The year is 1829. Andrew Jackson is president, Americans are rapidly expanding westward into the area bought in the Louisiana Purchase, and the Smithsonian Institution is founded. But in our opinion, the most important event in American history that year happened on Center Street in humble Pottsville, Pennsylvania: The Eagle Brewery (soon to be renamed as Yuengling Brewery) was founded by David G. Yuengling.
Just how has the iconic eagle-branded beer become America’s oldest and most venerable brewery, when so many others have fallen to the ravages of time and the dark specter of Prohibition? Well take a seat and pour yourself a pint, because the History of Yuengling may as well be a history of the United States itself.
The Early Years: 1829-1877
As the Oregon Trail began to ferry settlers from one side of the new land to another, Yuengling was hard at work establishing itself as America’s premier brewery. Their first beers, the Lord Chesterfield Ale and Porter, were brewed in 1829 and received widespread acclaim for their flavor and purity.
But the brewery’s initial success would face an immediate obstacle: In 1831, a fire destroyed the brewing plant that was producing Yuengling’s ale and porter. But the indefatigable David Yuengling simply would not give up, and built a new brewery on Mahantongo Street in Pottsville. This brewery still stands today as a testament to the company’s hard-won success.
Even amidst the tumultuous times of the 1830s to 1870s in America, with mounting debate on the issue of slavery culminating in the wild-eyed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Yuengling’s brewery was thriving. Seeing that his age was catching up with him, David Yuengling welcomed his son Frederick as a partner and officially changed the company’s name to D.G. Yuengling & Son. Just four short years later, David passed away, leaving the brewery to the next generation of his family.
Pre-Prohibition: 1877 to 1919
In the first decade of Frederick’s ownership of the brewery, his focus was on continuing to build the business and distribute his beers via horse-drawn wagon. It wasn’t until 1895 that a new innovation made a big splash: The addition of a bottling line to the brewery, making it possible to distribute Yuengling’s beers far and wide.
Unfortunately, Frederick would only get to see the barest glimpse of how his new bottling line would help grow the business. He died unexpectedly in 1899, at the age of 51. Without a clear picture of what would come next, Frederick’s only son Frank took control of the brewery.
Under Frank’s management, four satellite breweries in the surrounding area were consolidated into the original Pottsville location, further emphasizing its importance in production and distribution.
Government legislation would come knocking on Yuengling’s door soon after this consolidation. With the ratification of the 18th Amendment, America’s prohibition of alcohol sale and consumption was enacted in full force. Dozens of breweries across the fledgling country closed, but Yuengling was far from willing to give up that easily.
Instead of choosing to shutter their doors, Frank Yuengling placed his faith in the idea that Prohibition couldn’t last long—that the American people wouldn’t stand for it. The trick, then, became how to stay open long enough to resume brewing beer once Prohibition inevitably tanked.
The Prohibition Years: 1920 to 1933
To bridge this dark period in American drinking history, Frank turned the brewery’s production towards technically legal near-beer products including “Yuengling Special,” “Yuengling Por-Tor,” and “Yuengling Juvo.” He then marketed these special beverages as energy-replenishing tonics, and even went on to open a dairy across the street to sell milk and ice cream.
The 13 years between Prohibition’s ratification and its repeal were a struggle, to be sure. The brewery was even forced to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1929 while still only producing near-beer products.
But when Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, Yuengling was uniquely positioned for success as one of only a few surviving American breweries. Immediately after the repeal of Prohibition, Yuengling brewed a massive batch of its “Winner Beer” and shipped a truckload to President Roosevelt to celebrate returning to business.
Frank’s Golden Years: 1933 to 1963
In the 30 years after Prohibition, business was booming for Yuengling. Frank’s gamble had paid off, and the brewery was one of the most successful in the country thanks to holding out through the dry years.
Even with a decline in sales and consumption because of World War II, the overall tone of the company was upbeat. After a brief period of reduced production during the war, returning GI’s found themselves deeply in need of a beer or three—and Yuengling was there to provide.
1963 would see the end of Frank Yuengling’s momentous 64-year run as president of the company. After his death, his sons Richard L. and F. Dohrman would take over the company and lead it into the modern era.
Transition to the Modern Era: 1963 to 1985
From the late ‘50s through the ‘60s, the beer business experienced a serious slump. The introduction and development of new tastes and the popularity of hard liquor put Yuengling at risk of losing its continually operating status. If it weren’t for the hard work and tenacious efforts of the Yuengling brothers, the brewery might not have survived into the ‘70s.
But the American Bicentennial in 1976 turned those fortunes around, as the American public took a renewed interest in the history of the country. This was also the year that Yuengling was awarded the title of “America’s Oldest Brewery” on state and national registers. Capitalizing on this newfound exposure, the brewery increased production and looked towards its next transformation.
The Modern Era: 1985 to 2009
1985 would mark the year where Richard L. “Dick” Yuengling, Jr. bought the brewery from his ailing father. This would turn out to be a huge boon for the company, as Dick’s successful career as a beer distributor had exposed him to a wide range of techniques and production methods which could modernize the heritage brewery.
Taking an aggressive stance towards modernization, Dick Yuengling put almost all of the company’s profits into modernizing the brewery and its equipment. All of this was done with one goal in mind: Expanding the brewery’s offerings to produce a more inclusive range of styles to tempt any beer drinker.
Dick’s gamble paid off. With the 1987 introduction of their Amber Lager, the company had a new flagship beer—and an instant bestseller in the American Northeast. This was accompanied by the release of their Premium Light Beer and Black and Tan, further cementing the brewery’s renewed interest in producing truly remarkable beers.
The introduction of these new beers put Yuengling on the map once again, and by 1996 demand for their beers exceeded the brewery’s production capacities. In the following few years, new brewery and production facilities popped up in Mill Creek and Tampa, Florida. Now, Yuengling could provide beer for the entire Eastern seaboard, making it a household name in much of the United States.
The brand continued to grow, and followed the rise of craft microbrews by beginning to brew seasonal beers starting in 2009. This was also the year that the brewery would surpass two million barrels of beer produced per year, making them one of the largest craft breweries in the United States.
Firmly entrenched as an American favorite, Yuengling is now more popular than ever. Because of the tenacity and loyalty of its family of owners, the brewery has survived everything that history could throw at it—and still come out on top.
Today, you can try their Golden Pilsner (the first new beer for the brewery in 17 years) as well as their full range of classics. And while all of the brewery’s beers are immensely crushable, they’re also worth considering for the deeper theme they represent: The history of beer—and life—in America.