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Yuengling: Inside America’s Oldest Brewery

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Walk into any bar in Pennsylvania and ask for a lager, you’ll always get the same thing – a Yuengling.

For more than 180 years, the United States’ top craft brewery – because it produces less than six million barrels per year – has been pumping out liquid refreshment for the masses and, in the process, became one of the northeast’s favorite brews.  Started in 1829, Yuengling is rich in both history and tradition and even holds the distinction of “America’s Oldest Brewery” but there’s much more that has gone into keeping lager around all of these years, while still insuring its great taste is available each and every day.

Located about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Pottsville, a small Pennsylvania town of about 14,000 people, D.G. Yuengling and Son Brewery might be a little off the beaten path but there’s a reason for it.  Originally founded by German immigrant David Gottlieb Yuengling under the name “Eagle Brewery”, the original location was chosen in part because of the availability to water, thanks to the nearby Schuylkill River.  But, in 1831, the brewery burned down and forced the company to relocate.

And what could’ve ended in disaster, actually proved to be the key to the company’s success.

Yuengling moved the brewery across town to Mahantongo Street, with nothing else around except for a church directly next store, and when his son Frederick joined his side in 1873, he elected to change the name.  This location, like the last, was chosen for a very important reason – water.

Located directly behind the building was a water source for which the company used to create beer in its earliest days.  Underneath the building, Yuengling and his crew dug out a cave, which remained at approximately 50 degrees all year long, perfect for storing and cooling beer – prior to the invention of refrigeration.

With the turn of the century came more production and growth for Yuengling, which was in part because of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where Charles Guetling, a Pottsville native, had used a wheelbarrow to wheel a sextel of beer from the Pennsylvania town to Chicago in a mere 28 days.  It made national headlines and, along with the beers featured at the event, kept things moving in the right direction for Yuengling in the 20th Century – that is, until the Prohibition hit the United States in 1920.

Almost immediately, the government came to the Yuengling Brewery and constructed a brick wall at the entrance to the company’s cave, figuring if Yuengling couldn’t cool and store beer, it wouldn’t make it.

To this day, a portion of the brick wall put up by the government during Prohibition still stands in the cave.

That wasn’t necessarily the case, however.  Like most breweries during Prohibition, the company looked for other ways to soldier on – like “near beers” (drinks with less than half a percent alcohol), producing ice cream from a newly started dairy and opening dance halls in both Philadelphia and New York City.  It was a difficult time for Yuengling, and all beer manufacturers, but unlike many of its contemporaries, the Pottsville company managed to make it through to the end of Prohibition in 1933.  To show their sincere appreciation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Yuengling shipped a truckload of beer, a new brew called “Winner Beer” which celebrated the repeal of Prohibition, to the White House.

Within just a few short days of Prohibition’s repeal, the brick wall came down and Yuengling was back to producing beer for much of the northeastern United States.  Over the next several decades, business would continue to boom for Yuengling, eventually leading to the addition of two more factories – the first of which was Tampa, which opened in 1999 and the second was just a few miles from the original, which opened in 2000.  Today, Yuengling’s products can be found in at least a portion of 21 states and, in 2012, it officially passed the Boston Beer Company – the maker of Samuel Adams – as the largest American-owned brewery in the United States with more than 2.5 million produced annually.

However, making that much beer each year is no easy task.

The most important ingredient in beer is water and Yuengling, which now uses Pottsville public water rather than the water source behind the brewery, goes through unfathomable amounts of it.  Each day, the original brewery uses almost 300,000 gallons of water, while their Tampa location uses 600,000 and their nearby location uses 900,000 – that would fill up almost 18,000 regular-sized bathtubs.

Upon signing up for the tour, we started in the gift shop across the street from the brewery.  From there we entered the cave and learned how the company originally brewed its products.  Then it was time to make our way up to the ground level to better learn how Yuengling produces so much beer today.

The lower level of the brewery is filled with vats for the beginning brewing process and one room even contained a stained glass ceiling which, we were told, was installed in 1888 as a way to limit the amount of employee issues due to sun glare caused by the original copper kettles.  Below the stained glass is murals painted on to the wall above the kettle – each with a significant meaning to Yuengling’s past.  As we made our way towards the bottling area, we passed the “Government Cellar.”  This door, which had a danger sign hanging on it which read “confined space, enter by permit only” contained a 1160-barrel holding area that measured the amount of beer produced, to ensure Uncle Sam got his cut of the taxes.  And if a product was damaged or destroyed after this point, Yuengling still had to pay the taxes on it.

While bottling and canning were both already completed at the time of our late afternoon tour, machines were still running to get the cans into cardboard boxes so that they’d be ready to go out the door.  From what we were told, the filling process is quite a sight to see – and happens at an impressive rate.  The bottling line is able to fill as many as 850 bottles per minute, while the canning line cans at up to 1,000 per minute.  And the plant can fill about 400 kegs in an hour, so if you add all that up, it’s no surprise that the Yuengling plant can hold almost 402,000 gallons of beer at any given time.

Just as impressive is the packing process.  Yuengling uses the PakMore system, which will pick up the bottles and cans of suds and place them into cases.  According to experts on the system, the system is able to pack at either 50 or 75 cases per minute – that’s for six, 12, 18 and 24 packs of bottles.  In the 24-pack format, PakMore operates at about 45 cases per minute.  It’s loud and the lager moves quickly.

After a quick glimpse to the warehousing and storage area, we made our way back across the street, where we were able to sample two of the company’s beers in a special area.  There was even birch beer for those who might not like the taste of beer.  Once you were finished the samples, you were able to purchase additional glasses of beer at significantly cheaper price or filter back out to the gift shop.

As someone who has tour his fair share of breweries, Yuengling was perhaps my favorite yet and one I would recommend to anyone – not just a beer lover.  It explained the brewing process well but delved a little deeper into the company’s history and offered a glimpse back to the time of the Prohibition.  The tour was about 45 minutes, very informative and filled with great picture – and drinking – opportunities.