Original photograph by Greg Hand
With the renaissance of craft brewing in Cincinnati, English Quaker Davis Embree has attained a stature rivaling the guiding spirit of beer, Gambrinus himself. Local beer enthusiasts know that Davis Embree opened Cincinnati’s first brewery in 1811. According to an 1816 traveler named David Thomas, Embree manufactured beer, and also mustard:
“Among the most respectable of the manufacturing establishments we notice the brewery of D. & ]. Embree. The works, though in a progressive state, are now sufficiently extensive to produce annually five thousand barrels of beer and porter, and the quality is excellent. A treadle-mill is attached to these buildings similar in construction to that at Montgomery. It is turned by horses, and grinds one hundred and twenty bushels of malt a day. In the present recess of business, it is employed in the manufacture of mustard.”
But, where was the Embree brewery located, exactly?
We can start with Daniel Drake, whose 1815 book, Picture of Cincinnati, includes a detailed map of the city. That map shows a brewery on the bank of the Ohio River at the southeast corner of Water and Elm Streets. While Drake does not specifically identify this as Embree’s brewery, he lists only two breweries in town at the time and the other is way over east near Duck Creek.
Another early historian of Cincinnati is Charles Cist, whose Cincinnati Miscellany for June 1845 describes Drake’s 1815 map, with a strange twist. Even though Drake’s map shows the brewery at the foot of Elm, Cist says Embree’s brewery sat at the corner of Race and Water streets, a full block to the east of the location on Drake’s map.
As it turns out, Embree himself described the location of his brewery in a series of advertisements published in the Liberty Hall newspaper during August and September of 1811, Embree advertised for “good clean barley” for which he offered to pay fifty cents a bushel at his brewery “two and a half squares below Main street.” In the early city records, “above” and “below” often refer to “upstream” and “downstream” along the Ohio River, so two and a half squares “below” Main Street would have been a half-block west of Vine. A number of authors have relied on this approximate address, with some variation.
J.W. Leonard’s 1888 Centennial Review of Cincinnati and George Roe’s 1895 Queen City of the West place the brewery “at the foot of Race Street,” which is closely in line with Embree’s description. This assumes that the brewery was at the southeast corner of the intersection of Water and Race, with the main entrance half a block east toward Vine.
The 1881 History of Cincinnati by Henry and Kate Ford, and Charles Greve’s 1904 Centennial History of Cincinnati both place the brewery “on the river bank below Race Street.” In this case, “below” probably means “at the bottom of” rather than “downstream.” So, at the corner of Water and Race.
A lot of sources, including Jeff Suess, in his excellent Lost Cincinnati book, locate Embree’s brewery at 75 Water Street. That is accurate, as far as it goes. The 1819 Cincinnati Directory, published by Oliver Farnsworth, carries a listing for “Embree, Davis, brewer, 75 Water.” One problem with old city directories is they are not entirely clear whether addresses indicate where the person lived or where the person worked. Since Water Street, as the name implies, backed right into the Ohio River, you might assume this must be a business address. However, the 1819 Directory lists 36 people on Water Street at 31 addresses and at least half of these are clearly residences.
Let us assume that 75 Water Street is the location of Davis Embree’s business, whether or not he also lived at that address. That still begs the question, “Where was 75 Water Street?” Cincinnati did not generally use addresses or house numbers until into the 1850s. Prior to that addresses most commonly reflected directions and cross streets, such as “east side of Vine between Third and Fourth.” There does not seem to be a surviving map showing the location of numbered addresses in early Cincinnati. By 1887, when the earliest Sanborn fire insurance maps were produced, the city had renumbered Water Street, so 75 Water by that late date was much farther east, almost under the Suspension Bridge. When Cincinnati renumbered street addresses yet again in 1896, the address for 75 Water disappeared entirely.
Luckily, Farnsworth published a city map simultaneously with his 1819 Directory. Farnsworth shows a brewery at the southeast corner of Water and Race streets, so that is probably the location of 75 Water Street and most likely the true location of the Embree brewery.
The City of Cincinnati has thoughtfully consolidated all of the various locations described here into Smale Riverfront Park, so we can say with some authority that the location of Davis Embree’s brewery lies somewhere within the boundaries of Smale Park.
If you stand on Mehring Way, just east of the football stadium, due south of Race Street, look southeast toward the Ohio River. The likely location of Cincinnati’s first brewery is marked by a stone reading “Castellini Esplanade.”
If someone is aware of more precise coordinates, I should be very gratified to hear of it.
Davis Embree and his brother Jesse served in a variety of city offices and helped launch the fire department and a school or two. They abandoned the brewing business around 1825 and became steamboat operators and pilots.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities