Ohio explodes for America’s oldest brewery
By Kevin J. Gray
The Miami Valley’s most talked about “imported” beer comes from across Ohio’s eastern border but is hardly from a newcomer to the brewing world. By now, all but the most ardent of Buckeye teetotalers has heard of Yuengling, the Pottsville, Penn. brewery. The brand, which promotes itself as America’s Oldest Brewery, was founded 182 years ago but only distributes to a handful of states. This fall, Ohio became the 14th state to sell Yuengling.
The reception in Ohio has been huge — even larger than anticipated. The Cleveland and Columbus markets saw their first shipments of the coveted brand in early October. Dayton and Cincinnati were to receive kegs and bottles of the Pennsylvania-brewed beer on October 31. The kegs arrived as planned (with local establishments like the Dublin Pub and Archer’s Tavern hosting kegs and eggs to celebrate), but the demand in Cleveland and Columbus was so high that the distributor had to push back bottled beer sales in the Miami Valley until November 14.
In all, Yuengling produces seven different varieties of beers, although Ohio sees only a fraction of the brand’s portfolio: the Traditional Lager, a Light Lager, and the Black and Tan (a blend of the Porter and the Premium Beer). Yuengling makes solid beers that compete well against the American macro-lagers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors. The Yuengling beers are more flavorful than their macro-counterparts but are priced similarly. As a result, the brand draws price-conscious consumers not likely to shell out $10 for a sixer of craft beer but who want something more flavorful than the traditional American lagers.
What makes Yuengling most interesting is its narrative, both the history of the brewery itself and the individual connections of the Yuengling fans. Yuengling dates back to 1829, when Andrew Jackson was president and only a handful of the current U.S. states had been admitted into the union (ahem, not you, Michigan). The Erie Canal had opened four years earlier, and it would be a few decades before the nation would rip itself apart in the Civil War. It was during this time that David G. Yuengling, a German immigrant, settled in Pottsville, Penn. and started the Eagle Brewing Company.
Over the next 44 years, the business became a family operation. In 1873, the same year that The Ohio State University opened its doors, Frederick Yuengling, David’s second son, joined his father in running the business. With Frederick as partner, David changed the brewery name to D.G. Yuengling and Son, still the official brand name today. Frank Yuengling, Frederick’s only son, took the helm in 1899, and led the brewery for the next 64 years. Frank’s ingenuity shepherded the brewery through the rockiest period of American brewing history, Prohibition. The brand survived by producing three types of near-beers and opening a dairy facility across the street. Legend has it that when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the brewery created a “Winner Beer” and shipped a truckload to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to show its appreciation.
After Frank Yuengling died in 1963, his sons Richard L. and F. Dohrman Yuengling transitioned the brewery through the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1985, Dick Yuengling, Jr. bought the company from his father and today, Dick Jr. remains the president. It was Dick Jr. who is credited with reintroducing the Traditional Lager, the brewery’s flagship beer, and who has guided the brewery through the recent growth years. And Dick Jr. has been grooming his daughters to take the wheel when he retires.
But the brewery’s history of continuous family ownership is only part of its story. The other compelling side to the Yuengling narrative is the intense brand loyalty of its devotees. Ohio is crazy about Yuengling because so many Ohioans have a personal connection with the brand. To many, drinking a Yuengling is about reconnecting with a piece of their past.
DCP’s Benjamin Smith, an Oakwood resident who grew up on the East Coast, explains his connection: “I grew up in New Jersey, where Yuengling is omnipresent. It was the first beer I actually enjoyed drinking. My friends and I knew it wasn’t the greatest or most sophisticated of beers, but we felt it was ‘our’ beer: the best aspects of the East Coast turned into lager. Thus I was completely stoked when I first heard Yuengling was going to be sold in Ohio. The Buckeye State now feels a little more like home to me.”
Matt Dewald of Kettering notes a similar personal connection. Although Dewald’s family moved around a lot while he was growing up, his parents had both been raised in Pennsylvania. When Dewald would visit his grandparents, Yuengling was always present. In later years, Dewald fondly recalls tours of the brewery itself, built in the side of the mountain, and of sometimes seeing Dick Jr. working the production floor. Like many Ohioans, Dewald would cram a few cases into the trunk before driving west to Ohio. And when Dewald was able to buy a bottle here in Ohio, bring it home, and pour it into his Yuengling pint glass, he recalls that “it felt like a piece of my family that I don’t see often enough.”
Sarah Frank of Centerville sums up the personal connection best when she said, “[T]here is something about a Lager that can’t be replicated for me. Maybe it’s the name; I miss the strangely-spelled ethnic names of my home state. Maybe it’s the bragging rights of ‘America’s Oldest Brewery.’ I’m still Pennsylvania proud! Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like somewhere, someone I miss back home is probably drinking a Yuengling, too.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.