“Looking back, there was a sense of immediacy, preparation, and luck that all coalesced into Rhinegeist — this little, brawny business-that-could.” – Bryant Goulding, Co-Founder
The Rhinegeist journey starts in 2005. Bob Bonder and Bryant Goulding, consultants together in San Francisco, are working together feverishly to deliver projects that will likely never come to fruition. Both are driven by an appetite to make a lasting positive impact and find a more satisfying way in the world. Bob is writing a business plan for a chain of coffee roasteries and Bryant is diving headfirst into the beer universe, homebrewing on weekends and volunteering at festivals for access to esoteric varieties of free suds. Change is imminent.
Bob acts first. After modeling what city in the U.S. was most thirsty for a new coffee brand, Bob lands on Cincinnati as the ideal destination for his caffeinated ambitions, moving to the Queen City in 2007. Soon after Bob’s departure, Bryant spins out from the consulting world, heading to South America for a three month trip to seek mountains and find purpose, returning with a desire to sell some beer. After a short gig with Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Mendocino County, CA, Bryant joins Dogfish Head, managing its West Coast sales business. Corporate life is officially in the rearview.
Fast forward to August 2011. With his coffee business established, Bob gives Bryant a call — on what happened to be his birthday — overflowing with ideas for what Cincinnati could become, harping specifically on the role a brewery could play in bringing back the city’s rich heritage. In Bob’s view, the Queen City was a vacuum for locally brewed craft beer, especially in comparison to the West Coast with its high density of breweries. There was an opportunity to plug a brewery into this special city experiencing a renaissance and they could be the people to do it.
Intrigued, Bryant came out to visit Bob for a weekend in Cincinnati, eating at A Tavola and drinking at The Lackman and Neon’s. He was smitten — the city had a deep soul, a rich identity, a remarkable brewing history and was brimming with possibilities. After a missed flight, many beers, lots of pizza, a pastel mustache drawn on a wall, and a wild weekend dreaming of what could be, something was born.
Bryant returned home with a head full of ideas, and over the next four months he and Bob started sketching out what it would take to build a brewery. They knew it would be in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the epicenter of Cincinnati’s resurgence. But how big? In what building? With what team? And who could they find to brew the West Coast-inspired beers they yearned to make? The duo had more questions than they did answers.
As brewery planning built momentum, Bryant gave his notice to Dogfish Head and headed to a startup brewery in Los Angeles to get a taste of what it would be like to launch a brand in a big city. After an intense six months, Bryant made his move to Cincinnati in July 2012 and started working part-time at Tazza Mia, Bob’s coffee shop downtown. Bryant spent each Friday labeling coffee bags and delivering beans in a van to accounts around the city, an invaluable opportunity to meet locals and business owners and to get a feel for the network of neighborhoods comprising Cincinnati’s ecosystem.
Meanwhile, the duo’s search for a brewer with a proclivity for West Coast brews willing to join a brewery that didn’t exist yet was proving fruitless — something about that pitch, apparently, was not enticing. The formation of the brewery, however, soon took a powerful turn toward existence after Bob met a man named Jim Matt at — of all places — the mall. An espressophile, Jim frequented Bob’s Tazza Mia kiosk there and the two quickly got to know each other. Jim had been a chemist at Eli Lilly for more than 20 years, homebrewing and judging competitions on the side for much of that time. After setting up the lab and quality control program at Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewery, Jim moved to Cincinnati to open up Christian Moerlein’s brewhouse in downtown Cincinnati. Now, he sought an opportunity to brew the hop-forward styles that had inspired him to brew at home in the first place. Bob was intrigued.
Shortly thereafter, Bob and Bryant sat down with Jim for a beer at Cincinnati’s Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery to discuss the state of the beer industry and his place in it. At that meeting, they had a chance to taste a few of Jim’s favorite homebrews. Two, in particular, stood out: a delightfully complex and infinitely drinkable British Mild, and a bright, fruit-forward, tropical, and citrusy IPA named Inspiration Island. Those brews — soon to be Uncle and Truth, respectively — and Jim’s commitment to his craft convinced the duo that they had their guy. In a year’s time, Jim’s homebrews would turn into the first pilot batches for the intensely flavored, highly finessed beers that would one day fuel the thirst of Cincinnati.
With a talented brewer secured, Bob and Bryant locked in their business plan (with a tweaked version of American Gothic plastered on the cover) and welcomed aboard a handful of Cincinnati-based investors to back the project. The brewery would be located at the 250,000 square foot former site of Christian Moerlein’s packaging hall and would be called Rhinegeist — “Rhine” for the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood it called home, and “Geist” as a ghostly nod to the area’s German heritage and a signifier that brewing life was making a comeback in Cincinnati. Now, they just had to build the thing.
Construction began with a pad poured in January 2013. Bob played the role of General Contractor as the project got off the ground, working with many of the same companies that Rhinegeist works with today. The project was a rollercoaster, especially for a couple of novices in a 100+ year old building. The first brewhouse, for example, was “discovered” in Mexico and driven on a flatbed truck from Tecate to Cincinnati by a kind man named Yuri. When it arrived, the 1987 JV Northwest system was in pieces and the instruction manual was still somewhere south of the border. Thankfully, Jim and Luke Cole — Rhinegeist’s second brewer who, conveniently, had mechanical engineering chops — were familiar with the brewhouse model and were able to painstakingly reconstruct it. By mid-2013, the vessel was humming — slowly but surely, 1910 Elm Street was starting to feel like home.
On Saturday, June 29th, 2013, Rhinegeist opened its doors to the public for the first time. Various family members and a handful of new employees — hi Dennis and KO! — worked the door, poured beers and collected cash. There were emergency runs to get $1 bills from Jack Casino, an unthinkable amount of glass washing, and plenty of strategically-placed fans from Home Depot and Lowe’s to keep things “cool.” On tap was Uncle British Mild, Spikelet Hoppy Wheat, Cougar Blonde Ale and a batch of Truth IPA that had been finished that morning — in the words of Jim, “we babysat it and sung songs to it until it was ready.” More than 2,000 thirsty and excited Cincinnatians ended up stopping by and it was an all-day, all-hands-on-deck experience to satiate thirst. Bob and Bryant’s crazy dream had finally become a reality.
Since that hectic summer day, Rhinegeist has grown up quite a bit. We’ve expanded to new states, brewed countless new beers, added a couple hundred employees to our beer family, and built a second home a few blocks down the road in Camp Washington. Each day, however, still feels a bit like that first one — we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to bring great people together, to foment fantastic ideas, and to build a community that values craft beer and one another. Here’s to many more years of great beer and even better vibes. Cheers!