History by the [Beer] Can

G ood beer is nothing new in Dayton. Our city was once home to dozens of breweries in the days before Prohibition. The 1919 Volstead Act effectively put most of them out of business, but the craft beer movement has returned brewing to the city over the last five years. One of those Gem City […]

Craft brewers revive heritage beer brands in Dayton

The original “Olt” Superba, and the revived Warped Wing version.

By David Nilsen

Good beer is nothing new in Dayton. Our city was once home to dozens of breweries in the days before Prohibition. The 1919 Volstead Act effectively put most of them out of business, but the craft beer movement has returned brewing to the city over the last five years. One of those Gem City craft breweries—Warped Wing—is working to restore the city’s brewing past.

During the 19th century, countless German immigrants settled in southwest Ohio, and many of them set up breweries. That meant lagers, and, as luck would have it, lager styles are back in vogue in craft brewing, providing the perfect opportunity to shine a light on the area’s historic brewing traditions. Warped Wing Brewing Company had already had success with their Trotwood Lager and Flyer Red lager brands when they decided to revive some of these historic lager styles.

“We decided to go all in with the expansion of a lager seasonal line,” explains co-founder Nick Bowman. “We wanted to really educate people about the differences between lager styles.”

Earlier this spring, Warped Wing launched Superba, a “hoppy Pilsner” that harkened back to the zippier Pilsners that were brewed prior to Prohibition. Superba took its name from a beer brewed by the Olt Brewing Company, a Dayton brewery that thrived prior to Prohibition but survived for only a few years after its repeal. When Bowman casually told a friend about the release of Superba, a fortuitous connection was made to the beer’s past.

“She said, ‘Oh my gosh, my friend is a member of the Olt family!’ We reached out and made contact with them. Their family was hugely supportive,” he explains.

When Superba was released at the brewery, members of the Olt family attended and brought memorabilia from their family’s former brewery to display.

Warped Wing is continuing their revival of lost Dayton beer brands this summer with Golden Glow, a hazy lager based on the German Zwickel style. The quencher takes its name from a beer brewed by the former Hollenkamp Brewing Company of Dayton. Warped Wing will release an authentic Oktoberfest lager this fall, and a holiday lager called Holiday Special, which will pay tribute to the festive beers Dayton breweries once released around the winter holidays.

While Warped Wing classics like Ermal’s Belgian-style Cream Ale and 10 Ton Oatmeal Stout feature intricate, comics-inspired artwork, the brewery has chosen a more streamlined look for their lagers. The brewery also chose a cohesive, modern visual design for these lagers rather than trying to reuse the historic packaging.

“Our core craft line-up is very artwork-centric with a lot of design elements,” explains Bowman. “We decided to build out our lager brand with this very simplistic branding. It would be very difficult to resurrect these old brands’ artwork and tie them under the Warped Wing mothership.”

“We’re bringing things back to life and making them relevant to today’s craft brew scene,” reflects Bowman. “We don’t pick just anything. We have to identify in a way that we can bring it back and tell the story.”

Warped Wing isn’t the only brewery in southwest Ohio seeking to tell stories from our brewing past. Christian Moerlein Brewing Company in Cincinnati is doing the same with the Queen City’s beer heritage.

Christian Moerlein came to Cincinnati from Germany in the middle of the 19th century, and in 1853 founded his eponymous brewery. It was once the fourth largest brewery in the country, but Prohibition closed its doors forever. The name was brought back in 1981 by the Hudepohl brewery to market a “better beer,” one of the first craft beers sold east of the Mississippi. The difficult business climate for large regional breweries in the late 20th century, however, saw Cincinnati’s beloved “Hudy” sell to investors from Cleveland.

The city’s brewing heritage threatened to disappear till Greg Hardman stepped in to save it.

Hardman worked for German beer brand Warsteiner for 17 years, traveling the world and moving their beers into major markets around the United States. Eventually, he tired of travel, and when he heard Hudepohl-Schoenling was again up for sale, including the Christian Moerlein brand, he saw an opportunity.

“I decided to take a chance to become a craft brewer and return Christian Moerlein to its rightful place,” says the gregarious Hardman. “It’s been a real privilege to return Cincinnati’s grand brewing tradition.”

He returned more than just Moerlein. Hardman has purchased around 70 Cincinnati heritage beer brands, including Bürger, Little Kings, and the aforementioned Hudepohl and Schoenling. Christian Moerlein, which brews out of the Over the Rhine neighborhood north of downtown (the city’s former brewery district), will periodically release some of the more obscure brands in the portfolio as tribute beers, including rarities like John Hauck and Winzsch-Mühlhäuser beers.

This spring, the brewery released Moerlein Original Lager, a beer based on the recipe for the 1981 special release mentioned earlier, which was in turn based on Christian Moerlein’s original lager recipe from 1853.

In both Dayton and Cincinnati, brewing history has come full circle. The past never tasted so good.

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David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at DavidNilsenBeer.com and reach him at DavidNilsen@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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