The Story of Cincinnati’s Bockfest

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In the 1800s, Cincinnati was one of America’s most prolific brewing cities. Cincinnatians drank more beer per capita than any city in the country (2 1/2 times the national average), and Over-the-Rhine was the epicenter of beer production and consumption. By 1890, the neighborhood was home to roughly 300 saloons and had over a dozen-and-a-half breweries within or adjacent to its boundaries.

Bock Beer is traditionally brewed for special occasions. It is complex, hardy, traditionally has a higher nutritional content than most beer and typically has a higher alcohol content. It has a particular link to spring because German monks drank it as a substitute for food during Lenten fasts. The style was popular in pre-Prohibition Cincinnati and the numerous breweries all made a seasonal version around Lent. This history gives rise to the modern Bockfest.

Bockfest™ was created by the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company to celebrate the brewery’s introduction of Christian Moerlein Bock. Prior to Prohibition (1919 in Ohio), Christian Moerlein was the largest brewery in the state and one of the five largest in the nation. Despite its size, the brewery did not re-emerge after Prohibition, but the Hudepohl Brewing Company, originally founded in 1885, did return. Hudepohl was a local favorite for decades. Most Cincinnatians know that, but surprisingly few understand the company’s role in helping give America better beer. In 1981, Hudepohl recognized an untapped market in craft beer. The company became one of the first two craft beer producers in America (Anchor Steam in California was the first.) The craft beer line was produced under the resurrected name Christian Moerlein to pay homage to Cincinnati brewing history. The beer was sold with the tag line, “quite simply a better beer” and became the first American beer to pass “Reinheitsgebot,” Germany’s stringent beer purity law. In 1992, the Moerlein line of craft beers was expanded to include a bock. The company decided to turn the launch of the beer into an entire festival celebrating Cincinnati ‘s brewing heritage, including a parade. The parade started at Arnold’s Bar & Grill because Arnold’s is both the city’s oldest saloon as well as being the first place to serve the twentieth-century Christian Moerlein beer.

With the work and dedication of Hudepohl-Schoenling, bar owners, Over-the-Rhine residents, and non-profit organizations like Merchants of Main Street, the tradition of Bockfest™ was carried on through subsequent years. During the festival’s history, Hudepohl fell on hard times and Bockfest™ was kept alive largely due to the once-beloved (but now defunct) Barrel House Brewery. When Barrel House left Over-the-Rhine in 2005, the future of Bockfest™ was placed in question, but a small number of people refused to let that happen. The festival was maintained and, through a great deal of hard work by a number of OTR proponents, has grown significantly in the years since 2006. Brought from the brink of death, it now draws attendees from both near and far.

Traditionally, Bockfest Hall was a different vacant building every year. This succeeded in bringing attention to Over-the-Rhine properties that subsequently housed important contributions to OTR (Jefferson Hall and the Know Theater as two examples), but there were a number of problems associated with this strategy. First, the buildings were often in need of significant work just to open them for a weekend. Secondly, they were often too small to serve their intended purpose. And most importantly, owners did not like to commit to renting a space for a weekend event more than a few weeks before it occurred – leaving the important location of the hall unknown even to event organizers until a matter of days before the festival. Fortunately, this changed in 2010. The festival now has a permanent location for its Bockfest Hall in the Event Hall adjacent to the new home of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company.