Collectors’ cans, specialty beers, contract brews, soft drinks, private labels: there’s no niche that America’s old-time regional breweries haven’t exploited in order to survive. Their roots extend back before Prohibition, and a few were mixing malt and hops before anyone had heard of the name Budweiser. Their future is by no means guaranteed, and while some have prospered, others are still scraping and clawing to stay alive.
D.G. Yuengling & Son in Pottsville, PA is a source of inspiration to its fellow regionals. The country’s oldest brewery was founded in 1829, when Andrew Jackson was the newly inaugurated president of the United States. During the 1990s Yuengling became a trend-setter: its Black and Tan (a mix of porter and premium lager) inspired dozens of copycat products, and its Traditional Lager (an amber beer) has added a new cachet to the word “lager.” Last year Yuengling produced 920,000 barrels, making it the eighth largest brewer in the U.S.
Yuengling has long inspired an almost fanatical following among residents of Pennsylvania’s coal regions. In 1893, a Pottsville resident named Charles Guetling—perhaps to win some barroom bet—pushed a wheelbarrow laden with a keg of Yuengling all the way to the Chicago World’s Fair. One hundred years later, Yuengling was forced to pull out of several neighboring states when local distributors hollered loud and long about beer rationing. Yuengling has since reclaimed its lost territory after purchasing the former Stroh brewery in Tampa, FL in 1999. The company was set to cut the ribbon on a modern, million-barrel-a-year plant just outside Pottsville.
After 172 years, Yuengling is still family-owned, and should remain way: the two oldest daughters of the current brewery president, Richard Yuengling, Jr., have earned their brewing diplomas from the Siebel Institute in Chicago and taken jobs at the brewery,
Survival Through Diversification
“Life was a lot easier in the 1970s,” sighs Ted Marti, president of the August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, MN. “We were only doing 2-3 beers back then.” Now Schell turns out 16 different brands, including a line of all-malt specialty beers that ranges from Schmaltz’s Alt to Zommerfest (a kölsch) to Snowstorm (an ever-changing winter seasonal that most recently was an ale/mead hybrid).
The brewery was founded in 1860 and managed to survive a Sioux uprising in 1862 that razed the rest of the settlement. Asked how Schell has managed to last 140 years, Marti answers, “We’ve always had great local support. It’s something we never lost. We were adaptable. When the times changed, we changed. We also had a family that wanted to operate a brewery. I’m the fifth generation.”
Meanwhile, the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA—currently celebrating its 100th birthday—has survived by being a jack-of-all-trades. In 2000, the brewery operated at capacity, pumping out 400,000 barrels, according to sales manager Michael Luksic. But that figures incorporates dozens of brands of many types of liquid, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The Lion’s latest venture is Long Island Iced Tea, a “malt-ernative beverage” flavored with black tea and measuring 5.5% abv.
The Lion has de-emphasized its traditional Stegmaier and Gibbons brands, the latter relegated to the gulag of 16-oz returnable bottles. The Brewery Hill line of craft beer gets the bulk of attention nowadays. Goya Malta, brewed for a Puerto Rican company, also helps puts bread on the table. Malta is essentially non-fermented wort, a sweet, non-alcoholic drink popular in Hispanic communities as a health tonic. The Lion also produces designer soft drinks and hard lemonades like Hooper’s Hooch.