March 12, 2012

Beer as Placemaker: What Beer and Sports Have in Common

I remember the sounds of blaring car horns and exuberant cheers as I exited the old Riverfront Stadium with my dad on a beautiful fall evening. I was nine years old and the Cincinnati Reds had just beaten the formidable Oakland Athletics by a score of 7-0 in game 1 of the 1990 World Series, a Series the Reds would go on to sweep.

I remember purchasing the official “Reds Win World Series” video and watching it over and over again, attempting to relive and celebrate moments unique to our city.  I find that I go back to that moment often.  Whether for the purpose of conjuring up memories of childhood and my hometown or debating with friends who has the better 
baseball franchise, the Reds 1990 World Series win is a formative one for me.  It helps define a place that means a lot to me and has shaped who I am today.

Whether due to an insecurity about being considered a flyover zone or a genuine strong sense of place, I have found that people in the Midwest generally are passionate about where they live.  To this point, the Cincinnati Enquirer is beginning a series on places that shape community personality, the first of which features my own hometown.  A passion for place is not unique to Cincinnati.  Indeed, I have experienced the same intense passion in my new home of Milwaukee.  I have experienced it throughout the Midwest.

It comes as little surprise then that Midwest sports fans tend to be rabid.  Sports is one of the easiest mediums through which to celebrate a local place.  For one day, the size of a city and its economic status is irrelevant.  All that matters is whether the team with your city emblazoned on its chest beat the other team with San Francisco or New York on its chest.  It’s unique.  In pulling for a team, I’m not necessarily rooting for a group of individuals but rather what those individuals represent: our place.

Beer is another powerful yet unrealized medium contributing to a sense of place in the Midwest.  During its industrial heyday, the Midwest was once the brewing mecca of the country.  By 1870, both Milwaukee and St. Louis were home to over 40 breweries.  It is estimated that Cincinnati’s Over-the- Rhine district alone housed over 30 breweries.  Chicago and Pittsburgh were also brewing centers.  In short, beer is embedded in the fabric, psyche, and collective identity of many Midwest cities.

Fast forward to the present and it is the West that is the epicenter of the craft beer movement. Portland is home to an astounding 40 craft breweries/brewpubs.  Fort Collins, with a population of 140,000, boasts 6 craft breweries with at least two more on the way.  Denver is Denver. Meanwhile, Midwest cities–perhaps with the exception of Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo—are lagging behind.  As if taunting its past, Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine today is littered with brewery ruins.  Milwaukee has some quality craft breweries but far too few given its robust heritage.

And yet beer still informs our sense of place. A credit to its unparalleled past, Milwaukee continues to and will likely always be referred to as “Brew City.”  The Cincinnati History Museum chronicles Cincinnati’s past through a series of displays in which beer is featured prominently, including brewery buildings dotting Over-the-Rhine and a placard which describes how Cincinnatians consumed 800,000 barrels of beer at the turn of the century.  Therefore, it’s impossible to forget our origins.  Just as Cincinnatians bring up the Big Red

Machine in support of still being labeled a “baseball town” despite recent waning attendance, so too do we look to our brewing heritage for a sense of who we are.

The past is important; however, far too often the past is what we are stuck in in the Midwest. It is for that reason that anything new in local beer—such as the opening of the new Moerlein Lager House – generates such excitement. Such developments link the past to the present and offer a glimpse of what could be. Midwest cities should focus on the future and reclaiming what once was.  Encouraging growth in craft beer would give our communities a reason to stand and cheer for our present while at the same time celebrating our past.  We can still beat the Oakland A’s.

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