Above, it was freezing. Yet as I descended the railing of the steep stairwell, I began to feel the temperature around me warm to a balmy 58 degrees. At the bottom of the stairwell, I found myself surrounded by the crumbling decay of cement, brick and limestone, with mountains of century-old ash piled high against the walls.
I stood in the tomb of what was once the lager cellar of John Kauffman Brewing Co. The tunnels were built more than 100 years ago, but only recently were they unearthed. Now, the Queen City Underground Tours, operated by American Legacy Tours, exclusively provides tours for those who seek a journey into the past — an age when beer was Cincinnati’s king.
On this occasion, I decided to embark on the Ultimate Queen City Underground Tour of Over-The-Rhine (OTR). For $35, the two-and-a-half-hour guided tour includes a walk through OTR’s past on Vine Street, a visit to the crypt under St. Francis Church and Friary and a tour in the brewery tunnels under the old Kauffman brewery. The tour ends at Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.
My tour was led by Laura, one of American Legacy’s senior guides. She was dressed in a long red peacoat and stood atop a pile of ash as the rest of the tour group filed into the old brewery tunnels.
It was as if we were her schoolchildren and she was corralling us to her for our history lesson. In a deep, dramatic voice, Laura began her tale of OTR — a place born from the displacement of German immigrants who found their home in the 362-acre neighborhood. At the turn of the 19th century, OTR was the edge of Cincinnati proper, Laura said. Soon, German immigrants moved in and built a tightly packed village of brick row houses and businesses.
“By the 1860s, OTR was home to 45,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world at the time,” Laura said.
By the 1980s, OTR had lost nearly three-quarters of its population. In 2009, one study labeled it the most dangerous neighborhood in the nation. In just 10 years, the neighborhood has grown to 10,000 residents — a testament to the completion of urban development projects by groups like Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), which has spent millions revitalizing OTR.
As Laura points to the brick archways in the cellars and the pipes at the top of the tunnels, she explains how the caves were once an essential investment for every brewer in Cincinnati. The tunnels underneath the old Kauffman brewery are not unique — there are dozens just like them that can be found all over OTR.
Their purpose was to age lager — the drink of choice among Cincinnati residents at the turn of the 20th century, and a tempting alternative to the polluted water from the canals. As beers go, lager is practical. It has a low alcohol content, but it still quiches thirst, which allowed Cincinnati residents to drink all day without becoming inebriated before noon.
“At the time, Cincinnati residents drank more beer than the entire country,” Laura said. “Each person on average drank 40 gallons of beer per year — three times the national average.”
In the 1800s, practically every man, woman and child drank beer or “near beer” — a beverage with little to no alcohol content — on the daily. Cincinnatians drank 95 percent of the beer the city produced, and the brewing industry was the heart of Cincinnati’s economy. By 1870, OTR was home to 20 breweries, and the lives of the German community were closely tied to the brewing industry.
Established in 1859, the John Kauffman & Co. Brewery was one of the largest breweries in Greater Cincinnati at the time. As I listened to Laura describe Kauffman’s ambitions and his savviness in the beer industry, I couldn’t help but lose myself in the past. I pictured the tunnels full of oak barrels and the rusted pipes that formed racks on the ceilings, pumping cold water to bring the tunnels from 58 degrees to 48 degrees — the temperature at which lager yeast is best fermented.
Laura guided us through the tunnels for nearly an hour, showing us where brewery workers filled the kegs and stored them. She brought us to an opening within the walls — a small alley where Kauffman secretly built a tunnel between his brewery on Vine Street and his malt house on Moore Street. He did so to avoid bringing his kegs 70 feet above ground and back down again.
“Watch your step,” Laura said. I nearly tripped over an uneven split in the stone under the archway, and on the other side, another cellar appeared. Mounds of ash and trash remain, glued against the brick walls by the recent rain.
“Once modern refrigeration became available, Kauffman moved his lager fermentation upstairs,” Laura said. “He no longer needed the cellars, so his workers threw all their coal ashes and trash into the tunnels, filling them up.”
When prohibition went into effect in 1919, the Kauffman brewery — like most other breweries in town — was forced to close its doors. The tunnels were sealed and forgotten for nearly a century.
The livelihoods of OTR residents depended on the beer industry, and prohibition plunged the historic neighborhood into poverty. Desperate for work, families began to move away. Buildings were boarded up and abandoned. The once-thriving German village practically became a ghost town.
After several years, the property of the once-great Kauffman brewery landed in the hands of Chris Frutkin, owner of City Center Properties, an urban real estate company that specializes in historic buildings. Frutkin turned the upper portion of the brewery into luxury apartments, but after obtaining the original building plans in 2008, he noticed that that floor underneath the basement was hollowed.
Frrom there, Frutkin did the only logical thing: he and his buddies rented a jackhammer and started drilling into his basement while slamming down beers. Soon, they broke ground and rediscovered the old Kauffman tunnels.
As I walked back up the stairs and the tunnels faded into shadows behind me, I contemplated the legacy of the Cincinnati brewing industry. Breweries like Rhinegeist, Christian Moerlein and Taft’s have made OTR their home in recent years, rekindling an industry that seemingly died during prohibition.
As OTR grows and continues on its path of urban development, it’s easy to glorify these efforts and ignore the population that has lived in OTR for decades. Laura guided us through the past, but she didn’t ignore the present. The underground tour offers an experience that is not only entertaining, but thought provoking — it shows how powerful exploring the past can be.