Underground Brewing: Yuengling’s James River Steam Brewery
Down by the James River in Richmond, Virginia, there are two large stone arches below old brick ruins. Beyond the chain-link fence that protects entrance to the site, flooded rooms and a decaying vaulted brick ceiling can be seen. The caves extend deep into the earth, but no sign or plaque commemorates the important history they represent.
After the Civil War, Richmond lay in ruins. Much of the city’s industrial strength had been destroyed by the fires set by retreating Confederate soldiers. Though the city was temporarily on its knees, the same conditions that had propelled the city to be an economic leader before the war were still in place afterward. Industrial and, in particular, German workers flooded the city. Opportunity flourished for those willing to work, as well as for those who wished to invest.
Three men arrived in Richmond in 1866 to answer the call of opportunity. D.G. Yuengling Jr. had apprenticed at his father’s brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and now 24 years old, brought with him his uncle, John F. Betz, and another experienced brewer, John A. Beyer, to create the first large-scale brewery in Richmond. While their enormous facility was being built near the Richmond dock, also known as Rocketts Landing, the three men began small-scale operations north of the city.
The facility they created was a monster. It was seven stories tall, 80 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The Richmond Whig happily reported that:
“Messrs. Betz, Yuengling & Beyer have put up one of the finest breweries in the whole country. … Deep down in the earth, away from the light of day, are huge vaults capable of holding six thousand barrels, and within these deep recesses is a solid built ice-house, containing some two hundred and fifty or three hundred tons. The hoisting machines and elevators are beautifully contrived, and everything that wisdom, ingenuity and liberal outlay of money could do, has been done to make the establishment perfect. The engine house contains an engine of thirty-five horse-power, and two enormous boilers for heating purposes, each of them of a capacity suited for an engine of seventy-five horse-power. As far as practicable, all that has been required for the erection and completion of the structure has been procured and done in this city. The working capacity of the establishment is 400 barrels per day, and the building complete cost $200,000.”
The same article went on to note that the brewery would “furnish farmers with seed barley on credit, and to buy the crop for cash when raised,” making their product truly local. With veiled language about three Northerners setting up shop in Richmond, the paper concluded, “There is no use in our talking of elevating the State from its depressed condition if we don’t co-operate with those who are able and willing to give us a helping hand.”
This brewery soon became known as the James River Steam Brewery. Its trademark and labels were identical to the classic Yuengling brewery in Pottsville, though it remained a separate entity. It is interesting to note that the brewery advertised in both English-speaking and German newspapers its English- and German-style beers. The proximity to the rail and shipping networks ensured that the brewery could transport its beers not just to Richmond, but throughout the state.
D.G. Yuengling Jr. was not above greasing the political skids with a gift of beer. In September 1874, he sent the governor of Virginia, James L. Kemper, “one barrel of Old Stout in Bottles,” Yuengling wrote in a letter to Kemper. “This has been brewed three years ago and considered the Best, should you find it to[o] strong add water to suit your taste, and it will be a delicious stimulant. Hope it will do you good.” After noting this gift, Yuengling went on to inquire about railroad prospects. He continued to court both political and press connections. The same year, he sent a Christmas gift of a keg of beer to one of the Richmond newspapers. After sampling their gift, at least one reporter was still able to string words together for the next day’s edition of The Richmond Whig:
“ ‘Ye gods,’ what nectar was there! Glass after glass was emptied and quaffed with exclamations of satisfaction, and utterances of best wishes for the success of Richmond beer. A resolution was unanimously adopted that we must sustain Mr. Yuengling in his efforts to revive the beer interest of Richmond.”
As much as Yuengling may have indeed succeeded in reviving interest in beer in Richmond, he could not predict the future. Advances in refrigeration made the vast cellars obsolete, and the economic collapse that occurred in 1873 would eventually destroy all Richmond breweries and much of the nascent post-war growth of industrial America. Yuengling’s brewery was no different. Though it managed to weather the initial storm, with industrial workers moving away and costs rising, Yuengling’s giant Richmond brewery closed in 1879.
In 1883, disillusioned and bitter, Yuengling blamed the failure of the brewery on the locals, ignoring the larger financial picture. “After the war I went to Richmond, Va., and put $500,000 in a brewery, and came back without a dollar,” said Yuengling. “The farmers of Virginia forced their taxes upon the manufacturers, making me pay eighty-five cents a barrel on my beer and admitting distant beers free. The railroads would bring beer from New York and Baltimore at less than they would carry it twenty miles out of Richmond for me. The brewery is there yet, idle, and no brewer has been successful in the South. They won’t drink beer.”
The brewery building was leased by the Richmond Cedar Works until 1891, when a massive fire destroyed both the Cedar Works and the former brewery. All that remained were the vast cellars, which remain to this day, a mute witness to the first large-scale brewery in Richmond.
In 2014, the brewery ruins and the cellars were added to the National Register of Historic Places, paving the way for potential adaptive use. Time will tell if the James River Steam Brewery site will find a new life or be left, like the memory of the massive facility itself, to decay with time.