Yuengling: So Much Better Than It Was
D.G. Yuengling & Son is America’s oldest brewery, established by David Yuengling in 1829 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Within less than a year, the brewery burned and was rebuilt on the side of the hill over town, where it still is today, still run by a Yuengling. Surprisingly, at this point it is also the largest 100 percent American-owned brewery, or as I like to say, the largest 100-percent family-owned brewery in America.
Dick Yuengling is very much the owner, the man who runs things. He’s been running them since 1986 … which is the year I first visited the brewery. You know how long ago that is? I actually wrote a letter, on a typewriter, to set up a tour. They didn’t do tours on Fridays—the only day I could go—because they didn’t brew on Fridays; that was cleanup and maintenance day. We walked around the place with the VP of marketing and Dick Yuengling Sr., Dick’s dad, who would hand over the reins about six weeks later. I have a blown-up picture from the day framed above my desk: me, my friends Bob and Scott and Mr. Yuengling, in the taproom.
In 1986 there were 124 breweries in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association. Yuengling was making about 155,000 barrels a year at that point. “Premium” was the big seller, but it also had Lord Chesterfield (labeled as an ale, but really a more heartily hopped lager), Pottsville Porter and Premium Light. It would soon add Black & Tan, a blend of the Premium and Porter that would be a frenzied success in the Philadelphia area, followed a couple of years later by Yuengling Lager, which would simply explode, driving the business to its current levels of success.
I remember interviewing long-time Yuengling brewmaster Ray Norbert in 1995 about that success. We talked for almost two hours, including a walk around the plant, viewing the first major expansion in decades, a sparkling new lagering cellar. At the end of the interview I took the plunge, got my beer geek nerve up, and asked him if he’d ever thought about doing an all-malt beer. I can still recall the look he gave me (gently pitying, it was), and his answer. “I’m running two shifts, six days a week; I’ve got this new expansion online; and I still can’t make as much beer as the guys are selling,” he said, and leaned in, serious. “What’s broken that I need to fix?”
Now, with three brewing locations (the original and a new plant across town, plus the old Stroh brewery in Tampa) and a new state, Mississippi, just added to the territory, Yuengling’s still not broken. Production blew through 2 million barrels a year a while back and is closing in on 3 million. The Brewers Association has embraced it as a craft brewery, and as if to prove it, Yuengling’s added seasonals like Bock, Oktoberfest, an excellent German-style Summer Wheat, and most recently a new IPL.
Like the market for alternative, non-mainstream beer in general, so much has changed in 30 years. Yuengling isn’t scrimping along anymore, not begging wholesalers to take a chance. The Yuengling brewers have plans and fans, and the bank is full of money. They’re moving the tasting room, museum and gift shop across the street to the old Yuengling ice cream plant, a major renovation that is taking advantage of the company’s history with some really neat old stuff that’s been buffed up and integrated into the building.
They’re solid, too. Did you weep and wail when Goose Island sold, when Lagunitas or 10 Barrel or Ballast Point sold? Dick Yuengling hasn’t sold, and he isn’t going to sell to anyone but his daughters (that’s how the family does things: The next generation doesn’t inherit the business; it has to buy it). Talk about noncorporate, the last time I interviewed him, he was wearing jeans and a worn flannel shirt and used his styrofoam coffee cup as an ashtray. He still answers calls, and if a new driver has trouble with the loading dock, he’ll hop in the cab and back it neatly into place. This guy, this brewery, this brand, this beer is so real you could pound nails with it.
Oh, I know. No matter what the Brewers Association calls it, most of you don’t think of this as “craft” beer. (Probably a fair number of you don’t think of Samuel Adams as craft beer, so what can I tell you?) It’s made with corn; that’s macro lager style. Maybe the porter was OK back in the day when there was nothing else, but we’ve gotten beyond that. Who cares?
Millions of relaxed beer drinkers, that’s who. Yuengling is like a lot of things in your life: stable, reliable, not likely to put a hitch in anything. It’s the worn comfortable shirt, the music you know every word to, the meal you don’t need a recipe to make. Not everything has to shake you awake with every sip, and when you want that, it’s good to have an honest alternative, a regional, independent, family-owned beer. As a bar owner in Philly told me some years back, when the best-selling beer in your city is a locally brewed amber lager, that’s a pretty damned good thing.
I drank Yuengling back in the day. It was solid, it was different from the all-too-similar big beer choices, and it was local, authentic. I’d been to Pottsville and seen the old, worn bricks, the copper grant, the sacks of corn and water treatment sitting around, the clanking machinery that they still let you get right next to on the tour. These guys hide nothing, because they have nothing to hide; they make beer the way they make beer. That’s why I still drink it today.
The explosion of new breweries is a great thing, but to look at it fairly takes perspective. You can learn a lot from looking at what a brewery founded in 1829 has had to deal with, including success.
Lew Bryson’s been drinking non-mainstream beer since 1981 and writing about it since 1994. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.