If you’ve taken one of American Legacy’s Underground tours or the Brewery District tours, you have probably been amazed at the size and workmanship of the lager cellars below ground in Over-the-Rhine. You can’t imagine the amount of sweat and brawn required by a team of men to first dig out a cellar and then lay the arched stonework that is still standing over 150 years later. These craftsman knew well what they were doing and were worth their weight in gold to the brewers of Cincinnati Lager beer. This was especially true in the 1850s when Cincinnati was going through an evolution of taste from English style ales and porters to German style lagers and pilsners. The new German immigrants wanted lighter, crisper lagers and pilsners they loved from their homeland, not the dark, heavy ales of their Anglican neighbors.
Although many of the men on these teams remain anonymous, we are lucky to know the name of the man who is responsible for designing and building the majority of these lager cellars. His name is Andrew Behm and he was a Germanic immigrant from Lower Franconia, near Bavaria. He travelled with fellow countryman Andrew Noll to Philadelphia, in 1840, arriving in Cincinnati with him in 1848. Noll built his brewery on Vine Street (on the site that would later become Suder’s Art Store, next to the People’s Theatre) in December of 1849, credited with being the first lager brewery in Cincinnati, (at least by his son, but there are other contendors of being the first lager brewer in Cincy).
Behm built the lager cellars for Noll’s brewery as a journeyman mason. Unfortunately the brewery only lasted a few years, but Behm saved money and incorporated himself, and continued to build the lager cellars for most of the major lager breweries in Cincinnati, namely Moerlein and Kauffman, until his death in 1876. He also got contracts for the above ground portions of the breweries. Behm employed scores of other Germanic immigrant stone masons and made it possible for them to create a good life for their families. The value of Behm’s estate at his death was $40,000, a pretty sizable sum for a stone mason in 1876.
Noll went to Louisville after the demise of his Over-the-Rhine brewery and started the City Brewery. His son Charles moved to Lancaster, Ohio, in 1877 to operate the Becker Brewery. Charles’ son, Herbert took over the operation of Becker after Charles’ death, but sold out right before Prohibition, moving to Alabama, and then New York, where in 1933 he gathered investors to open the New Amsterdam Brewery in Queens.
A lager cellar, prior to ammonia refrigeration, had to be able to be big enough to hold a large quantity of ice and keep a consistent dry temperature of 32-48 degrees F to allow the bottom fermenting lager yeast to make alcohol. Consistent brews were a product advantage in an increasingly competitive Cincinnati lager market. The cellars also had to have venting to take the carbon dioxide out of the cellars to street level to not asphyxiate the brewery workers. It’s these street level metal vents in the old building of Over-the-Rhine area that have allowed new owners to recognize the existence of hidden lager cellars. It’s a testament to Behm’s engineering and building prowess that we can still safely marvel at these cellars on tours a century and a half later.
Andrew didn’t stop at laying stone. He was a very active Democrat, serving in the 1860s as councilman for Ward 12 – the West End by his York Street home. He was nominated to be an Ohio state representative for the Hamilton County District, served as County Commissioner, and served on boards related to the Cincinnati Public Works, arbitrating on contracts for building of the city’s stone water towers and reservoirs, like Eden Park’s.
His legacy of building passed on to his son and grandsons. In 1880 his son’s company Behm and Durm, got the contract to build a stone wall outside the Franklin Brewery on Lebanon Road. And Andrew’s three grandsons, Andrew, Walter and Harry were general contractors for the building of Crosley Field in 1912.