Lew Bryson on Yuengling Lager
Lew Bryson on Yuengling Traditional Lager
Yuengling Lager is a craft beer. Fight me.
The brewery is 100% family-owned, closely held by the same family since opening, making it more independent than a number of large, well-known craft brewers. What’s more, it’s definitively America’s oldest brewery, having opened in 1829, and stayed open during Prohibition, making what was by all accounts an exceptionally tasty near-beer using an expensive vacuum distillation system. And now it is arguably the largest fully American-owned brewery.
Is it made with corn? Most definitely, and proud of it. But we had that fight a few years back when the Brewers Association tried to tell America’s oldest regional brewers that they weren’t “traditional.” There are acknowledged craft brewers making light lagers with corn these days, so what’s the objection?
Yuengling Lager has been made to the same recipe since 1987, when Dick Yuengling and his longtime brewmaster, Ray Norbert (one of the very first brewers I ever interviewed, way back in 1994), “saw an opportunity to develop a brand with more taste and character, rich in amber color – different from the typical, industry-produced beers that were popular at the time,” according to the brewery history of the brand.
I remember that roll-out. I had first visited Yuengling in 1981, when I was 22. It was fun, but the place looked like a 150 year old brewery; manual equipment, battered old kegs filled by hand, even the old wooden fermentation vats were still in place. I got to meet Dick Yuengling when I went back in 1986. The brewery was experiencing some modest growth from Black & Tan, a packaged blend of the Premium and their Porter.
But Yuengling Lager took off like a rocket. The key markets were Philadelphia, where it caught on in the riverside clubs and corner bars, and State College. Penn State students went home on break and asked bars for “Lager!” Demand exploded, and quickly spread to adjacent states.
It was so popular that the brand had to pull out of New England and most of New York state. I remember Ray Norbert telling me in 1994 that they were running two shifts a day, five days a week, and still couldn’t make enough beer. That led to the brewery’s first expansion in decades, a modern lagering facility that doubled capacity.
That still wasn’t enough. Dick hates debt, always has, but there was a strong family tradition of investing in the business. Work was started on an additional brewery, about three miles away, and then a chance came up to buy a big surplus brewery, the Stroh’s plant in Tampa. They looked it over, realized they could get almost all of the experienced workforce back, and bought it. Now Yuengling had three plants, and finally enough capacity for Lager.
According to the brewery, Lager represents about 75% of sales.
“Thank God for Lager,” head brewer John Callahan once said to me, an earnest ejaculation as we walked through the brewery, talking about the solid wages and benefits the brewery provided this hard-luck coal town.
Look, I’ll be honest. There are reasons not to drink this beer. IPA, for one; it sure isn’t one, hazy or not. Politics could be another, depending on what twists your knots, although those winds are shifting as the next generation of four Yuengling sisters take over daily operations. And sure, you’ve got your local breweries to support.
But I don’t drink IPA all the time; not even close. Yuengling employees, even the newest, least-skilled hourly hires, are paid a living wage and get full benefits, which is more than can be said about a lot of craft breweries. It really is American-owned; most of the cash you pay for a Lager goes back to Schuylkill County – where it’s needed, believe me. And it may not be local, but it really is America’s oldest brewery, independently owned and operated since 1829, one of the 20 oldest manufacturers in the country. That ought to count for something.
Enough story. Time to open one up. Because I do, on the regular, since 1987; haven’t seen a reason to stop.
It smells of wet-fresh bread and a bit of a floral note. Take a sip… that’s a bar beer. Boy, I sure do miss bars. Right away, it’s got more body than a light beer, and a lot more flavor. Some toastiness, mildly sweet across the palate, and all of it backed by more hop bitterness than I remember. This is already tasting like another, which is something I do remember.
If you get a hankering for an old school light lager – it’s hot, you’re hanging out with your gramps, nostalgia – reach for the regional. Yuengling Lager, from America’s oldest brewery.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.