Pottsville Republican and Herald June 18, 2006

Tradition Spans 177 Years

By Shawn A. Hessinger (shessinger@republicanherald.com)

 

However, it will be four young women who decide how D.G. Yuengling & Son Inc., the brewery that carries their family name, will move into the future.

“We kind of all have ideas about how to run the business, but it’s not yet our business to run,” said Wendy Yuengling Baker, who returned to the company in 2004.

With her three siblings, Jennifer and Sheryl Yuengling and Deborah Yuengling Ferhat, Yuengling Baker represents the fifth generation in an unbroken line dating back to 1829.

That legacy has been both blessing and curse to at least two generations seeking to transform what started as the Eagle Brewery on Centre Street in Pottsville into a national institution with a nationally recognizable brand as famous as Hershey’s or Harley-Davidson.

For Yuengling Baker, who spent years in market research and advertising, the company’s traditionalism lacks the progressive dynamic of the corporate world from which she came.

“We kind of do things the way they have always been done,” she said.

The sentiment echoes feelings expressed by her father, current company President Richard L. Yuengling Jr., when discussing his departure from the family business over disagreements about expansion in 1973.

“This was an old, inefficient brewery that was just barely hanging on,” said Richard Yuengling of the company then run by his father, Richard L. Yuengling Sr., and, uncle F. Dohrman Yuengling.

Still, the adherence to tradition and the family legacy remain a sense of pride to the two most recent generations who carry on in the enterprise started by patriarch David G. Yuengling, holding the distinction as “America’s oldest brewery”.

“I think the more I’m here, the more I realize we have something special. That’s what keeps me coming back,” said Jennifer Yuengling, who, after graduate work in psychology, returned to head the company’s production and operations.

Richard Yuengling Jr. himself would eventually return in the 1980s to aid his ailing father during his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

When he bought the family business in 1985, he would make the expansions he wanted a re ality, eventually purchasing a new brewery in Tampa, building a new facility in Saint Clair and upping production capacity.

Since that time, the company has seen a dramatic rise in output, growing from a mere 130,000 or 140,000 barrels to an estimated 1.6 million barrels distributed annually in 10 states from New York to Florida.

In retrospect, Yuengling Baker suspects it may have been for the best that her father was unable to make the changes he wanted immediately, just as she believes the next generation’s youthful enthusiasm must sometimes be bridled.

While brewery historian Rich Wagner, Hatboro, believes the company’s mystique may have sustained it through the lean years, he says its adherence to tradition has served as a bridge between past and present.

“It’s America’s oldest brewery. They have an eagle on the logo. There are probably guys who have it tattooed on their backs,” said Wagner, who maintains a Web site at pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com.

Wagner, who since 1980 has visited many of the state’s most famous breweries and written books and articles on the subject, says Yuengling’s occupies a unique place as a symbol of Pennsylvania’s distinct ethnic and economic heritage.

Since the 1800s, while rivals like New York and Wisconsin may have equaled or exceeded the state’s overall beer production, Pennsylvania maintains the distinction of having the greatest number of regional breweries, Wagner said.

The distinction was the result of the state’s unique ethnic makeup of German and eastern European immigrants to whom beer was a staple beverage, and also to booming coal and steel industries producing a ready clientele for the product.

Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Wagner estimates the state hosted more than 300 regional breweries. In the late 1800s, he estimates the city of Philadelphia alone may have had close to 100.

Meanwhile, he said, communities continued to maintain a fierce parochial loyalty to their local brand with operations like Pittsburgh Brewing Co. consistently selling out the national brands in their local market.

In the 1960s, when major brewers had switched to increasingly lighter beers in an effort to maximize profits by creating a homogenous product free of local distinctions, Wagner said, Yuengling continued its line of darker porters and bitter ales.

Because of its position as the oldest brewery in America, Wagner believes Yuengling was able to survive long enough to become a bridge to a new generation of micro and craft breweries rebelling against corporate homogenization.

Today, he estimates, it may be one of the few family-owned regional breweries remaining in the state, with Straub Brewery in Elk County, and perhaps in the nation.

“Yuengling stands out and it’s an example of a family -wned brewery that defied the odds and bucked a trend,” said Wagner.

“It’s probably very unusual,” said Richard Yuengling, who agrees that his company may be one of the few family-owned companies of its kind in the nation.

Today, all four members of the next generation work in the company in their own unique capacity.

Jennifer Yuengling is in charge of operations and production supervising work schedules at the company’s various facilities, overseeing what products will be bottled and kegged and handling the ordering of packaging materials.

Sheryl Yuengling handles orders from wholesalers, inventory in the company’s warehouse department and sales and inventory reports for warehouse operations.

“I like the area where I am,” said Sheryl Yuengling. All three daughters remember working at the family business during the summer months while growing up, just as their father did from the age of 15.

Deborah Yuengling Ferhat oversees the operations of the Pottsville brewery’s museum and gift shop, which Richard Yuengling estimates sees between 70,000 and 80,000 visitors a year.

She also is taking an increasing role in the company’s financial operations, including the handling of payments for the heavily taxed product the brewery produces.

“More in the numbers and accounting end of it. That’s what I enjoy,” said Yuengling Ferhat.

Yuengling Baker, the last of the daughters to return to the company, currently works with the brewery’s Maryland and Washington, D.C., sales representative and lives in Baltimore.

She will become more involved in marketing as time goes on, her father said.

With an estimated 200 employees, Richard Yuengling says the company remains too small to give his daughters official titles.

That small business feel has given the brewery the instinct to survive and defy a trend that has seen other local breweries swallowed by corporate giants, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or disappearing all together, Wagner said.

It was a feel never lost on members of the latest generation of Yuenglings to take the reigns of their family’s famous enterprise.

“In fact, it wasn’t much different than a lot of other small businesses in town,” said Yuengling Baker, who, like her sisters, grew up in ignorance of the icon her family company was to become, and she is today often astounded by its status.

“It still blows me away that people in California know about this little town in Pennsylvania because of the brewery,” she said.

During the early ’80s, Wagner said, perhaps five or six bars in Philadelphia served Pottsville’s hometown brand that occupied a middle ground between more exotic imports and more common national brands.

In the interim, the company’s product has virtually inundated the city, replacing disappearing local brands like Schmidt’s and being adopted as the city’s hometown beer.

Richard Yuengling said the expansion of Philadelphia and other markets caused the brewery to abandon more far-flung customers in New England, but Wagner says the move is indicative of the company’s inherent local focus, refusing to give up its local base of support.

The instinct, he says, is historic dating back to the tradition of regional breweries that seldom sold beer further in distance than a day’s travel by wagon.

At the same time, the company’s sales continue to grow, and Richard Yuengling contends the family brand today rivals such recognizable names as Hershey’s with increasing demand outside its existing market while Wagner compares its status to Harley-Davidson.

“The real story with Yuengling is that they’ve done something very unusual,” Wagner said.

Yuengling, he said, has made its community spirit part of the product itself and made all its customers feel that same sense of community.

“There is this sense of local pride. This sense of we do still make something in America,” he said.



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