CINCINNATI, Ohio — Due to shutdowns, restrictions, and social distancing guidelines, the brewing industry has been among the hardest hit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, local brewers and historians were in the midst of the region's largest revival since prohibition.
OTR owes its foundation to 19th century German immigrants. They settled in the hillside, bringing brewing along with them, eventually developing a booming beer-based economy.
Steve Hampton, the executive director of the OTR Brewery District, said that history attracted him to the same area. As an architect, he said he was fascinated by all the historic buildings throughout the neighborhood and he believed they needed to be preserved, restored, and shared.
He took on the project 20 years ago, starting with efforts to make the area safer and more accessible. He developed a master plan that included better sidewalks and increased police patrols.
Last year, he launched one of his first tourism-driven efforts, the Brewery Heritage Trail. The trail guides patrons on a marked walking tour of Over-the-Rhine, showing off the historic buildings from the outside, inside, and even underground.
“There’s a number of these brewery cellars that remain under buildings that have been torn down because they’re 30-40 feet underground,” Hampton said.
Some cellars are completely intact with intricate tunnel systems designed to keep beer cool and transport it easily from building to building.
The tour also goes on to describe the fall of German brewing. When prohibition hit, Hampton said few brewers were able to diversify their business and survive. Even the breweries that attempted to reopen didn't last.
“We had prohibition in 1919, we had World War I, and all the anti-German hysteria, we had just the exodus of folks from the urban core out to the suburbs,” he said.
Now almost a hundred years later, Hampton said a renewed interest in brewing has helped the revitalization efforts catch on. New tenants are moving into the former breweries and supporting his efforts.
"These are not current breweries, but they all really love the history and have helped bring that back," he said.
While Hampton said the point of his efforts wasn't necessarily to bring back brewing to the neighborhood, he's been surprised to see a lot of new tenants do want to honor the regions roots.
His tours start and end at Christian Moerlein, a brewery built in 1853 and revived ten years ago.
“Most of these spaces, they’re not taking old homes and converting them," he said. "They’re industrial spaces and really their best use is an industrial use again.”
For the time being, most of that public use is on hold.
The taproom at Christian Moerlein has been closed since March, and the brewers said retail circulation has suffered due to coronavirus restrictions.
Meanwhile, Hampton's tours are on hold as well. He said until the pandemic calms down, he's not comfortable guiding crowds through streets and buildings.
He still hopes to expand the heritage trail next year, but he said he'll need renewed interest.
For now, it seems much of his plans are on hold, but as a historian, Hampton wants to look to the neighborhoods past to find a path to its future. The brewery district has faced unprecedented obstacles before and he's hopeful it's better prepared to survive again.
“To share this asset that we have and bring people, residents, and businesses back to the neighborhood,” he said.
In the meantime, Hampton is releasing video to serve as a virtual brewing heritage trail to keep historic interest alive.