Sunday, March 04, 2001

The man behind the Bock

Keeping the beer flowing is a full-time job as Over-the-Rhine celebrates

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mike Cromer with his tavern's Bock Goat mascot.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Mike Cromer has a problem most suppliers would love: “I can't make it fast enough. This batch will be gone before we know what hit us.” Beer, he means.

        Mr. Cromer is co-owner of BarrelHouse Brewing Co. and he does know what's hitting him, at least this weekend: Bockfest, Over-the-Rhine's annual celebration of bock beer and spring sausage.

        Mr. Cromer is one of the fest's patron saints, involved every year since BarrelHouse opened in 1995.

        “We made 90 kegs this year and it will be gone in a matter of weeks. Mid-March at the latest. We'd make more, but we're already brewing 10 different beers here and there's no more room.

  Bockfest continues today with bock-related brunches at Kaldi's (1204 Main St.) and the Diner (1203 Sycamore St.); signed Bockfest posters at Base Art (1311 Main St.) and Suzanna Terrill Gallery (1315 Main St.); festivities at BarrelHouse (22 East 12th St.) starting at 4 p.m.; other Main Street bars serving bock from late afternoon openings 'til close.
        “That's why the goat's not here. He's down the street in Keith Baker's workshop. Do you know how hard it is to find a home for a 14-foot wooden goat?”

        Uh, no.

        The wooden goat is Bockfest's mascot. He led the Bockfest parade and provided space on his back for the blessing of the beer Friday, hung around bars Saturday and may even pop up today when Bockfest concludes with a string of quiet events.

        When not working Bockfest, Mr. Goat happily helps out other events: He was hauled out on Main Street last Christmas and fitted with reindeer antlers to inspire Christmas shoppers. He was hauled onto the race route for the Flying Pig Marathon and fitted with a snout to inspire runners.

        “Sometimes, we dress him in monk robes because it was the monks of Munich who first produced bock beer. They couldn't eat for the six weeks of Lent, so they brewed the heartiest beer they could and counted on it for sustenance.

        “It was a strong beer, too. Our bock is 6 percent, but they brewed at 11 and 12 percent. Lord only knows what kind of party went on.”

        There's something else about bock beer, he says, taking aim at a popular myth. It isn't necessarily made with residue dredged from the bottom of the brewer's kettle. Good bock is made from kernels burnt in the roasting process and saved until spring, when the monks went to work.

        “The thing is, when the Germans arrived in OTR, they brought that spring bock tradition with them. We're connecting with our past here.” OTR's past, he means. His is less colorful. The 42-year-old Anderson Township father of two was a finance manager for General Electric (“and beer connoisseur, don't forget that”) in 1994 and getting antsy.

        “They always say do what you love, and beer and people are what I love. So, here I am in the bar business, oh, about 27 hours a day.

        “Of course, people thought David (Rich, his co-owner) and I were nuts coming down here. Kept telling us to go to some monied suburb. And back in '95, maybe it looked loopy. But look at it now.

        “Main Street is an attractive retail area, it's a busy entertainment district, we have five floors of school (Cincinnati Art Academy) going in, residentials are on the upswing and the digital companies are here. The dot.coms are just huge for the restoration movement.”

        Huge for the bar business, too: “Lunch has tripled in the last three years. Happy hour has grown at least that much. That's why we can't make beer fast enough.”

        Well, sir, before he goes back to stirring his kettles, how about a few fill-in-the blanks?

        Everyone needs a bock because ...

        It's good for the soul. Takes it to new heights.

        If the Greeks had used a Trojan Goat instead of a horse ...

        Troy would rule today ... you can't get that big an army inside a goat.

        The best thing about Bockfest ...

        Is the parade. No, the blessing of the beer, right in the middle of 12th and Clay (streets). Our goat has a platform, and that's where the ceremony is.

        God invented beer because ...

        It brings people together. It makes old friendships stronger and helps you make new ones.

        If I weren't doing this, I'd be ...

        Fishing in British Columbia. That's where I vacation because I love fly fishing. I go with my brother and a few diehard fishing buddies.

        The best part of owning a brewery ...

        Is at the end of a long day, sitting down and having a really cold beer with no distractions.

        People always think I'm ...

        Pretty damn lucky. And they're right.

        What I like most about Over-the-Rhine ...

        Its fascinating history. I've studied it in books and by talking to historians. I lucked out when I found one book from the 1920s, an extensive history.

        One thing the neighborhood needs ...

        More housing. I'd love to get an old building and renovate it. I think in about 20 years people who had a chance to invest and didn't are going to be kicking themselves.


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