In 1812, when Davis Embree placed his modest little newspaper advertisement announcing that his brewery, the first in Cincinnati, was now churning out ale, porter and beer, he could not have imagined the ultimate magnitude of what he had just inaugurated. Over the next century and a half, Cincinnati would build a brewing industry rivaled by few cities and a beer culture matched by none.

In his new book, Over the Barrel: The Brewing History and Beer Culture of Cincinnati, historian Timothy J. Holian undertakes the daunting task of recreating Cincy’s illustrious brewing heritage. Profusely illustrated with hundreds of photographs, the book chronicles the rise and fall of a great beer-making city’s pre-Prohibition heyday. From a 200-year-old recipe for “pea shell beer” (Holian points out that the unusual concoction ultimately “exhibited no staying power”) to the industry’s fight against national Prohibition, Over the Barrel is an educational and fun-filled American brewing saga.

The story of Cincinnati’s beer heritage is, first and foremost, the story of German immigrants. Holian writes with incredible detail and insight about notorious Cincy beer barons like Christian Moerlein, Ludwig Hudepohl, Conrad Windisch, Gottlieb and Heinrich Muhlhauser, John Hauck and others. “In no other Cincinnati business enterprise,” writes the author, “was the German devotion to craft and product as visible as it was in the brewing industry.” The city’s German culture is reviewed in depth, well focused by Holian’s background as a published author on German-American topics.

No study of Cincinnati’s beer culture would be complete without a close look at the saloons and beer gardens of the city’s infamous “Over-The-Rhine” district. But Holian, in his quest to depict the 19th-century German-American experience, goes above and beyond in his descriptions of Cincy’s drinking spots, painting a picture of early beer garden life as vivid as any put forth by previous historians.

So named by immigrants who likened the neighborhood to Germany’s famed river valley, the Over-The-Rhine area was home to some of the most heavily frequented drinking houses in the Midwest. Beer was serious business in these places, where 5 cents bought a mug of beer, but $1 bought 21, “an amount which few Cincinnatians found prohibitive,” notes Holian.

The book’s frequent departures from the confines of Cincinnati–such as the discussion of George Washington’s recipe for beer, or the recounting of the travels of canonized European brewers, Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr II–give Over the Barrel a universal appeal lacking in many regional brewing histories. And Holian is careful to place Cincinnati’s brewing environment in its proper context, often comparing and contrasting it with the bigger picture nationally.

Fittingly, Over the Barrel was supported by Cincinnati’s only remaining old-time brewery, the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. The book is perhaps a small gesture in the overall scheme of Cincinnati’s nearly two-century-old brewing heritage, but one that will pay incalculable dividends to historians and beer enthusiasts for years to come.

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