If the walls of 1910 Elm Street could talk, what would they say?
We can only speculate, but given the amount of beer they’ve seen in the past century, it’s a safe bet they would slur their words a bit.
They could tell the stories of ambitious Bavarian immigrant Christian Moerlein, whose name still echoes across Cincinnati more than 150 years after he laid the groundwork for our city’s largest pre-Prohibition brewery. They could tell the tales of our blue-collared ancestors, who worked long shifts on the bottling line as they packaged up to 300,000 bottles of beer a year, helping to establish the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company as one of the most formidable beer production facilities in the country at that time. These walls could recount the detriment of Prohibition, which closed the doors of the bottling plant at 1910 Elm Street, along with the rest of Moerlein’s beer empire, in the winter of 1920.
Despite the end of Chapter 1 in Cincinnati’s brewing legacy, the walls of Moerlein’s bottling plant remained standing. All but forgotten for years, the building would later be sold and sold again, passed down a long line of artists, developers and entrepreneurs that stretched on into the ’60s, when KD Lamp Co. set up shop and used it as warehouse space for custom lighting and safety products. This era would come to an end in the ’90s, leaving 1910 Elm Street a hollow skeleton yet again, waiting to be exhumed from the urban graveyard that our once thriving Brewery District had become in less than a century.
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Fast-forward nearly 20 years and the vacant property had fallen into such a state of disrepair that only a committed — and arguably crazy — group of visionaries would ever attempt to restore it. Enter: Orton Development, Inc.
“Prior to purchase, the building had been vandalized to the point of barely being a building,” says Steve Schwartz, owner representative at Orton Development. “Every window had been broken, all of the plumbing, heating equipment, electrical and life safety infrastructure had been rendered useless or non-existent under the guise of copper and metal theft.”
Specializing in the rehab of large, mixed-use properties, Orton Development acquired 1910 Elm Street in 2008 for $500,000, and it needed substantial repairs. They included $300,000 in trash and debris removal, along with all expenses related to renovation and a four-alarm fire in 2010 that badly damaged the south side of the building. Despite the challenges, Orton continued to invest in the revival project.
“It was obvious from my first walkthrough of the building that this developer was committed and spared no expense to bring this former brewery asset back to life,” says David Cawdrey, a commercial real estate agent and key connection to what would soon become the perfect home for some shiny brewing tanks.
“That was enough for me to believe in this project.”
After one viewing, Rhinegeist Brewery’s founding fathers, Bob Bonder and Bryant Goulding, signed the lease.
“The second we stepped into the space, it was a done deal,” says Bonder, president and co-founder of Rhinegeist Brewery. “The place is built for what we wanted to do. It’s crazy that it was just sitting here, waiting.”
A Cornell graduate and former business strategy consultant with a soft spot for good beer and coffee, Bonder’s entrepreneurial spirit guided him to Cincinnati six years ago to launch his first startup, Tazza Mia. Having gotten his hustle on in some of our biggest cities, including New York and San Francisco, Bonder acknowledged the risk of learning startups trial by fire in already fiercely competitive markets and began researching cities across the country, far and wide, until he found us.
“The initial reason I came is very different than the reason I’m here now, recruiting my friends from all the other cities I’ve lived in,” he says. “It was a good combination of low cost, available real estate, the right level of competition and a downtown that was ripe for resurrection.”
These factors, combined with Bonder’s relentless “get things done” attitude, not only paved the way for a fruitful business endeavor that continues to thrive, but also fostered a deep appreciation of Cincinnati’s ever-evolving urban center. As a resident of Over-the-Rhine, he observed that the neighborhood was ready to make a “big comeback,” and watched it happen in more ways than he anticipated in only a few years. This momentum helped inspire his next big idea.
“It wasn’t one of those things where I had this idea years ago,” he says. “I just approach everything with open eyes and an open mind, then ask, ‘What do we need here?’ It seemed strange to me that we’re sitting on more brewing history in this area than just about any other city in the country and there’s very little local beer still being produced here.”
Set on launching a local craft brewery in the neighborhood, Bonder set forth a call to action. His first mark: Bryant Goulding, a friend and fellow beer enthusiast who at the time was managing sales and marketing for Dogfish Head in five states along the West Coast. Relocating to Cincinnati was a hard sell, according to both Bonder and Goulding, but after an impromptu visit during which the two future founders got their first glimpse of where they’d spend the following months working tirelessly to get Rhinegeist Brewery off the ground, the venture was already well in motion.
As Goulding describes it, “We walked into the beer hall and our voices echoed as we kicked dust around. It was like a cathedral, this giant skeleton. Plugging a new brewhouse in there was like giving it a beating heart.”
They purchased a brewhouse used for $50,000 from Cerveceria Mexicana, a former Coors affiliate located south of San Diego, just across the border. “We put a down payment on it with my last dollars, period,” Goulding says. “I was sleeping on Bob’s couch at the time. A month later, we get funded. Three weeks after that, we’re setting it up in Cincinnati.”
With the equipment and space to brew, Bonder and Goulding needed one more critical piece of the puzzle: a brewer.
Bonder reached out to another friend, Jim Matt, who had spent 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry as a chemist before changing gears and diving head first into the world of brewing at Sun King Brewing Co. in Indianapolis. He then worked alongside Brewmaster Richard Dubé at the Moerlein Lager House, before accepting the offer to take the helm of Rhinegeist’s brewhouse.
“After we had the space, it all came together pretty quickly,” Bonder says. “It was a perfect storm.”
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Since opening their doors on June 29 last year, Rhinegeist has consistently self-distributed their kegs to more than 200 locations — and they’re selling out everywhere. They began canning Truth, a hoppy West Coast-style IPA, and Cougar, a blonde ale, last January and sold an expected six-weeks worth in only three days.
Looking toward the future, their plans for the brewery are forever taking shape. With the intent of “keeping a thirsty Cincinnati hydrated,” Bonder explains that the Rhinegeist team plans to max out their current brew system and acquire more space, broaden their distribution network, continue launching new brews and double their employees within the next year. Their vision for the neighborhood is equally as optimistic.
“Cincinnati is evolving,” Bonder says. “It’s becoming its own beast, too, not just picking off pieces of other cities.”
Goulding supports this ideology, referring to Over-the-Rhine as Cincinnati’s culinary and cultural epicenter.
“Cincinnati is the coolest secret in the Midwest, and people are beginning to recognize it as a great place for startups,” he says. “For one man to lay his hands on the earth and make an impact, Cincinnati is a great place to do this. There’s a wave of positivity crashing through the city, and we’re riding it but also putting our shoulders into it to keep the momentum going.”
“What Cincinnati will be in 2020,” he adds, “we will have played a part.” ©