Cellars: the Lost Underworld of Lager Beer

Both today and in the past, beer and innovation go hand in hand. The best brewers working today are the ones that collaborate, experiment with clever adjuncts and non-traditional styles, and push the envelope with new or creative technologies. I’ve seen breweries using centrifuges to help remove particulates left in the wort–how cool is that?

But when celebrating innovation, it’s important to remember that the old ways of doing things were once the new ways of doing things. I recently had the chance to explore some  lasting (and at times forgotten) monuments to innovative brewing: Cincinnati’s vast lager beer cellars.

Lager beer, itself a major innovation in American brewing history (before it became the “fizzy yellow beer” that many craft brewers today work to distinguish themselves from), required months of cool storage for its final conditioning. Before artificial refrigeration was invented, brewers retreated underground to find the even, chilly conditions necessary for lagering. The English style ales and porters which dominated American beer prior to the 1850s hadn’t forced brewers to consider cold storage the way lager did, prompting decades of research and experimentation that yielded exciting new artificial cooling technologies. And I don’t mean the campy villainous Schwarzenegger kind.

The lager cellar itself was invented in Germany, but Americans (usually German-Americans, in fact) had to adapt them to local conditions and needs. At times, caves were modified for lagering, but when caves weren’t present or convenient, brewers dug cellars to store their beer. Take a look:

Wish I’d brought a football with me. All photos by Brian Alberts.

Brewers in the mid-19th century typically brewed in the fall and stored their beer during the winter months before selling it in the spring and summer, meaning they had to anticipate their demand months in advance. Fears of a dry August and growing demand for lager required a lot of beer and therefore a lot of storage. Massive networks of cellars were dug throughout brewing cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York. When artificial refrigeration changed the brewing game completely, cellars became increasingly obsolete and abandoned.

I saw some of these cellars recently via American Legacy Tours in Cincinnati. The city’s Over-The-Rhine district once held tens of thousands of German-Americans, dozens of breweries, hundreds of saloons and therefore tons of lager cellars. Some of these cavernous structures, each one hundreds if not thousands of square feet in size, remained intact while others were literally buried. Walk down Vine Street during your next visit and you’ll likely pass over dozens of them.

The old Kaufmann brewery today (support buildings used to exist as well).

I visited the cellars of the former John Kaufmann & Co. brewery, which opened in 1859 and stayed in business through 1933. These cellars actually were forgotten: insurance maps from the 1930s (on file in the public library) don’t mention them in the building’s description. They were recently re-discovered by the building’s owner, sealed and filled with hundreds of tons of dirt and refuse that built up over decades, likely from people dumping emptying coal heaters into the air shafts. They’ve only partially been cleared so far.

See how the big dirt pile rises toward the air vent in the ceiling? Someone used this as a trash can for years.


Climbing down the tiny makeshift staircase, I was immediately taken aback by the size of these things. These aren’t glorified basements but massive extensions of the visible brewery above ground and could be 2 or 3 stories below street level.

That photo above is just one cellar. Another of the same size runs parallel to it. And through a small corridor is another row with at least three more. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but other prominent Cincinnati breweries, like the Windisch & Mulhauser Brewery, dug cellars 18 feet wide and either 80 or 150 feet long (over 50,000 square feet combined!). The Kaufmann cellars were wider and at least as long.

The size and gravity of these cellars reflects their  past importance. Filled with barrels stacked right to the ceiling, and with water pipes overhead (held by those old racks you see near the ceiling) helping keep the already cool temperature uniform, these cellars represented the year round effort of Cincinnati’s lager brewers to quench their community’s nigh-insatiable thirst. More space meant more beer, and more beer meant more money. Before Anheuser-Busch built an empire on refrigerated rail cars, a brewery’s fame and reach was directly tied to its cellar capacity.


Cellars were just the first volley in 19th century lager brewing’s battle against heat. In addition to the the use of water pipes mentioned above, cellars were partitioned to prevent wanted heat distribution. This kept stocked sections of the cellars cold as others were emptied. Even so, summers could still get hot enough to warm the cellars too much for lagering. Cellars made lager brewing possible in the U.S., but their limitations kept brewers searching for cooler solutions through the 1870s and beyond.

Mechanical refrigerators were still over the horizon, though. But before that came the adaptation of a different existing technology: the icehouse (not Icehouse beer, thankfully, but actual buildings with ice in them). First, blocks of naturally formed ice were placed near the beer within the cellars, which led to dedicated ice-rooms and finally, above-ground storage houses.

Icehouse - One Hundred Years of Brewing Pg 96
Sketch of a model icehouse from the mid-19th century. See, One Hundred Years of Brewing, pg. 96 (Obtained via Google Books)


Icehouses generally stored ice (packed with salt to help it absorb heat more efficiently) above the beer itself, allowing the cool air to fall naturally while the warm air rose out into the atmosphere. Advances in icehouse technology allowed beer to be more consistently stored at temperatures just above freezing, which cut down on bacteria and other contaminants which lowered the quality of beer.

But ice was also messy. Beer storage was properly cold (more or less) but also a dripping, damp, moldy mess, while the ice itself was bulky and expensive to obtain and store. Brewery architects in the 1870s were envisioning refrigeration based on cold air rather than ice, and mechanical refrigeration was not far off.

From the late 1860s through the 1890s, mechanical refrigeration technologies evolved by leaps and bounds, primarily using ammonia compression. Models developed which manufactured not only cooled air but also ice itself, eliminating the need to procure natural ice from, in Cincinnati’s case, the Ohio River. Mechanical cooling meant great things for American brewers, who were no longer bound by local climate when determining the location of their breweries, but it also meant the lager cellar was mostly obsolete. Cool storage could now be found above-ground.

Bemis & McAvoy
A gigantic ice machine used by Anheuser-Busch, circa 1882. Printed in The Western Brewer Vol 8, No. 4 (April 1883).

So, if cellars are so dated that they were replaced as obsolete 125 years ago, then why did I look so corny and starstruck when I visited them?

If ever there was a face for podcasts…

Because innovation, like the rest of us, stands on the shoulders of giants. Because these cavernous spaces were once held towering stacks of lager beer barrels, a cleverly designed solution to a new and exciting style of beer.

Cellars represent a process by which changes in American beer consumption and production generated a transformation in the design and architecture of breweries, as well as the very landscape they rested upon. And as brewers like Sierra Nevada take similarly creative steps today, it’s important to remember that innovation is a continuous process, with a laudable past as well as a future.


Sources and Further Reading

  • Appel, Susan K. “Artificial Refrigeration and the Architecture of 19th Century American Breweries. IA. The Journal of the Society of Industrial Archaeology Vol 16, No. 1 (1990), pp. 21-38.
  • Appel, Susan K. “Buildings and Beer: Brewery Architecture of Cincinnati,” Queen City Heritage Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 3-20.
  • One Hundred Years of Brewing: A Complete History of the Progress Made in the Art, Science and Industry of Brewing in the World, Particularly During the Last Century (H.S. Rich & Co., 1901)



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