Survivor: Pottsville

The odds against a small brewery from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, ending up as one of America's largest are staggering. But D.G. Yuengling & Son has managed to do just that.

Yuengling: A History of America's Oldest Brewery tells a story that began in 1828 and has more twists than a mountain road. It's well told by Mark Noon, who wrote for a local newspaper and sometimes went to the brewery on assignment. He focuses much of his book on the area's people and politics–a wise decision, seeing that Pennsylvania has long been a battleground over alcohol policy. In 1854, residents of the Pottsville area delivered enough votes to narrowly defeat statewide prohibition. The forces of temperance didn't give up, and remain strong. But we've gotten a bit ahead of ourselves.

Yuengling's odds-defying story began when David Gottlieb (D.G.) Yuengling arrived from Germany, only to find America awash in brewmasters. Fortunately, Pottsville was about to become a boomtown thanks to the discovery of anthracite coal, the "alternative energy" of that era. But luck only got him so far. He dug storage caves in the nearby hills, which were perfect for lager brewing once the proper yeast strain crossed the Atlantic. Like most brewery owners, D.G. delivered the product himself and, if beer was left over at day's end, he set up shop in the town square and sold mugs to passers-by.

There was no shortage of demand for beer in Pottsville. The area was home to thousands of Germans, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom worked in the mines. Local taverns--there were plenty of those, most owned by breweries--functioned as union halls, employment agencies, and banks, and sometimes casinos and brothels as well. Miners drank before and after work–and even on the job, until the mine owners put a stop to it.

At first Yuengling went by the name "Eagle Brewery," D.G.'s tribute to his adopted country; it didn't take its present name until 1873, when D.G. went into partnership with his son, Frederick. Yuengling survived in an increasingly competitive market by adopting technology like ice machines and cooling equipment. As for the beer, it was so highly regarded that D.G. mentored a number of other brewers.

No saga of a brewing family is complete without mishaps, and the Yuenglings were no exception. D.G.'s son got into financial and sexual scandals, and wound up dying while being taken from jail to the hospital; another death in the family left the brewery in the young but capable hands of Frank Yuengling.

Drinking remained part of Pottsville's culture even after the Eighteenth Amendment became law. Pennsylvania's enforcement of Prohibition was notoriously slack, and local residents–like novelist John O'Hara, grew up in the Yuengling mansion–openly defied the law. If O'Hara's novel
Appointment in Samarra is any indication, the Twenties indeed roared in Pottsville.

Yuengling survived Prohibition by turning out near beer and ice cream. According to the author, it resisted the temptation to sell regular-strength beer on the sneak. The reason? Its near-beer was so popular, thanks to a special process for extracting alcohol. Non-alcoholic products (the creamery stayed in business until 1985) also gave Yuengling the needed expertise to jump back into brewing after Repeal.

Fifty years ago, Yuengling ranked fifth in the Pottsville area in total production, behind breweries whose names are remembered only by historians and breweriana collectors. How, then, did it break out of the pack? Noon cites a number of factors: the Yuengling family's thriftiness, its willingness to adopt new technology, the brewery's designation as a historic site, and revived interest in local products. Geography, too, played a part; a down-at-the-heels mining region wasn't a target for the big brewers.

Noon also credits Pennsylvania's controversial liquor laws for Yuengling's success. Critics call them a vestige of Prohibition (former governor Gifford Pinchot, a dry, wanted alcohol as expensive and hard to buy as possible), but the same restrictions that drive beer drinkers crazy have stopped the national brands from waging ruinous price wars in supermarkets and convenience stores.

When craft brewing came to the East, Yuengling had a leg up because of its brewing and marketing experience and, more importantly, an infrastructure in place to deliver the beer. Some even argue that Yuengling
had craft brews in its portfolio: it never stopped brewing ale, and it added a black-and-tan after discovering that local bartenders were mixing it for their customers.

Recently, Yuengling's story took an ironic twist. Founded by an old-school German patriarch, the brewery was run by generations of Yuengling men. Apparently, though, not for much longer. The next generation consists of four daughters, all of whom are involved in the business. But one family tradition will stand: if the women want to own the brewery, they'll have to buy it from their father.