Beer is entwined in Cincinnati’s DNA. In fact, in the 1800s, Cincy was declared “the beer capital of the world.” And with Germans being some of its first European settlers, it’s no surprise that the beer in Cincinnati is legit.
Since the laws have slowly been relaxed to allow breweries to serve their alcoholic beverages directly to the consumer starting in 2011, the state of Ohio has experienced a flood of entrepreneurs plying the trade, taking the state from just 45 craft breweries in 2011 to over 250 now—with still more in the works. The legacy of the Queen City, and Ohio in general, as being advantageous for both the distillation of alcohol and brewing of beer, has taken since the 1920s to rebound from the trauma to our nation of the implementation of Prohibition, but the party is back on and we love every minute of that.
While Sam Adams has a location in Cincinnati that is responsible for a third of all its beer produced, the city still very much owns the craft beer market with 50 breweries in the vicinity alone. Forty percent of all beer produced goes to local taxes, much of which then goes to the public education system, so you can sleep well knowing you’re supporting the local youth the more beer in Cincinnati that you drink!
With locations sprawling around Cincinnati, we’ve focused our sights on the 20-minute drive region of northern Kentucky and Cincinnati proper for this list, but be aware that if you’d like to tour the full monty of fermented brews in the state, you’ll need a month (and a designated driver). As if you need an excuse to explore the craft beer scene in Cincinnati, remember that the city provided 35 million gallons of beer every year to the United States prior to Prohibition thanks to its geographic location and German immigrants (God bless the Germans). This is historical travel at its finest, so buckle up, saddle up and raise a glass to the legacy of our forefathers.
A History of Beer in Cincinnati
Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is a colloquialism to describe a region of land in Cincinnati that was once separated by a canal from the downtown. The canal has since been paved into Central Parkway, but back in the day the bridge over the river signified traveling into a miniature version of the Germanic fatherland, much like the real Rhine River splices the country neatly into two.
The Rhine has defined borders and transportation in the heart of Europe since at least the Roman Empire, so it’s easy to see how the name stuck, particularly once you start noticing the architecture, schools, churches and legacy that the German people left in Cincinnati. Some food for thought: 60 percent of the beer never traveled more than a mile, and with the main source of water being the canal, everyone drank beer, even kids, both to stay hydrated and get nutrients. In the year 1890, there were more than 1,800 drinking facilities in the area, 136 of which were saloons, taverns and dance halls. Back then, Americans on average drank 16 gallons a year. In Cincinnati? That number was an average of 100 gallons per adult, per year. To us, TBH, it sounds like it was really fun to be alive in this era.
Earlier in 2019, a local non-profit launched the OTR Brewery District initiative, which lays out critical aspects and assets of this historically relevant neighborhood in the lexicon of alcoholic beverages in addition to offering a wide range of guided tours. Linked in a rough circle and entirely walkable on your own (there’s no bus to hop onto), informational markers, destinations, and Cincinnati’s robust public art dot the landscape of the trail and are a fascinating glimpse back in time. The visually stunning Italianate architecture alone is worth a stroll, but there’s also the added bonus of sparkling, thirst-quenching beer and belly-filling food along the route.
Curious property owners were installing an air conditioning system for their building in 2016 when they discovered what appeared to be subterranean holes some 30 feet beneath the buildings, forgotten about for nearly a century. Someone had the bright idea to rent a jackhammer to break out a section of concrete and to their immense delight, a network of barrel-shaped tunnels were discovered. These cavernous storage facilities (seriously, massive) were used for what every brewer knows is an important consideration when making beer: temperature. They stay at 58 degrees year-round, to be exact.
These long-neglected features of the history of Cincinnati are now a tourist destination unto themselves, and only available to guided tours like this one and this one. They’re called the lager tunnels because “lager,” in German, translates to “to store beer.” It’s unclear how they’ll evolve in the future, but we’ve traveled enough to know that at least one of them will eventually be turned into an amazing entertainment space.
Where to Drink Beer in Cincinnati
The intention of this round-up is to highlight the fermented beverage that we all know as beer and its relevance with shaping the history of this city on the Ohio River, so put your mind back to a time where the very air tasted like baked bread—the smell of beer fermenting—the primary language of society was German, and everywhere you turned, it looked like Düsseldorf. You can also visit Cincinnati in September when, every year for three solid days, it reverts back to the German cultural hub it once was for the wildly-popular Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.
But back to beer and where you can find it any time of the year. You can’t talk about beer in Cincinnati without mentioning the meteoric rise of Rhinegeist. Though it’s been open less than a decade—just since 2013, in fact—and is an infant in a city that’s been brewing beer for the better part of two centuries, Rhinegeist has become a regional powerhouse, surpassing 100,000 barrels in its first five years in operation. In fact, I’ve been seeing Rhinegeist’s presence two states away in Tennessee grow substantially over the past year, and it’s recently become available at many of my favorite Nashville bars and bottle shops, too.
Rhinegeist has grown so quickly, in fact, that it now has a 40,000-square-foot secondary brewery (on top of the 250,000-square-foot original location) on eight acres in the Camp Washington neighborhood, but its roomy OTR headquarters was one of SVV’s and my favorite beer stops in Cincy. Having visited Germany multiple times and lived together in northern Europe, we both felt the biergarten vibe that represents communal space, camaraderie and love of your fellow human in the building that Rhinegeist occupies, so don’t skip this one. Another reason to love this Midwestern brewery: In mid-2020, plans are underway to implement an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), with 100 percent ownership eventually transferred to employees, a similar model to New Belgium.
Also opened in 2013, MadTree Brewing is on the eastern outskirts of Cincy and has a massive taproom operation open all day, every day that is both family- and pet-friendly. We were there on a football game day, and it was thumping with sports fans, but still mellow enough for those whose team may not be taking the field that day. There’s also a large patio space with outdoor TVs, as well as an in-house kitchen, Catch-a-Fire Café, so we were able to chow down on garlic knots and pizza while we sipped our way through a flight or two.
But what I like most about the beer in Cincinnati is how it’s a mix between big and small, traditional and quirky. Near the behemoth Rhinegeist, for example, is newcomer 3 Points Urban Brewery, for example. Settled in a brick building on a city corner, 3 Points presents itself as an anchor of the third space that breweries occupy in American life. Open from 9am to 10pm most days, it’s a place to haul out the computer and bang out remote work while sipping on experimental brews and admiring the original art hanging from the walls that was created by artists living in the very neighborhood.
Another small guy we stumbled upon was Humble Monk Brewing Co. up in Northside. A vast space with room to grow, the former manufacturing facility is getting a new lease on life as a brewery by a family-run team with bio-diesel backgrounds. The taproom is humble, which seems appropriate, and is the exact place you’d want to bring someone that cares about quality beer, made locally. Humble Monk is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Across from Humble Monk is Urban Artifact, a craft operation that is 100 percent dedicated to brewing sours, fermented with yeast and bacteria caught locally, and housed in none other than an old church, the historic St Patrick’s. The brewing takes place in the old gym, while the taproom is in the church’s lower level, with a sprawling courtyard perfect for warm afternoons and evenings.
Keeping true to the brand, the brewers name all beers after artifacts, whether physical, scientific or cultural (Astrolabe, Photo Booth and the Gadget are a few currently on tap). The brewery also has a wood-fired pizza kitchen, Wildfire Pizza Kitchen, for dine-in or carry-out and is open seven days a week.
Looking for even more beer in Cincinnati? You’ve got plenty of options:
- 13 Below Brewery
- 16 Lots Brewing Company
- Bad Tom Smith Brewing
- Big Ash Brewing
- Brink Brewing Co.
- Dead Low Brewing
- Fifty West Brewing Company
- Christian Moerlein Brewing Company
- HighGrain Brewing Company
- Listermann Brewing
- Nine Giant
- Samuel Adams
- Sonder Brewing
- Streetside Brewery
- Taft’s Brewing Co.
- West Side Brewing
- Wiedemann’s Fine Beer
- The Woodburn Brewery
Breweries in Northern Kentucky
Kentucky may be most known for its abundance of bourbon—and Northern Kentucky even has its own trail, the B-Line—but don’t discount its craft beer scene just because brown liquor dominates the landscape. The proximity of Newport and Covington to downtown Cincinnati—they’re less than 10 minutes over the bridge—mean these adjacent Kentucky cities hold their own in the beer arena, too.
Braxton Brewing Company is perhaps the biggest of the bunch, as evidenced by its presence in restaurants and bars around town, but also sponsorship of major art events like BLINK. The rooftop addition is an especially attractive option for those who love imbibing in the open air and features a living wall and stellar views of the commercial district in Covington that encompasses it.
If you’re looking for a more intimate affair, we also spent some time at Wooden Cask Brewing Company in Newport, just across the river from Cincinnati and next door to Covington. Featuring small-batch products, the barrel-aged brews that trend true to original, Old-World recipes this brewery creates makes for an authentic, frosty beverage. Forming one of the pioneers of this region of northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati region, Wooden Cask is representative of how the third space can transform a neighborhood.
Other Kentucky breweries in Newport, Covington and nearby:
Cincinnati Beer Tours
I’ll be honest: The breadth of beer in Cincinnati overwhelms me. It’s all just so good, and I stress out only having a limited amount of time to explore every time we’re there. You feel me? If you, too, are only in the Queen City for a quick in-and-out and want to sample as much beer as possible, look into a guided walking tour of the Brewing Heritage Trail and/or an afternoon on the Cincy Brew Bus, which offers various tours, including a walk-drive combo option.
Not a fan of beer? Cincinnati does have an awesome urban winery, the Skeleton Root, as well the aforementioned B-Line bourbon trail that starts just beyond the river on the Northern Kentucky side.
This project is in partnership with Source Cincinnati. All opinions are our own.