Friday, May 09, 2008
Moerlein reviving Cincinnati beer
If Greg Hardman has his way, Cincinnati will again be the beer center of the nation.
“If I have anything to do with it, yes,” crowed Hardman, president and chief executive of the Christian Moerlein Co. and father to a small but growing family of beers.
Hardman bought the 1853 Cincinnati beer label four years ago and has been steadily growing sales in the region.
This summer he plans to begin the first phase of a national expansion by rolling out his handful of beer brands to Indianapolis, Columbus and Louisville.
His new Lager House Original Golden Helles, a remake of the classic Moerlein lager, will be offered to the beer-drinking public at the Beer Barons Weekend at the Muhlhauser Barn in West Chester next Saturday, May 17.
At the center of the event, and the company’s expansion, are the hearty beers that are throwbacks to another time and place. Many of the flavors were created in the late 1800s in Over-the-Rhine breweries whose buildings are still standing.
“Our beers have a uniquely Cincinnati twist without being Cincinnati-centric” Hardman said. “These beers have stories, and the stories have meaning that will reverberate beyond our region.”
In the 19th century, Cincinnati was one of the nation’s biggest producers and consumers of beer.
Thanks to a growing and mostly German and Irish population of laborers, Over-the-Rhine was at the center of the movement.
In 1840, there were eight breweries in town. Within 20 years there were 36 breweries here – in part because of the population but also because railroads and the Miami and Erie canals made it easy to bring grains to the brewers. Among them were names like John Hauck, Christian Moerlein and Conrad Windisch, beer barons who became men of influence and power.
Beer gardens were created along the canal in the West End and Over-the-Rhine.
On Sundays, Cincinnatians would go to church, and many would find their way to Over-the-Rhine or the West End to sing, drink and revel. Some churches had rathskellers, where beer was served after Mass.
“Then they would make their way to the beer gardens,” Hardman said.
Few brewers became as famous as Moerlein, who was so consumed by the beverage that he built a home next to his massive brewery, which once filled three blocks of upper Over-the-Rhine near Elm and Henry streets.
That brewery is long gone, but his house still stands.
A lifelong love of beer
Hardman, a 1984 graduate of Ohio University, also has had a lifelong love of beer.
A former salesman and general manager of the Bobcat Beverage Co., a beer distributor in Athens, Hardman came to Cincinnati in 1989 when he married Patrice McLaughlin of Middletown.
He soon went to work for Warsteiner Importers Agency, then based in Denver, Colo., and in 1996 became president of U.S. operations.
For three years, he commuted to Chicago from Cincinnati, leaving during the week and returning home on weekends.
The company realized he was not going to move to Chicago, so it moved its headquarters to West Chester and for a while it worked. But Hardman, 45, of Mason, was still dissatisfied, and by 2004, he was ready to have a beer company of his own.
“I wanted to bring back the Cincinnati brewing traditions,” he said. “I wanted to make an impact by bringing back that heritage with the Moerlein brands.”
So he bought the Moerlein brand and began to sell the beer locally. He knows the summer of 2008 is going to be a critical one for his company.
Though brewed in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., by contract, the Moerlein family of products will soon be sold across the Midwest. The company will begin offering a Discovery Pack – a 12-pack of samples of Moerlein brands.
The repositioning of the Hudepohl brand, also owned by Moerlein, will follow in 2009, and Hardman said he hopes eventually to extend the beer’s reach nationally.
In the craft beer industry, growth usually occurs through word-of-mouth, said Ted Wright, managing partner of Fizz, a viral marketing company based in Atlanta that specializes in the beverage industry.
“Americans are great at finding something they like and saying, ‘It’s pretty good, I’ll pay a premium for that,’” he said. “They tell their friends. Artisans are able to make a living. But beers without a story don’t sell. When you have a story, it becomes interesting to influencers. And you can definitely tell stories about craft beer.”
Word-of-mouth has been good for Moerlein so far, Hardman acknowledged, though he would not disclose revenues.
“We’ve seen a doubling or even tripling of sales in the past two to four years. We expect that trend to continue.”
One driver for the growth is that some beer drinkers in America have started spurning cheaper brands to trade up, Hardman said. So far they have been willing to spend more for a quality handcrafted beer, even as gasoline prices are rising and cutting into disposable income.
“It’s all about affordable luxuries,” he said. “Any beer that sells for under $10 a six-pack is an affordable luxury.”
But that trend may be changing, according to industry analysts.
In the past three years, craft beer consumption has grown by 36 percent, though the category still represents just 4 percent of all beer sold, said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a brewing trade publication based in Nanuet, NY.
But, for the first time in years, Steinman said, that craft growth has hit a plateau.
“In the most recent four-week period, because of higher gasoline prices, craft beer sales grew by just 2 percent,” Steinman said.
One reason for the slowdown may be that craft beer prices are up by 5.6 percent because of rising prices for raw materials and energy, he said.
“Whatever the reason, something has changed in the growth algorithm in the last month or two,” Steinman said.
Years of research and testing
Hardman recognizes he has a lot at stake in his Moerlein family of brands – years of research, painstaking trial and error to develop recipes, and a plan to roll out beer to nearby cities that may not be as keen on a Queen City brand as beer drinkers in Southwest Ohio.
For instance, Moerlein’s Over-the-Rhine ale took two years to perfect and features three malts and an infusion of pricy Cascade and Fuggle hops to recreate ale from the 19th century.
“This is unique pale ale, unlike any on the market,” Hardman said.
But creating craft beers, which have toasty malted flavors, is only the first step toward building a brand.
This Moerlein effort comes complete with new bottle labels, new packaging and a new approach in the Discovery pack.
Labels by Hartwell artist Jim Effler depict Cincinnati streetscapes, a pig fountain for the Fifth & Vine Oktoberfest and Frederick I Barbarossa, a benign and beloved German ruler and Holy Roman emperor who also liked beer.
West Chester’s role
While Over-the-Rhine was the home of most brewers in the region, including the Hudepohl Brewing Co. and Christian Moerlein, West Chester also played a role in the industry.
Former farmland at the Union Centre Boulevard exit on Interstate 75 was where draft horses were rested for brewers Moerlein, Windisch-Muhlhauser and Hauck Brewing Co.
It’s also where brewers grew barley for the beer.
Robert S. Pohl, president and chief executive emeritus of the original Hudepohl Brewing Co., brought back the original Christian Moerlein beer and maintained its high standards in 1981.
The beer is the first American brew to meet the terms of the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer-purity law), which was created in 1516.
“It was one of the first craft beers to be sold east of the Mississippi River,” Hardman said.
Singing in the streets of OTR
Many questions remain about whether craft beer will grow at the extraordinary pace. Can a small local brewer – Moerlein is sold only in Dayton, Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky today – compete with other regional brewers?
Hardman is certain it can.
After all, he said, Cincinnatians are only a few generations removed from the glory days of beer drinking. And consumption of craft beer has consistently grown, particularly with younger beer drinkers who seek out quality.
“If all beer categories are slowing and craft is still up 2 percent, well that 2 percent still looks pretty good,” he said.
Will there ever be a day when folks will again gather in beer gardens in Over-the-Rhine to join arms and sing a few songs while sipping a frosty malted beverage?
“Wouldn’t that be nice. Wouldn’t that be a sweet dream,” Hardman asked.
“And you know what? I don’t think we’re that far off. And I believe it’s going to happen in our lifetime.”