America’s Oldest Brewery

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on September 17, 2009

Dick Yuengling, 66, walks into the building where his family's beer has been brewed for five generations in Pottsville, Pa. (pop. 15,549). "This is our brew house," says Yuengling, president and owner of D.G. Yuengling & Son, America's oldest brewery. "Inside these old walls is some pretty modern brewing equipment."

The old walls were erected in 1831 following a fire that destroyed the original brewery, founded by Dick's great-great-grandfather David G. Yuengling (pronounced Ying-Ling) in 1829.

The company's namesake was a beer maker in Germany before immigrating to the coal-mining town of Pottsville in search of the American dream. Originally named The Eagle Brewery, the company took on the family name in 1873 when David's son Frederick became a partner.

Persevering through Prohibition
Over the years, the business has persevered, even when Prohibition began in 1920 and forced most brewers out of business. Instead of shuttering their brewery, the Yuengling family began manufacturing "near beer" and used the company's refrigeration system to produce ice cream.

"My grandfather opened an ice cream dairy across the street," Dick says. "It was a loyalty thing to the employees to keep them working. That's the difference between corporate America and a family-operated business. You want to take care of your people."

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the brewery celebrated by sending a truckload of beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "I'm surprised that we had a truck that would get that far," Dick says, laughing.

Dick joined the family business as a teenager while still in high school in the late 1950s, when small breweries were commonplace in Pennsylvania. During those early days, he stacked bottles, cleaned brewing tanks and learned the family trade from the ground up. "When you're 15 or 16 years old and want to learn the business, that's where you start," Dick says. "That's the way I run the business todayhands-on."

The personal attention to detail is evident whether he's visiting the 1831 brewery or two newer facilitiesone in Tampa, Fla., and another in Pottsvilleopened in 1999 and 2001 to keep up with the growing demand for Yuengling beer. Today, the company brews 1.8 million barrels annually at its three locations and sells its 12-ounce bottled beverages in 13 Eastern and Southern states.

Beer with character
The beer is made with malted barley for flavor and color; corn grits for light body; hops for a bitter flavor and aroma; and yeast for sparkle and flavor. How the ingredients are combined and prepared during a 24- to 28-day process results in seven varieties of Yuengling beer, which range from  Yuengling Light to a Dark Brewed Porter.

"We don't fool around too much with our beer recipes," Dick says. "We've always made beer that has a particular character to it, and our customers like that character."

Following in Dick's footsteps are his daughtersJennifer, 38, Debbie, 34, Wendy, 33, and Sheryl, 29who plan eventually to buy the business from their father.

"Historically, every generation has bought it from the previous," says Wendy Yuengling Baker, who works in the brewery's marketing department. "It's an old German tradition. You work harder if it's your own money."

Wendy expresses pride in being part of the company. "The fact that we're celebrating 180 years is a milestone for any company," she says. "And the fact that we're still family owned and operated is amazing."

That sense of family extends to Yuengling's 250 employees. "I really like the relationship we have with our employees," Wendy says. "I think they feel every day that they're working for a family company. That means a lot to me and my sisters."

It also means a lot to employee Dave Sheriff, 57. "We get along so well with Richard (Dick) and his daughters, and he knows us all by our first names," says Sheriff, a 34-year employee who serves as the company's kettle man.

Sheriff's job is to keep a careful eye on the large metal tanks where wortor unfermented beeris boiled for sterilization and hops are added. "Everybody here gets along," he says. "We help each other out as a family."

As long as he's able, Dick plans to keep working at the business, greeting each worker by his or her first name. "They'll have to drag me out of here, kicking and screaming," he says with a smile. "I still enjoy what I'm doing."