Step into the beer hall at Taft’s Ale House in Cincinnati, and you’ll whisper a prayer of thanks to the Father, the Son and the Holy Distilled Spirit. Built inside a 19th-Century church, this brewpub features 46-foot vaulted ceilings, long communal tables reminiscent of pews and towering arched windows. The original alter—a mural of St. Paul—is sealed on the wall behind the brewing tanks.
Reimagining old churches as breweries is not unique to just Cincinnati. You can find similar structures in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example. But in Cincinnati, a push by the city to revitalize downtown and bring in commercial businesses has turned ready-to-demolish, historic churches into increasingly desirable property for secular means.
“We’re bringing this city back to what it was originally built for: manufacturing,” says Taft’s Ale House head brewer and co-owner Kevin Morehead.
In the mid-1800s, German immigrants settled into one Cincinnati neighborhood in particular—Over-the-Rhine (OTR). At its height, OTR was so densely populated that it rivaled Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The residents also built breweries, where they brewed popular lager-style beers, and lots of churches, both reminiscent of their homeland.
One such building was St. Paul’s German Evangelical Protestant Church, which was built in 1850. The church, like the neighborhood, thrived for decades. But as manufacturing moved out of Cincinnati, so did the residents and parishioners. St. Paul’s held its final service in 1984, much later than most, and was then abandoned.
The church, like most of the neighborhood, fell into disrepair. The City of Cincinnati took over, investing $1 million in patchwork repairs just to keep it stabilized. The city had two options left for the hazardous property: tear it down or bring in an investor who could spend millions of dollars and years of construction into turning it into something new.
As providence would have it, local brewer Kevin Morehead was on the hunt for a location to open his own place. He and his partners had looked at over a dozen locations, but for some reason fell in love with St. Paul’s. “We technically couldn’t even walk in here it was in such bad shape,” Morehead says. The building had a dirt floor and a collapsed ceiling. But they saw its potential. “We wanted to keep the history, the integrity of what the building was. We’re not even construction people. We just wanted to build a cool space in a cool neighborhood.”
The renovation took a year and a half complete and $8.5 million to complete. (The city kicked in money to the project and the owners received federal and state historic tax credits for the preservation efforts.) They named it after hometown boy President William Howard Taft.
Finished, the brewpub has three levels: the ground level is a craft cocktail bar; the main floor (located in the former sanctuary) is the beer hall and houses the oversized brewing tanks; and the mezzanine level overlooks the main floor and features a private seating area inside of the bell tower. When Taft’s opened in 2015, a former priest blessed their first beers. Today, they serve more than a dozen beers—from lagers to chocolate porters—on tap every day.
Joe Rudemiller is a spokesperson for Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), a public-private corporation that owns many of the once-abandoned buildings OTR. He says that while a few religious people made noise in the beginning about building Taft’s, a not-so-religious business in a sacred space, they came around.
“We could either let this building fall apart or allow an investor with a good idea take over,” Rudemiller says. “From our perspective, restoring a historic space and making it a gathering space for the community again outweighed those concerns. And we certainly didn’t get any complaints from people that I know of after they saw the work that went into converting it into what it is.”
Another bar-meets-church concept in the city is called The Transept. What was once a German gothic church in Washington Park is now a taproom and event space that is mostly used for (as you can probably guess), weddings. The renovation cost around $5 million and kept many of the church’s historical flourishes intact including stained glass windows and 50-foot vaulted ceilings.
And then there’s Urban Artifact in Northside, a unique brewery in that it only brews sour and wild beers. And that it’s in a church. Urban Artifact covers 20,000 square feet of property on what was formerly the site of 1890s-era St. Patrick’s church, gym and rectory. The church’s sanctuary hosts events, the lower-level of the church houses the taproom and the gym is where the brewhouse is located. A beer garden is located in the courtyard between the church and the rectory and the owners rent out office space in the rectory to local non-profits. Urban Artifact produces 4,000 barrels of beer a year and recently started canning beer for distribution.
Co-owner Scotty Hunter says they repurposed as many things as possible from the original church into their design. “One of the other owners, Scott Hand, is an architect and he really loves the challenge of taking something old and historic like that and being able to repurpose it,” he says. They pulled up wood from the floor of the gymnasium and used it as a backsplash behind the bar in the taproom, and bolted together some old radiators to serve as the face of the bar.
Hunter says he was actually surprised how open people were to the idea of turning the church into a bar. “A lot of people have come in and told us they were either part of the church or their parents got married in the church or they played basketball in the gymnasium,” he says. “They’re very gracious, very happy that we’ve taken the building and the property and have done something with it. There was a fear of it being torn down and losing that history.”
This isn’t to say that Cincinnati residents are not pious. Quite the opposite actually: According to census data, locals identify themselves as “religious” at a higher rate than the rest of the country (52 percent versus 49 percent) But it does speak to the way some sectors of the Protestant faith are evolving around the country. In some places, the church is embracing alcohol, craft beer specifically, as a congregation-building tool.
The Oregon Public House, a brewery in Portland, was founded by pastors. Bar Church, in Abilene, Texas, holds service at Memories Bar. On Sunday nights, Junkyard Brewery in Moorhead, Minnesota, hosts hymnal singing.
Taft’s Ale House, however, did face a few skeptics. “The Taft family wasn’t really excited at first about us using William’s name,” Morehead says, laughing. “Because he was actually a teetotaler.” But like the other one-time nonbelievers in town, the Tafts eventually saw the light and have since given the brewery their blessing.