The Keg (Eastern Coast Breweriana Association) Summer 2005
100 Years of Brewing at the Lion
by Rich Wagner
The E.C.B.A. Convention is back in Wilkes-Barre for the fourth time to help celebrate the Lion's 100th Anniversary. The first convention here back in 1976 seems like ancient history—I wonder how many of our current members were in attendance then?
When the Stegmaier brewery closed its doors in 1974, the Lion, as Wilkes-Barre's only remaining brewery, bought the labels and began producing Stegmaier Beer and Porter and Liebotschaner Cream Ale, along with its flagship, Gibbons. It was rather ironic, actually, since Stegmaier had been Pennsylvania's largest brewery outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh back in the day. But the Lion brewery was smaller and more modern than its massive competitor across town and somehow managed to survive the nation's "Beer Wars" that were raging at the time.
A lot has changed since then. I took my first "third shift" tour back in August of 1980 when a farmer who was picking up spent grain invited us to see the brew house. Rich Dochter and I were touring Pennsylvania breweries with our girlfriends, and Don Mudrick, the brewmaster, showed us around. We even sampled "the freshest Steg ever" right from the storage tanks. It was the sixth brewery we had visited that summer, and I remember wondering at the time if it would be the state's next casualty. But owner Bill Smulowitz navigated the company through some of the toughest times in the industry (since prohibition) with insight, innovation, and grit, and kept the Lion afloat.
One niche that has become the company's bread and butter is malta, a malt-based soft drink favored by a large Hispanic population in nearby New York City. Malta is brewed like beer but requires no fermentation, is not taxed like beer, and accounts for the lion's share of their 400,000 barrel annual production. The Lion has also been known for its plethora of "price beer" brands, a strategy that has saved more than one brewery from the wrecking ball.
Every time I've been back since that first tour, the plant has gradually been upgraded, modernized, and made more efficient. The brewery was the first to experiment with malternatives and developed malt-based coolers that could be sold by beer distributors in Pennsylvania. They now have a complete line of their own, including Lion's Long Island Iced Tea. The Lion was probably the only brewery in the country to make ginger ale using fresh ginger root for a high-end contract soda line. They currently make Lion Brewery Root Beer, the Olde Philadelphia Soda brand, and have recently taken on the Steaz Green Tea Soda and Napa Valley Soda Company's natural soft drink lines.
With the advent of contract brewing in the eighties, the brewery began producing all-malt beers and ales. This revitalized interest in beer led to the introduction in 1989 of Stegmaier 1857. As the craft brewing industry matured, the brewery even developed its own line of specialty beers which has evolved into the Pocono brand, which is now available in a variety case.
After being a family owned business for sixty years, Bill Smulowitz called it quits in 1993 and sold the company to publicly held Quincy Partners of Long Island, New York. Chuck Lawson, current president of the Lion, has been responsible for many of the more recent improvements, including a reconditioned pasteurizer and computer controls in the brew house. The Lion has won six GABF medals and in 1999-2000 was recognized as the Mid-Sized Brewery of the Year, and Leo Orlandini was awarded Brewmaster of the Year.
It will be exciting to see all the changes since our last convention hosted by the Lion brewery and to be part of their 100th Year Anniversary celebration. Be sure to visit them in person or on the web.