On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Jennifer and Wendy Yuengling, sixth-generation sisters of the famous Yuengling family. Jennifer is vice president of operations, while Wendy is chief administrative officer for America’s oldest brewery, Yuengling. Listeners will learn about the extensive history of the Yuengling family and how the Pennsylvania-based brewery has survived for over 100 years.
Jennifer and Wendy then showcase Yuengling’s lineup of beers that includes Flight, Hershey’s Chocolate Porter, Raging Eagle Mango, and many more. In addition, the sisters detail the innovations happening at the brewery. While Pennsylvania is their home market, Yuengling has embarked on joint ventures to expand its audience across the country. Finally, the sisters reveal some of the brewery’s latest ventures, specifically the Stars & Stripes program, Yuengling’s tribute to military veterans.
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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe. and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with vice president of operations Jennifer Yuengling and chief administrative officer Wendy Yuengling, who are sixth-generation leaders of D.G. Yuengling & Son, one of America’s most iconic breweries. How are the two of you doing today?
Jennifer & Wendy Yuengling: Doing well, thank you.
Z: Wonderful. Let’s start with just some backstory. Some of our listeners who are on the East Coast will be intimately familiar with Yuengling. Others may have heard of it but never tried it out west. Can you give just a little bit of a history of the brewery and the story from beginning to the modern day?
J: I can start on that and lay the foundation. We are America’s oldest brewery. We were founded in 1829 by our great- great-great-grandfather who immigrated to this country from Wartenberg, Germany. He landed on the East Coast and made his way into central Pennsylvania, where we’re based today in Pottsville, Pa. There was lots of anthracite coal mining during those days. There were lots of thirsty miners out there, for sure. He established his brewery in Pottsville and actually came from a brewing family over in Germany. We have since learned in recent years that he was one of the youngest of many children and his father was also a brewer. He really didn’t have much of a chance at running the family brewery in Germany. So he came to this country and six generations later, 192 years later, here we are today.
W: As Jennifer mentioned, we were founded in 1829. We have been operating out of central Pennsylvania for 192 years. We’re very excited and proud that we’re still in our fifth and sixth generation, which is pretty remarkable for any business. To be recognized as America’s oldest brewery is pretty astounding and something we take very seriously. Jennifer and I are two of the four daughters in the sixth generation and we work side-by-side in the business with our dad. It’s pretty significant in that it’s the first time our family business will transition from father to daughters, because historically it has been passed from father to son. That’s exciting for us to be able to be a part of it. We’ve grown from one small brewery in the town of Pottsville, Pa. We now have another brewery in Pennsylvania right across town, and we have a third facility in Tampa, Fla. We primarily distribute along the East Coast. We’re in 22 states now. Unfortunately, we’re not on the West Coast yet. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to try our beers, but hopefully someday.
Z: Oh, yeah, I definitely have. I lived in New York for a while and spent some time in Pennsylvania, so it’s hard to avoid when you’re in that part of the country for sure. I have to ask a question about this history, too. Obviously, the history of the brewery spans American Prohibition. What did the brewery do during that period of time?
J: That was the third generation of our family who was controlling the brewery at that time, our great-grandfather, Frank Yuengling. We certainly got through a long history of perseverance, which includes surviving Prohibition. Frank was able to diversify. I think he was one as part of the six generations that have owned the brewery who had an idea of how to be entrepreneurial. We weren’t able to make beer during that time, but he was able to make “near beer,” which was one-half to 1 percent alcohol. He was able to keep our employees employed. Then, he also diversified and built a dairy across the street from our historic brewery, which still stands today. He made ice cream and milk products, so in many ways he was able to diversify and keep the company going, and yet still remain in the beer industry.
Z: Absolutely. You mentioned that you’re both part of the sixth generation. Has there ever been a point or points in history where it wasn’t going to be a family business anymore? That’s always challenging. You also mentioned that for any business and certainly in beverage alcohol, there are a lot of pressures and many — whether they’re breweries, wineries, etc. — have found themselves, for whatever set of reasons, no longer family businesses. Has that ever come close to being the case for Yuengling?
W: I think building off what Jen said, we were able to survive Prohibition in the 1920s. Coming off of that, I think breweries started to really rebound and do well. However, I would say our leanest years were probably in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s when our grandfather and his brother were running the company. We know that they were close to closing their doors at that time. Fortunately for us, they never gave up and they just hung in there. I think that’s a testament to the perseverance of our family in our company. Those were probably the leanest times where it was really a survival, until the mid-’80s when our dad bought the business from his father and really turned the brands around and reinvented the brand Yuengling and developed lager.
Z: As you mentioned, in the 22 states that you’re currently available in, most of our listeners may be very familiar, but some of them will not be. Obviously, the Amber Lager is the flagship product at this point. Can you talk a little bit about how it came to be and where it still sits in the line of beers that you make?
J: Yeah, I can talk to that. It was shortly after our dad purchased the brewery from his father in 1985, and two years later was the beginning of the whole craft beer revolution when Jim Koch and Boston Beer were starting to come on the scene. Consumers at that time were looking for a beer that had more character, a better flavor profile, and was differentiated from the mainstream industrial-produced beers. Our dad was an entrepreneur as well and took a big risk in coming out with our lager brand. Our traditional Amber Lager beer has become our flagship today. He made the packaging a bit more upscale, introducing it in a green bottle that gave the brand more of an upscale image, maybe an imported-style image. It has that amber color to it and has a sweeter flavor profile than most mainstream beers. Then, we just caught fire. It started out in State College, Pa., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and then it got to the point where we were only operating out of what we refer to as our historic brewery from the 1800s. The demand just completely outstripped the capacity that we had. By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, my dad was at a crossroads. We knew we needed more capacity, and we had various consumers and wholesalers who were becoming frustrated because they couldn’t obtain our product. That’s when he undertook a pretty major expansion.
Z: Is that when the brewery facility in Florida also debuted, or was that later?
J: The first thing he did was make the decision to build a second brewery in Pottsville. You can’t build a brewery overnight. It was going to be at least two years until we got a shovel in the ground and then a beer coming off of the packaging lines. To cover that gap there in two years, he was made aware of the last Stroh Brewery in Tampa, Fla. He went down there and met with the owner, Bill Henry, and struck a deal. We were able to start producing our brands in Tampa, Fla., then shipping them up into our mid-Atlantic market to our wholesalers, who were being rationed out of our Pottsville brewery. That covered the gap until we were able to get what we refer to as our new Mill Creek Brewery online.
W: Just building on what Jen said, the lager is our flagship brand. It’s over 75 percent of our business. Since the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, we’ve built out our core brand portfolio. People that know Yuengling certainly know it for lager. Then we’ve also got this portfolio of core brands that includes Light Lager. It includes our Black and Tan. Now, a more recent introduction, our Golden Pilsner. Over the last several years, we’ve been able to expand our portfolio and reach new drinkers. We’ve introduced things like Flight, which is an upscale light beer that’s low-calorie and low-carb. We’ve done some really fun things to appeal to new drinkers with a collaboration for Hershey’s Chocolate Porter. Most recently this year, we introduced a new fruit-flavored beer called Raging Eagle Mango. We’ve really built our portfolio out over the years, but it all started with lager, and that is by far the brand that turns the lights on here.
Z: I actually wanted to touch on some of those newer beers that you mentioned. I want to start with Flight, because I think it’s an area that we’ve talked about a lot on the podcast is this nexus of low-cal, low-carb beer and other beverage alcohol products. I’m wondering if you could either or both of you speak to what the impetus behind creating that was. Do you find that the beer’s audience is people who are also Amber Lager drinkers, or is it a different segment of the drinking population entirely?
J: I can start and just talk about the genesis of Flight. I think most importantly, we were looking at our consumers to see where they were trending and what they were looking for in their beer. We noticed that the consumers are becoming increasingly focused on the stats. By the stats, I am referring to the carbs and the calories. We saw this opportunity in the upscale refreshment category to deliver what consumers want. They have active lifestyles, and we were able to produce a brand that has a lower-carb, lower-calorie while also delivering on an even better taste level.
W: I was just going to say it was a neat project for us to be a part of as the next generation and as female drinkers looking for something different out of our products. As Jen said, I personally like to drink something that’s lower-calorie, low-carb. We were able to hit those stats with 95 calories, and 2.6 grams of carbs. It’s just a really refreshing, better-tasting light beer to deliver a better experience. We dubbed it “the next generation of light beer,” which is a cool play on our family legacy and our impact on the development of the brand.
Z: Absolutely. On the other end of the spectrum with the Hershey’s Chocolate Porter, that makes natural sense as a collaboration with another iconic central Pennsylvania producer. I’m actually surprised this didn’t happen before. Is it because the era of collaborations is relatively new in beer, because what took so long?
J: Yes, it’s interesting you say that because I think if you look at both of our two companies, Yuengling and Hershey, we have over 300 years of experience between the two of us, and we’re only 45 miles apart. It was a great first year when we rolled out in draft-only in what we call our 13 northern states. It was so successful and we had consumers clamoring for more. In 2020, we also came out with bottles, both 6-pack and 12-pack, as well as draft beer. We found that it’s been a great collaboration and they’ve been a great partner. We’re always looking to raise the bar and offer consumers something different in a seasonal-type product that they’re looking for.
Z: Then, with the Raging Eagle, here you’re talking about a fruit beer. Similar to Flight, was the idea to offer a drink to a consumer that likes lager where that’s not their preferred style of beer most of the time? How did that come to be and your initial foray into this category?
W: I would say we’ve been seeing it with consumer trends over the years, and it’s interesting. We get so many people that come visit us at the brewery so they get to experience America’s oldest brewery, tour the caves. When people come and visit us, we spend a lot of time talking with consumers, understanding what they like about our brands, and where consumer trends are going. We get a lot of great feedback. That’s what tailored our decision to make the Flight and then do some of these more innovative products like Hershey’s Chocolate Porter and Raging Eagle. A lot is based on what we hear from our fans because we’ve got very, very loyal consumers that have been following our brands all these years. We’re very appreciative of that.
J: We saw consumers today craving fun and flavorful styles. Just to give you a little bit of background on the beer itself, our Raging Eagle is a pilsner beer that’s brewed with our classic and cluster hops. We also use natural mango flavor to give you that whole taste. It comes in at 6 percent ABV. We do have it available across our 22-state footprint in both 12-ounce and 24-ounce cans. Folks can always go on our website, www.yuengling.com, and visit the link, find our beer, and find it at places close to them.
Z: Awesome. And when it comes to innovation, I certainly don’t know about a sixth-generation running a family business. I don’t have any idea what that legacy is like, but is it at all challenging or do some of the die-hards take issue with the decision to branch out? Or do they recognize that beer is an evolving industry, and to make it to a seventh, eighth, ninth generation, the brewery itself has to not totally change, obviously, but has to remain nimble and stay relevant in a variety of ways. Is there any pushback against innovation?
W: It’s interesting. We are a company that is very steeped in tradition, as I’m sure any hundred-year-old business would be. I think there’s definitely an appreciation from everyone within the organization and in the employee family that we are built on making traditional beers. But we also recognize, in order to stay relevant and survive for another hundred years, you have to be able to adapt and innovate. For us, I think the key is finding the right balance of what is our core competencies as a brewer, and then also what is new and exciting to keep us relevant to consumers for generations to come.
Z: On this topic of staying relevant to consumers and what’s to come, you mentioned at the outset that currently, you’re in 22 states. Are there plans to expand? Obviously, expanding distribution and expanding distribution and production is challenging. It’s a big country. At the same time, I’m sure you have fans in the western half of the United States, people who are from the East Coast and moved west, how do you look at that possible expansion, and is that something that’s in the works?
J: It’s funny. We talk about our Yuengling smugglers all the time. Folks who have visited any one of our breweries or one of the 22 states that we’re currently in, and they’re loading the back of their car with cases of beer and taking it to the states that don’t have our products available. What we’ve done is, last September, we announced a joint venture with Molson Coors Beverage Company to take our brands to these clamoring fans further west. It’s an extension of our existing brewery. We have these three iconic families, the Molson family, the Coors family, and, of course, our six generations of Yuengling family, where we’re able to partner with them. Later this year, we’ll be able to announce the launch of brands in the state of Texas.
Z: Eventually, presumably, other states as well? Or is that still under wraps?
J: We’ve always been slow and methodical in our growth and our business-model approach. I think for us, we’re going to start off with Texas, start off slow. We still have three New England states within our Yuengling territory footprint that we anticipate opening at some point, too. I think the start of it is going to be the state of Texas later this year.
W: I think Jennifer always says it really well. It took us 190 years to get into 22 states. We’re not in any rush to be a national company. As she mentioned, this partnership gives us a great opportunity to be able to expand and tap into their world-class brewing capabilities, and to continue to drive the strategy and the discipline behind our brands.
Z: You also mentioned that you’re in a lot of states, but I’d imagine that Pennsylvania is your most important state. It’s where the majority of the brewing happens. What is your relationship like with the communities in Pennsylvania — especially over the last year, when visiting the brewery may have been more challenging? How have you stayed connected to the fans, not just in Pennsylvania, but all over?
J: I can start with a high-level perspective on that. Certainly, Pennsylvania is our home state, our home market, home to two of our breweries, and it’s where we’ve got our start. We have our highest share market there. Certainly, this past year has been challenging for everybody, the beer industry included. We’ve done a lot with HARP in Pennsylvania, which is a Hospitality Assistance Response Program. Also, with Cheers PA because we partnered with Aaron Nola, who was a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, and we’ve done a lot with him to help raise funds and donations for the waitstaff and bar employees who have been so heavily impacted this past year because of Covid and the on-premise and bar-restaurant shutdown.
W: And we did something very similar in Florida. We consider Tampa to be our second home just because it’s one of our largest production facilities. Now that we’ve been down there for so long and we’re doing a tremendous amount of investment in the Tampa market, we are building out our campus down there to create more of a brewery destination with a restaurant, a pilot system, and a yard for entertainment and activities. People will be able to come to visit us in Florida and experience America’s oldest brewery. We’ve invested a lot in that market over the last several years just to make it our second home. When Covid hit last year, we put a lot of resources into the state of Pennsylvania. Similarly, we did a program for the Florida Restaurant Association to try and support some of the bartenders and waitstaff and the people that are part of our industry that have been struggling through everything.
Z: Gotcha. One last question for the two of you. We talked a little bit about some of the newer products that you’ve brought to market. Is there anything else that we should be on the lookout for going forward? Whether it’s new beer styles or a continuing evolving approach? Is there anything that we can keep an eye on?
J: Yes, we talked about our innovations in the Flight by Yuengling, Raging Eagle, and our collaboration with Hershey’s Chocolate Porter. What we have going for the summer is we have our lager flagship brand available in 12- ounce and 24-ounce camouflage cans. This week we’re starting our Stars & Stripes program, which is a partnership with Team Red, White, and Blue, a military veteran organization. We have these new cans — they’re emblazoned with a very unique desert camouflage print and the RWB logo. It’s part of our continued effort to pay tribute to the men and women who have served our country.
Z: Well, thank you, Jennifer and Wendy so much. I have to also ask if there’s anything else that we might have missed, because there’s so much in such a historic brewery, in only a short amount of time. Is there anything else, whether it’s about the brewery or anything else, that people should know about?
W: We’ll be posting updates all summer to build on what Jennifer said about our Stars & Stripes program. There will be a lot of activation coming this summer and a lot of things to continue to promote our brand. It’s nice to see things opening up again, and people can get out there and enjoy a cold beer again.
Z: I have yet to have my first draft beer. It’s been over a year now, and I’m very much looking forward to the day. It’ll be a very, very happy day. There is nothing quite like a draft beer.
W: There’s something about a fresh draft beer. I agree with you.
Z: Well, Jennifer and Wendy, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure to hear about America’s oldest brewery and a tremendous institution, not just in Pennsylvania, but on the East Coast. I look forward to seeing what you all are up to as you near almost 200 years. It’ll be a big celebration, I imagine.
W: Very soon.
J: We are planning something for sure.
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Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.