connect with the visitor that allows you to be downtown and engage with the trail in different ways — use the streetcar, use Red Bike, use all those different assets we have at our hands to connect with the trail,” Hampton says.

While brewing is the common theme, the trail will dig into far deeper roots. Its narrative will delve into the tale of the people who came and grew up here more than a century ago, emphasizing the influence of German and Irish immigrants on the city’s identity and the influence of beer on their cultural identity.

It will also tie in significant changes that affected the face of brewing, such as industrialization, Cincinnati’s role in the fight against Prohibition and the influence of Prohibition on the city, along with the homogenization of the industry after the consolidation of breweries.

Incorporating these underlying themes within the city’s brewing heritage, and with the help of geography, the trail will follow one cohesive story broken down into segments, like chapters. People will be able to experience “walking a short story” by doing one segment, or “hiking a book” by doing the whole trail.

Visitors will have physical infrastructure to guide them, such as the signs and sidewalk markers. The trail will also feature large art installations (think stencil-like paintings, murals and artwork painstakingly made entirely of bottle caps), the first of which has already been completed by ArtWorks on the side of the Schmidt Brothers/Crown Brewery building at 131 E. McMicken St. It features past and current brewery workers and the phrase “Beer is proof that the earth rewards the industrious.”

But with only so much information able to fit on physical signage, the project also emphasizes a massive digital element. Aside from the website, which will allow information about the trail to reach around the globe, there will be a sophisticated app for tablets and phones. The app will include audio tours, taking the overarching narrative of the trail and breaking it down into infinite possibilities.

“What that allows us to do is tell the story from multiple viewpoints,” Hampton says. “So we can walk the exact same route and have a dozen different stories, narratives and seasonal aspects. You could have a beer baron telling their viewpoint, a saloon worker’s viewpoint.”

This aspect gives the trail a timeless quality, as people can come back and walk the same trail but experience an entirely different tour time after time.

But even more exciting is the intended use of augmented reality. For the spots where historic buildings once existed and have long been reduced to gravel lots, it will put hikers in a virtual experience of what they would be seeing if the building was still standing.

“It’s literally live, not like you can stand there and pull up a photo, but you can walk around and see and hear what would be underneath your feet or what happened in that building,” Hampton says.

For news and more on the BREWING HERITAGE TRAIL, visit brewingheritagetrail.com. To sign up for the Brewery District CURC’s current BREWERY TOURS, visit cincinnatibrewerytours.com.