While visiting Scranton, we had the opportunity to make a quick trip down I-81 to Pottsville to visit America’s Oldest Continuously Operated Brewery, Yuengling. I’ll admit, I’ve passed through this former coal town several times without giving it a thought. I even spent time here in the late 80s and early 90s when I was installing software for a couple of Credit Unions in town. Never before did I take the time to visit this American institution – until now.
You see, back then, Yuengling was a struggling brewery lost in a market that was dominated by the big guys. Sure, it was around since 1829, starting out as Eagle Brewery, but the domestic behemoths controlled the market. In 1984, over 88% of the beer in the US was produced by just 5 companies – Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Stroh’s, G. Heileman, and Coors. Those were the 800 pound gorillas of beer. Stroh’s, even acquired a brewery (from Schaeffer) less than an hour away from Yuengling. How’s that for a slap in the face?
There were also some German imports that were popular at the time – like Heineken and St. Pauli Girl – and even some Canadian imports like Molson or Moosehead that sold well in the region. No doubt that through the centuries, beer has become an even more crowded market.
The Beer that changed it all
During the 80s, the vast majority of the beers on the market were lagers – clean, crisp and refreshing.
In 1984, Sam Koch created the Boston Brewing Company. Koch was torn between starting his new brewery with an ale or a lager. His father convinced him to start with the recipe that was handed down from his Great-Great Grandfather – a brewer from St. Louis. It was a recipe from the 1870s – a time when American beers were among the best in the world. Samuel Adams Boston Lager was born! A Vienna-style lager with more malt flavor than hops – the malt adding to the caramel-color and sweetness of the beer.
The beer started pouring in bars and taverns in April 1985 and immediately made its mark on the industry. It was different from the products being pumped out by the Anheuser-Busch’s of the world. It offered a bit more depth and flavor. In my opinion, this was the beer that changed the landscape.
Since its inception, Yuengling had tried several different styles of beers – for the most part, all variations of lagers. Most of which have come and gone.
Sales continued to struggle and the workers were worried about their future. Then things got worse. In 1984, the four-generation own, Richard Yuengling Sr. was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His son, Richard “Dick” Yuengling Jr, who had left the business in 1973 after a rift with his father, was brought back in to take over the company.
Dick was no stranger to the beer business, having spent the last eleven years in the distribution side of things. He came in and knew he had to make changes. He knew Sam Adams was making noise with their new product, so he worked with the brewmaster and revived an old recipe from pre-prohibition – a Vienna-style lager, similar to Boston Lager and modified it to meet the market.
Finally, in 1987, after 158 years in business, Yuengling introduced the “new” product that changed everything for the struggling family business. Simply called Yuengling Lager, this new, amber lager would take on the big boys. Their “heartier” lager was more robust than traditional lagers like Bud, Miller and Coors.
Since then, “Lager” has become the flagship product for the now 192 year-old brewery – accounting for ~70-80% of the brewery’s sales.
Lager vs Ale
Koch wasn’t the first to try his hand at “micro-brewing”, but he was definitely one of the poster-children. After his success, there was a boom in craft and micro-breweries in the early 90s.
Yuengling continued to compete, but stayed true to Lager. However, many of the new breweries at the time were creating Ales – a trend that continues today with no end in sight.
But why would the new entrants into the market choose to deliver Ales? Especially when there was already a huge market for lagers? Well, asked and answered. They new guys were looking to make a market for themselves and I’m guessing they knew they couldn’t compete with the marketing budgets of the Anheuser-Busch’s of the world. So together, the craft breweries formed a movement for themselves. Again, one that the big lager guys have repeatedly tried to proverbially “tap” into – but have failed.
For sure, there was a difference in taste. The brewmasters could get creative with ingredients – amping up the hops or adding different spices to create unique flavors. This, Yuengling says, masks the true taste of beer and hides the problems with the brewing process.
But what’s the difference between a Lager and an Ale? I’m certainly no expert, but my limited research tells me that one major difference is the yeast that’s used. In Lagers, you use a yeast that requires a longer fermentation time, therefore, needing cooler temperatures. Whereas in an ale, you can ferment quicker at more moderate temperatures. Thus, with ales, you don’t need as much refrigeration and you can bring the product to market quicker (less fermentation time). Hmmm… Cost savings. Interesting.
Regardless, the craft brews, with innovative flavor profiles that could quickly be brought to market were taking a huge chunk of market share – and the big brands were threatened. I still recall the Keystone (owned by Molson) commercials that made “Bitter Beer Face” famous.
Keystone was fighting to save the lagers that offered a clean, crisp taste against the increasingly hoppy and flavorful (yet bitter) ales that came to market.
Today, traditional domestic lagers still dominate the market in terms of production. For example, of the 184M barrels of beer produced in 2020, over 126M barrels were lager (68%) compared to 22M barrels of craft (12%) and another 36M barrels of imports (20%). Coincidentally, in 1984, there were 185M barrels sold – mostly (if not all) lagers.
But, the actual number of breweries in the US has exploded over the past three decades. When Yuengling launched Lager in 1987, there were just 150 breweries in the US. Today? Almost 9,000 according to the Brewers Association!
And you can bet that the vast majority of those breweries are dialing up IPAs or similar. For example, in last year’s Great American Beer Fest, the category with the most entrants was the “Juicy or Hazy IPA” category with 372 different beers vying for the title. For the record, Phoenix’s own Wren House Brewery took home Gold with their Spellbinder. I might have to try it, but it’s likely I’ll end up with Bitter Beer Face.
Need more evidence of the Ales dominance in spite of production numbers? The GABF rated beers in 91 different categories – only 6 of which were pure Lagers. Check out the 2020 results below.
Regardless, Yuengling continues to thrive in an Ale-dominated culture. So much so that in Pennsylvania, they’ve become the “Kleenex” or “Band-Aid” of beer – so ubiquitous that when you order “a lager”, you’ll receive a Yuengling.
On the one-hour complimentary tour, you quickly realize the age of America’s Oldest Brewery. Sure, the original building burned to the ground in 1831, but the new building on the relocated site is no spring chicken. You don’t realize it as you walk into the building from the street, but within a few steps, you quickly notice that you’re walking through the center of the earth!
The building was intentionally built into the side of a hill – allowing them to leverage mother nature for her cooling abilities to aid in the fermentation and storage of the beer. The hand-dug “caves”, which go up to 50′ below ground, took almost 10 years to complete. This was literally and figuratively the “coolest” part of the tour!
The brick walls were added around 1919. They were required by the government during prohibition. It was intended to block off the caves – thus hampering their ability to ferment the beer.
Remember, this was before elevators so getting those kegs from the cold storage back up to the plant for packaging was no easy task. They climbed this ladder with the kegs on their backs! There were obviously some pretty strong men working in those days.
While the exterior of the building might be showing its age, the interior is spotless. It’s highly automated with few workers in sight.
This facility, while it remains the home of Yuengling, is the smallest production facility for the company. Over the years, they have had other breweries throughout North America (including British Columbia), but they settled into the Pottsville facility as the lone production facility for decades.
But as demand for their new Lager grew throughout the region, they were forced to pull out of markets so they could focus on supplying their core market. They needed to make a decision to accommodate their growth. Do they build, buy, outsource or do nothing?
They decided to buy a plant in 1998 in nearby in nearby Port Carbon that they would renovate and open in 2001. A year after they decided to purchase the nearby plant, the former Stroh Brewery in Tampa became available at a fire-sale price. Now, the fifth generation owner, Dick Yuengling (the great-great grandson of the founder) had another decision to make. Would this be too much too fast?
He rolled the dice and purchased the brewery – thus opening up production to expand to the south.
They wanted to preserve the history of the original site and ensure they could maintain it as “America’s Oldest Brewery”, so today, they produce mostly cans from this location.
In 1936, a Rathskeller was built for the workers. There, they were able to imbibe during their breaks and at lunch – until OSHA stepped in.
The room was used until at least 1999 when it was the tasting room for tours and a meeting place for local organizations.
Today, it seems they maintain the Rathskeller for historical purposes – and maybe a private party or two.
On the far wall, you can see the brick wall on the outside of the structure. Just on the other side of that sits a church. There were rumors as to why the church was built so close to the brewery, but I can’t corroborate those stories.
Throughout the tour, you get a glimpse at some of the early advertising that the industry is known for.
You can even get a sneak-peek at this infographic on how the beer is brewed and what role hops play in the process.
In the middle of the brewery, you can still catch a glimpse of a stained glass ceiling that shines through. It was put in place to help reduce the glare off of the copper kettles that once were installed.
You’ll learn that during Prohibition, Yuengling had to adapt. They produced low alcohol beers to try to survive. They even added a facility to produce Yuengling Ice Cream. The building, which sits across the street from the brewery, was built in 1919. The ice cream business was spun off to a relative. It folded in 1985, but was reestablished in 2014 and still survives.
Today, the building is owned by the brewery and houses offices, the museum, tasting room and retail, but the “Ice Cream” in the concrete still remains.
Beer is a heavily regulated – and therefore taxed product. Every ounce needs to be accounted for. Here’s where the accounting takes place. Behind the door is the machinery that measures the production so the Feds know they are getting their fair share of the production. If there’s spillage or breakage after it’s measured, the Feds still get their share.
And of course, the best part of the tour. The TASTING! Each guest is allowed to sample two different flavors that are being highlighted. It’s like a kid in a candy store. How can you possibly only taste two?
Pro Tip: Take the tour with some friends that don’t like beer! They can get as many tastes as they want of the Yuengling Root Beer, and they can give you their samples of beer! You can see, these are a decent size taste.
Between us, we were able to sample all eight of the beers they had on tap!
Just like Disney, you exit the tour through the gift shop. And thankfully, you do! They have anything and everything you can imagine for all budgets. From shirts and hats to dog toys and signage. While the tour is free, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the gift shop without spending any money. And the beauty is, it’s all reasonably priced.
We lingered for quite a while and were rewarded by meeting none other than the fifth-generation man-in-charge, Dick Yuengling himself. Dick was as humble and welcoming as you would hope for a family-owned businessman. He took the time to chat with us about all things Yuengling and beer.
When I congratulated him on his success, he humbly replied “we had the right beer at the right time”. For a man that’s estimated to be worth ~$1.2B, he sure didn’t forget his humble roots.
We had the right beer at the right timeRichard “Dick” Yuengling
President and Owner
Yuengling’s expansion has been slow and methodical. Their distribution is limited to mostly states east of the Mississippi. That makes it even more desirable for me since I can usually only get it when traveling east.
To help quench my thirst, I began “self-importing”. I would strategically pack my bags so that I could rearrange them to have enough room to pack a case in my checked luggage when I returned home from a trip east.
Thankfully, through a distribution agreement with Molson/Coors, Yuengling is finally expanding further west. They will produce Lager and a couple of other brands at the Molson facility in Fort Worth Texas! Distribution throughout Texas is set to begin August 23rd. And lucky for me, El Paso is only a six hour ride away! Road Trip!
The future looks bright for Yuengling. With expanded distribution and Dick’s four daughters involved in the business, they are in position to carry on the sixth-generation of the family business.