Craft and small batch breweries are having a resurgence across the country and especially here in Northern Kentucky—think Braxton, Bircus and Wooden Cask to name a few. These wildly popular ventures are drawing from a long tradition of brewing beer in Northern Kentucky. The region’s three traditional large-scale breweries were Bavarian and Heidelberg in Covington and Wiedemann in Newport.

Julius Deglow and Charles L. Best formed a partnership in 1866 to establish a brewery in Covington in the Lewisburg neighborhood. In 1869, the business officially became known as Bavarian Brewery. The brewery expanded greatly under the next owners, William Riedlin and John Meyer. They purchased Bavarian in 1882. Anton Ruh was hired as the brew master.

Breweries on the scale of Bavarian needed multiple facilities to function. A bottling plant was built in 1892 and was replaced in 1903. This became a necessity as bottled beer became more popular. About the same time a new stable was constructed to house the horses that pulled delivery wagons. A new four-story warehouse followed in 1905. By 1914, Bavarian Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the commonwealth. The facility occupied nearly seven acres on Pike Street and was producing 216,000 barrels of beer each year.

Meanwhile in Newport, George Wiedemann partnered with John Butcher to establish a brewery on Jefferson Street in 1870. In 1882, the firm acquired the nearby Constants Brewery and expanded its operation. Eventually George Wiedemann bought out John Butcher and became the sole proprietor of Wiedemann Brewery. The market for beer increased with the population growth of the region—particularly the German population.

Wiedemann Brewery eventually owned five acres at Sixth and Columbia streets. A bottling plant and stables to house 150 horses were soon constructed. The prosperity of the firm was demonstrated when Wiedemann commissioned the revered architectural firm of Samuel Hannaford and Sons to design the company’s business offices (the same firm later designed the Wiedemann residence on Park Avenue in Newport). The brewery was gaining a national reputation and was selling beer in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. By the early 1900s, Wiedemann had eclipsed Bavarian and had become the largest brewery south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi Rivers.

The introduction of Prohibition in 1920 had a great impact on the operation of both Bavarian and Wiedemann breweries. Both turned toward the production of non-alcoholic beverages such as soft drinks. Despite this output, layoffs were numerous and profits declined greatly. Wiedemann Brewery soon took another path and became involved with organized crime and Cincinnati’s most famous bootlegger, George Remus. Remus had deep political ties with the Republican Party in Kentucky and used those ties and other means to skirt the law. Eventually, Carl Wiedemann, the grandson of the founder of the company, was charged with violating the Volstead Act in 1927 by selling 1.5 million gallons of illegal beer. The brewery was padlocked and Wiedemann was sentenced to eight years in the federal penitentiary.

The repeal of Prohibition brought new life to Bavarian and Wiedemann. Wiedemann began the production of beer in 1933. Bavarian followed in 1935. Once reopened, both firms quickly repaired their buildings, installed new equipment and began shipping their product to an ever-increasing market.

In the meantime, another brewery emerged in Covington. Heidelberg Brewery was established in 1934 with George H. Meyerratken as president and Joseph Ruh in charge of production. Ruh had been the long-time brew master at Covington’s Bavarian Brewery prior to this time. A new facility rose at the corner of Fourth and Bakewell streets and the company was incorporated with stock valuing $350,000. Among its most popular products was the Student Prince beer. The name was derived from an operetta about a German prince who attended the University of Heidelberg. In 1940, the brewery’s premium brand, Heirloom, won a gold medal at the French Grand Prix Contest for beer. The company prospered for several years, but eventually could not compete with the other area operations. Bavarian bought out controlling interest in Heidelberg in 1949. Bavarian used the plant as a distribution center until 1955, when the plant was sold to the C. Rice Packing Company.

Despite Bavarian’s new acquisition, sales began to decline. Outdated facilities and equipment were taking a toll. In 1959 Bavarian joined the International Brewing Company of Detroit in an effort to inject innovation and efficiencies to their operation. As a result, a new bottling facility on Pike Street was constructed in 1960. Despite this improvement, Bavarian lost money in 1962 and 1964. It was becoming more difficult each year to compete with the national brands—including Wiedemann in Newport.

In a money saving effort, International Brewing Company instituted a series of layoffs at the Bavarian plant. Bavarian union members voted 112 to 28 to oppose any such layoffs. This opposition and continued declining sales resulted in the International Brewing Company purchasing the rights to the Bavarian label in 1966. That same year, the Bavarian facility was permanently closed and 200 employees lost their jobs.

Wiedemann Brewery was still producing 850,000 barrels of beer in 1955 and was successfully competing with many of the regional and national brands. However, brewery owners began a series of mergers in the 1950s and 1960s that had a large impact on the market. In order to compete, Wiedemann became an independent division of the Heileman Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1967. This association helped for a short period of time, but the lack of funds to update the plant and equipment left Wiedemann at a distinct disadvantage. In 1983, Wiedemann Brewery closed its doors leaving 400 employees without jobs. The closure had a significant impact on the city of Newport’s tax base.

Eventually, the Wiedemann plant was demolished leaving a large scar on the landscape of the city that has yet to be filled. The Bavarian Brewing site has gone through several transformations. One of the old buildings has become the home to Glier’s Meats. In 1996, Ken Lewis purchased much of the property and opened a microbrewery called Brew Works. In 1998, the old brewery buildings were purchased by a Louisville company named Jillian’s and remodeled into an entertainment venue. After Jillian’s closed, the complex stood empty for many years. Most recently, the property was purchased by the Kenton County Fiscal Court as a site for a new county building. The historic central building and tower are being saved and incorporated into the new facility. Groundbreaking on the project occurred on September 25, 2017.

Dave Schroeder is the executive director of the Kenton County Public Library. He serves on many regional and state boards including Friends of the Kentucky Public Archives and the Northern Kentucky Education Council.

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