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How an Ohio Brewer Brought a Pre-Prohibition Beer Back to Life

May 23, 2019

By Stephanie Vermillion, May 23, 2019

Prohibition may have nearly destroyed Cincinnati’s brewing empire, but this summer, the city’s founding beer barons will get the last laugh. On June 1, Urban Artifact will release a golden ale brewed with pre-prohibition yeast found underground in a 150-year-old vat.

While it sounds too good to be true, this is hardly a PR stunt. It’s the perfect culmination of Cincinnati’s brewing past and present—and a history-making HVAC crew that stumbled into an underground lagering cellar.

In the late 1800s, Cincinnati reached its brewing prime thanks to a growing population of German immigrants and their widely popular German lagers. The city jumped from eight breweries in 1840 to 36 by 1860, with the bulk of the industry calling the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood home.

Then Prohibition hit and the heyday was over. Nearly all of Cincinnati’s breweries ceased operation. Their supplies—housed in underground tunnels for cooling—were eventually paved over. Many were lost for good.

In the early 2000s, a group of local beer enthusiasts joined forces to revitalize the city’s OTR Brewery District. At the time, it was one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods—but Cincinnati’s beer lovers prevailed. Among the many OTR redevelopments was a Brewing Heritage Trail, which includes a maze of underground tunnels through the pre-Prohibition cellars. Local beer historian and author Michael Morgan helped blaze this popular attraction, but he always knew there was more to discover. In 2017, Morgan learned he was right.

“There was this place I thought had lagering cellars, but I never had the opportunity to do anything about it,” Morgan says. “Then builders tried to install an HVAC system and knocked through what looked like a bricked-up doorway. Not only did they find a cavity; they found an entire additional floor with three chambers of lagering cellars and an intact fermenting vat just sitting there solid. Finding that [intact vat] had never happened before; it was just amazing.”

Mike Morgan

Cincinnati’s beer pioneers are to thank for this rare opportunity, but it’s today’s adventurous local brewers who have the skills to see it through. From the trendy Rhinegeist Brewery located in a 19th Century bottling plant to the outdoorsy Fifty West, housed in a former roadside speakeasy, Cincinnati is bubbling with beer history and innovation. But, when it came to testing—and potentially brewing with—this centuries-old yeast, Morgan knew there was one man for the job.

“When Mike presented this adventurous opportunity, we thought, why not?” says Bret Kollmann Baker, director of brewing operations for Urban Artifact, a brewery in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood, known for using wild yeast and bacteria. “At the very least it’s a cool adventure, and at most, it could actually work.”

Morgan and Kollmann Baker crawled into the Over-the-Rhine cellar with mild hopes and hundreds of wort-filled jars. They were hunting for viable brewer’s yeast—a highly unlikely find.

“Given the nature of our brewery, we’ve done a lot of yeast captures in the past,” Kollmann Baker says. “For this situation, we pulled samples [from the vat] with sterile swabs, cut the tips off, and put them in the wort. We pulled about 60 samples and got 10 to 12 that were potential yeast or had fermentation activity.”

The two tasted each sample before sending their most likely brewer’s yeast options to the Omega Yeast labs in Chicago. As the results came in, it was obvious the odds were against them. Two were spoilage organisms. One was a strain found in wine. And one was a strain of Candida.

The last sample? Viable brewer’s yeast.

“It was like winning the lottery,” Morgan says. “Not only had these guys found a brewer’s yeast, they’d discovered a previously unidentified brewer’s yeast that had been lost and used in brewing 80 to 150 years ago. As far as I can tell, no one’s done anything like this.”

As Morgan celebrated this historical moment, Kollmann Baker sat awestruck by the rare science in their favor. Kollmann Baker’s background in engineering and science is a driving force behind Urban Artifact’s focus on wild brews, but this expedition—and its outcome—took “wild” to a new level.

“The only shot we had for this to work was that yeast, when in an inhospitable environment without food, can sporulate and form tiny, tight spores in hopes something falls their way or they get blown somewhere with food,” Kollmann Baker says. “Our only hope was to find some [yeast] waiting for sugar. Somehow we did.”

With a lottery ticket like this, their next step was simple: Start brewing.

Morgan and Kollmann Baker had lofty goals for this one-of-a-kind beer. It took careful planning and hours strategizing to concoct “Missing Linck,” a golden ale named after the monumental vat’s likely 19th Century owner, F. & J.A. Linck Brewery.

“We wanted to turn this into something the city of Cincinnati could celebrate and enjoy with us,” Kollmann Baker says. “We brewed something light in color and light in malt flavor to follow the trend in the mid-1800s. We didn’t want to overpower the yeast with modern, hip brewing styles. We wanted to push this historical yeast flavor to the forefront so people could taste what their relatives were possibly drinking in Cincinnati 150 years ago.”

Urban Artifact unveiled Missing Linck at an exclusive tapping event in November 2018. Given the popularity—four kegs sold out in four hours—Urban Artifact is bringing it back on June 1, during Cincinnati’s inaugural Missing Linck Day. After that, Kollmann Baker is giving this landmark ingredient back to the city.

“This is a historical piece of the city, fostered by the people who moved here and have lived here for hundreds of years. For us to put it on a shelf seems foolish,” he says. “Moving forward, any brewer will be able to order this yeast through Omega. We want to turn this annual event into a celebration of Cincinnati’s beer past and future, where brewers from across the city create their own take on the beer using this yeast.”

Morgan, who’s dedicated more than 10 years to restoring Cincinnati’s beer history, remains astonished by how their adventure unfolded. Instead of preserving, studying, or teaching the city’s beer history, Morgan’s part of it. He’s dedicating the last chapter of his new book, Cincinnati Beer, to this major Queen City milestone.

“The idea that a city full of brewers will come together to brew with this piece of living Cincinnati history… I mean, no one else is doing that,” Morgan says. “We’re starting to reclaim our rightful place in history as a well-respected brewing city, so in advance, I’m calling Missing Linck Day the best damn beer festival in America.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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