As Northside’s new church-turned-brewery Urban Artifact continues churning suds out of their tanks on Blue Rock, the timing is just right to look back at Northside’s first brewery, Brucks.
When John C. Bruckmann came to Northside in 1847, then called Cumminsville, he didn’t have his plans set on beer. According to Jim Bruckmann, son of William Bruckmann, the brewery’s last president, his great-grandfather came to Cincinnati with a flock of German immigrants to work as a barrel maker. After marrying, he settled in the countryside along the Miami-Erie Canal, now Central Parkway, and made barrels for Kauffman Brewery. He started out brewing in the basement of his farmhouse with hops he raised on the farm. “On Sundays his friends would come from Over The Rhine to drink homemade beer on the porch,” Bruckmann said. As the demand for beer grew, John Bruckmann officially established the brewing company in 1856 at the intersection of Ludlow Ave. and Streng Street, on the site of his original farmhouse.
In its early days, the business was very out-of-the-house in nature. According to Dann Woellert in his book “Cincinnati’s Northside Neighborhood,” the first 15 years of records were kept in his native German tongue and filled with deals you would never find today, like a trade of a beer keg for meat and chickens. It wasn’t until almost two decades past the turn of the century, after the business had been passed down into a new generation of the family, that Brucks began to modernize.
In 1917 they replaced their old wooden brew tanks with costly glass-lined fermenters, allowing them to brew several varieties of beer at once. In the 20’s they established a bottling plant, helping to meet growing demands that eventually spread out across 17 states. What made that possible, in light of Prohibition when even the biggest breweries in town like Moerlein and Windisch-Mulhauser had closed, was the small line of non-alcoholic beverages they sold during the ‘20s and early ‘30s.
They sold a beer called “The Aristocrat” which met the legal limit of half a percent of alcohol, and which Jim said was actually quite popular. They also sold root beer and a cereal malt beverage for nursing mothers — a two percent alcohol tonic which was sold by prescription for medical purposes only.“They were the only brewery that made it through prohibition making near-beer,” said Steve Hampton, executive director of the Over-The-Rhine Brewery District.
At the end of prohibition, Brucks was also the first brewery to begin distributing beer again, shipping out fresh batches the minute after midnight on April 7, 1933. “My dad said the trucks lined up over the Ludlow Ave. Viaduct that day to get to the brewery to pick up the good stuff,” said Jim Bruckmann. “’33 and ’34 were huge years. The other breweries took years to get going again, if they did at all.” After beginning to sell “the good stuff” again, the brewery kept alive for 16 years. As national breweries began to largely undersell local breweries, Brucks was among the dozens that closed. “One by one the local breweries couldn’t compete with the size and lower prices of the national breweries,” he added.
The board outvoted Jim’s father, the only one who wanted to keep the brewery going, and sold ownership in 1949. However, the old building still stands and the “Bruckmann, 1856” sign is still visible on the left just before driving across the Ludlow Viaduct into Northside.
BY CHARLIE HARMON