Kegs, eggs and America's oldest brewery
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 14, 2005
By Cold, Hard Football Facts brew guru Lew Bryson
Last Saturday, while all the other beer geeks were getting down at beer festivals, drinking triples and imperial IPAs and early batches of Oktoberfest, I fought the traffic down I-95 to an eggs and kegs breakfast at Philly's oldest bar, McGillin's Olde Ale House. I grabbed an Eggs McGillin (a big hunk of scrambled egg and cheese topped with three slices of fried country ham, buried in a Kaiser roll) and a pint of Yuengling Lager, and parked it at the bar, where they've been serving since 1860. I was waiting for the bus.
In celebration of McGillin's 145th anniversary, owner Chris Mullins and his Yuengling wholesaler had put together what they were calling the "Landmark to Landmark" trip. We were riding up to get a tour of the Yuengling brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, America's oldest, in business since 1829, and on the same site since 1831.
Yuengling (it's pronounced "YING-ling") is huge in Pennsylvania and is available up and down the East Coast. The brewery sold almost 1.4 million barrels of beer last year (almost 20 million cases), which is more than enough to float a battleship. Actually, give me a minute to do the math ... that's enough beer to float the Iowa, the New Jersey, and the Missouri, all at the same time, topped off with fuel and combat-loaded. This brewery is a big gun, the fifth-largest in the country.
Kinda funny, when you consider that when I first toured the place back in 1985, they were putting out about 160,000 barrels and snoozing in a slow, quiet decline. Dick Yuengling had just taken over the place from his dad, and it was a quiet place on a snowy Friday morning. It was old, it was worn, things were held together with solder and spit. I didn't know if the place would make it or not.
Well, don't cry for me, Argentina, right? One more small-town brewery making local swill going under won't make any difference more or less; back in another truckload of Bud.
But Yuengling was different. Not only were they recognized as America's oldest brewery (and one of the 40 oldest family-owned businesses of any kind in America), they didn't just make industrial-grade pale yellow suds. They made a range of beers, including the noticeably hoppy Lord Chesterfield Ale and – gasp! – a dark beer, "The Celebrated Pottsville Porter, brewed expressly for the tavern and family trade." Merciful God, it's ... variety.
That's not what was selling in America, though. We had started to go light, in the inexorable shift that would eventually see Bud Light pass Budweiser as the best-selling beer in the country. As the old French guy said, every nation gets the beer it deserves.
Not in Pennsylvania. Dick created a new beer: Yuengling Traditional Lager. It was darker and a bit fuller-bodied than the "regular" Yuengling Premium, and through a combination of factors, it took off like a rocket. First in Philly, then across the state, this was one full-calorie beer that grew like mad.
What did it? Yuengling sold a lot on draft; Pennsylvania has draft sales that are above the national average (a bit under 10 percent of total beer sales). For years, Yuengling's draft sales were around 50 percent or better and it's still over 20 percent. People could see that what you were drinking was different, and that means a lot to some people. Some people bought it simply because it was something other than BudMillCoors. Some people bought it because it was local.
Me, I drank Yuengling back when Yuengling wasn't cool, so I had that "Hey, you pack of pansies are drinking my beer!" reaction. I got over it quickly, and welcomed folks into the fold, slipping a few of them a bottle of Porter as they came through the door. It was great, you could find Lager everywhere, and that's what people in southeast Pennsylvania call for when they want one: "Lager!" Which just frosts the butt of all the other lager beers out there, and you'll actually hear brewers and geeks bitching about it.
Yuengling has built one new brewery not far from the original (the first million-plus barrel brewery built in America in more than 20 years), and snapped up the Stroh's brewery in Tampa as it closed. They now have the capacity to make over 3 million barrels of beer a year. Their distribution stretches from New York to Florida. More expansion is not in the immediate future; they've got a habit of digging deep in a market, and that's what's on the agenda. They've got a market share of over 50 percent in their home Schuylkill County ... and they think they can do better.
The bus ride was great. We went through 10 cases of assorted Yuengling beers, we toured the lagering caves, the old kegging line, brewhouse, the machine shop, the heavily renovated bottle shop, and wound up in the Rathskeller, the brewery taproom, for our two free beers (and unlimited birch beer, a local soft drink that's like root beer with hair on its back). Then it was back to McGillin's for Bloody Marys, then out into the bright afternoon to head home, enlightened and enlivened.
There are a lot more breweries in America today than there have been for decades. But only one of them is America's oldest: Yuengling, independent and family-owned, charting a course that has left industry analysts gaping in confusion for years. That's the Yuengling way.
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