Each year since 1979, the city of Cincinnati has hosted a culinary arts event called, Taste. Well, that’s what they call it in Cincy. It is better known to outsiders as Taste of Cincinnati, and it draws crowds by the hundreds of thousands. In 2016, an estimated 550,000 people attended the Memorial Day weekend food-stravaganza, which featured 35 restaurants, 15 food trucks, 265 menu items, 72 beers and 50 entertainers. Then, just after the other Summer bookend holiday (Labor Day), the same city is expecting to pack its streets with another half million festival goers, when it hosts what has become the single largest Oktoberfest celebration in the U.S. — this year complete with a craft beer garden. You could say that this historic metropolis sees the summer months in like a lamb chop and says a fond farewell to them like a drunken lion.
That being the case, you have to wonder why it is that one particular food item gets brought up in so many discussions when people mention Cincinnati. Sure, every visitor the city has had over recent decades knows all about the chili — the coneys, the 3-ways, the 5-ways — but food in Cincinnati goes much deeper than just chili, and it has far more complexity and history. It really becomes a struggle to explain how one of America’s largest food festivals resides in the Queen City if your only reference is Cincinnati chili.
Then you have the beer, the (projected, excluding two largest area breweries) almost 30 million 12 oz glasses of beer produced in 2015 by the more-than-twenty area craft breweries. Quite a few of those pours contained a brew that was named on a list of the 100 best beers in the world, Rhinegeist Brewery’s Truth IPA.
That’s why Cincinnati should be on anyone’s correctly calibrated food-dar or beer-dar in 2016, but how did it get where it is today and why exactly does beer and food go so well together in the much overlooked gateway to the South? Well, much of the answer is in its history.
Established in 1819, Cincinnati is separated from Kentucky on the South by the Ohio River, an important water highway in early America for transportation and trading. In its early existence, Cincinnati was the top hog producer in the world, leading to the nickname, “Porkopolis.” At the time, salt pork was becoming a U.S. staple, and it is said that parades of pigs lined the city streets. In 1833, more than 85,000 pigs were processed in Cincinnati, and by 1844, 26 different meat-processing plants were located there, contributing to Cincy being the largest city in the American West (from Great American Country).
Fast forward a handful of decades, and the Queen City was forging another identity for itself. Long before Milwaukee laid claim to “Brew City,” the city of Cincinnati was brewing beer like no American city had ever brewed beer before. In fact, in 1890, Cincinnati was home to so many breweries (36) it was dubbed the “Beer Capital of the World.” Thanks go out to the large German immigrant population that settled in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood for bringing their knowledge of making German lagers and for creating a tunnel system that allowed for the cooler temperatures required for fermenting lager beer.
Those 19th century German residents gathered in a relatively small area after they crossed over the Miami and Erie Canal (since filled in), which they affectionately named The Rhine, for Germany’s Rhine River. Complete with German-speaking schools, they basically created their own German town, but the neighborhood was also full of saloons and beer gardens that catered to tastes ranging from legitimate theater to burlesque.
Combine these two historic city traditions and it comes as no surprise that the Queen City understands — maybe better than most — the importance of food and beer, first separately, but now together.
To find examples of the wholehearted embracing of the food-beer pairing concept, one needs to look no further than an area on the North edge of downtown Cincinnati, the aforementioned Over The Rhine district, or OTR. I found that out for myself as spent the better part of a day touring and learning about its recent emergence as a new culinary epicenter in Southern Ohio.
Visually spectacular and similar to the French Quarter of New Orleans or New York’s Greenwich Village, the OTR is one of the largest urban, historic districts in the U.S. Cobble streets and alleys deliver sightseers the opportunity to witness homes and buildings with examples of Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne and Italianate architecture. The 20th century brought wars, social unrest, urban flight, as well as politics-Prohibition-leaving Over The Rhine run down and barely breathing. But since the early 2000’s, with public, private and corporate support, Over The Rhine is now living a tale that can finally be told.
Ironically, the OTR’s breweries, bars and restaurants have played some of the most key roles in the redevelopment of the area. The phenomenon has manifested in many communities across the country. In large cities, small towns and lazy communities, alike, a rebirth of sorts will spawn after a brewery takes root there. A social buzz is created, and then pretty soon there’s a coffee shop, then an indie shop, followed by a one-of-kind restaurant.
It only makes sense that all the cultural energy regeneration would bring younger residents to the area. Millennials like Kelley Buschle, Brand Ambassador at Taft’s Ale House, are making up a large part of the renewed urban area’s demographic. The newer OTR craft brewery and restaurant, where she works has become a big part of the community’s revitalization. Taft’s is named after Cincinnati favorite son William Howard Taft, 27th President of United States, and its doors opened in the former St. Paul’s Church, circa 1850.
Kelley said, “The development of all the restaurants, bars and shops have really elevated the scene down here. The large demographic that you’ve been seeing, whether it’s baby-boomers, millennials, or young kids, it’s becoming quite the destination area. As a young millennial actually living in Over The Rhine, I can’t tell you how much of a blessing it is to be able to walk down the street and go to that local bar, or go to that local restaurant and see the city thriving.”
Kelley’s sentiment speaks to a concern about safety in the city that both young and old shared for decades. That concern kept many from spending money in urban neighborhoods, as folks opted for dining, drinking, shopping and living in the suburbs for most of the latter 2oth century and well into the 21st. But that trend is starting to show signs of reversing. Things are changing in cities and not just in the ones on the coasts. Bruce Springsteen could have referred to Over The Rhine instead of Atlantic City when he sang, “Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact, but everything that dies someday comes back.” Invisible and forgotten buildings have received extreme makeovers, morphing into independent shops, restaurants and breweries, making the new housing market attractive.
“I have lived in Ohio my entire life, born and raised in Cincinnati,” Buschle continued. “As soon as I graduated college, I thought I needed to go out west, because that’s where all the cool and trendy things are happening.”
But Kelley didn’t go West; she stayed in Cincinnati, and she knows firsthand that her hometown’s new beer and food combinations are a big part of the reason young people like herself are making the same decision.
Buschle added, “I believe that food and beer play a huge part within this scene. It’s really phenomenal to see a city that has wonderful German heritage and beautiful architectural buildings being revitalized, turning this city back into the greatness that it once held.” Kelley also assured, “There’s so much more to come for Over The Rhine.”
I spent a couple of hours dining and drinking at Taft’s. The perfectly versatile 27 Pils, an authentic German Pilsner, worked well with the Taft’s Tub of Love, a sampler of Tri-Tip steak sliders, smoked wings, alehouse onions and sweet potato fries. The generous flight of beers I enjoyed afterwards showed off the gastropub’s mastery of different styles. A meal like that makes it easy to see why the OTR is doing so well these days.
In addition to Taft’s Ale House, the OTR is home to two more craft breweries. There are also over 75 different bars and restaurants interwoven throughout the area. Almost every bar there is known for having a great craft beer selection and knowledgeable staff. Like a few other places you’ll find on the OTR streets, you won’t find any Budweiser or other macro beer brands at Half Cut. They serve only craft beer (and wine), both inside their serving room and from a walk-up window for growler fills. Typically, restaurants in the OTR are known for a culinary specialty, and they all have generously sized draught bars with diverse craft beer selections, usually placed prominently among the seating, if not front and center.
Strolling a pleasant few blocks away from Taft’s and Race Street in the OTR is Vine St., which is kind of like the Vegas Strip of the neighborhood. Central to that strip is Taste Of Belgium, a Belgian-inspired locally-infused eatery featuring authentic waffles, made in a specialized cast iron press. And, of course, they serve a great variety of Belgian beer. Being that they were founded by an actual Belgian chef, Taste Of Belgium easily recognizes the importance of pairing food with beer. Being that they were one of the early anchors in one of the most visited parts of the area, they also recognize the importance of that beautiful collaboration to the OTR.
“Food pairing with beer, a lot of people pass that up,” said Carey McLaughlin of A Taste Of Belgium. “They automatically associate wine with food pairings. Beer (they think) is what you drink before or after.”
“I think what we’ve got going on here besides the food concept and besides the uniqueness of having a Belgian restaurant is that our beer all pairs well with the food,” Carey continued. “The Belgians and the French, they share a lot when it comes to the importance of pairings–the beer was made and designed over hundreds of years to pair well with food. They’re not just cranking it out to get drunk. There’s a very deep-rooted purpose behind what they’re doing.”
Driving home the point that the OTR has become an sought after destination, McLaughlin recalled how a Toronto couple visited them because they saw the restaurant on the Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Then, there’s the woman who showed him her plane ticket from Dallas, telling him she flew all the way to Cincinnati just to visit A Taste Of Belgium.
“But no story tops this one,” McLaughlin smiled and said. “I had this one family–it was awesome. They drove from the western part of South Dakota, because they were housing a foreign exchange student who was from Belgium. They wanted to give her some authentic Belgian waffles and, they had to come all the way to Cincinnati. That’s a funny thing!”
“It’s not just us”, McLaughlin added about the district. “The fact that everybody can kind of separate a little bit. Everybody has one thing going on, and you could really look at any of the restaurants down here and within one word describe the restaurant.”
Over The Rhine isn’t the only place in Cincinnati where beer and food enjoy a happy union. Brady Duncan, co-founder and head brewer at Mad Tree Brewing on the east end of town, loves working with chefs for pairings.
“Generally the brewery has a finite amount of items to work with,” Duncan explained. “We have 12-15 beers to choose from, but the chef has a somewhat infinite amount of ingredients, because they can whip up a lot more than fifteen different dishes.” Duncan continued, “They’ll pull out like one or two flavors, and I think it’s cool when they don’t try to over exaggerate it. For example, if we have a pumpkin beer and they do a pumpkin pie…but there’s cooler things to do.”
Additionally, about twice a month, Mad Tree hosts their Chef Series, where they bring in a chef to actually help create a beer.
Brady said, “The chefs come up with some really cool ideas that we never would have thought of. While it’s maybe not food pairing, there are foods that pair well with beer, and they’ll generally almost be food-inspired beers.”
Duncan used the example of working with Chef Andrew Mersmann at Red Feather restaurant for a pork consomme porter, Porkopolous, that has a nice smokiness.
He added, “It’s been a cool way to flip it maybe on it’s side. Rather than the beer influencing the dish, it’s the dish influencing the beer.”
Wine lovers will sometimes lead you to believe that their favorite beverage pairs better with food, than does beer. A once-held belief that beer was light, flavorless and one-dimensional, craft beer fans will now show you that beer can be matched with whatever dish you are serving. What wine drinkers may not know is that beer is vastly more complex than wine.
Wine takes from the earth which influences the grapes it uses, but beer does as well, though it takes a few steps further. With the multiple grain options, scores of hop varieties, different yeasts, and then add water’s subtle influence, a brewer’s artistic hand is able to create an infinite number of flavors.
Beer is rough and tumble enough to serve with pizza or burgers, but it also is flexible enough to serve with the most delicate of dishes. Understanding the full spectrum of beer’s flavors, it can help open one’s eyes to its endless possibilities in food pairings.