Tours are on tap at Yuengling Brewery

Visitors to Pa. plant see underground caves, bottling shop

Short Hop

June 05, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | By Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff

The tour offered by America's oldest brewery includes a guaranteed crowd pleaser: free beer.

The hourlong tour of the D.G. Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pa., ends with two free cold ones served in the rathskeller, a small subterranean bar built for employees in 1936 that's reserved now for tourists.

Such generosity may be why 60,000 people each year visit this five-story mountain of brick that looms over a hilly town so reminiscent of America's Industrial Age.

But to fully understand the attraction may require a brief bit of history.

Yuengling was founded in 1829 by David G. Yuengling, a 21-year-old German immigrant. (By comparison, Eberhard Anheuser acquired the St. Louis brewery that would go on to produce Budweiser in 1852.)

The first Yuengling brewery, near the site of Pottsville's present day city hall, burned down in 1831, and a new plant was built at the present site because of its proximity to a spring once used to make the brew.

The hilly landscape of Potts-ville, about 100 miles northeast of Harrisburg, also offered rock formations that allowed for construction of underground caves, where in the days before refrigeration beer could be kept cold.

The operation was originally called the Eagle Brewery. And the Yuengling label still bears the trademark chosen by the company founder -- a ferocious-looking eagle jealously guarding a barrel of beer in its talon.

The Yuenglings survived Prohibition by opening a dairy that sold ice cream across the street from the brewery and by brewing "near beers" -- nonalcoholic beer. Yuengling shipped beer to the White House the day that Prohibition ended in 1933.

The brewery is at the top of a hill near the boyhood home of the late novelist John O'Hara. A plaque marks the site of his house (now privately owned), and there is also an O'Hara statue in town.

You enter the brewery through a paneled walnut door, then walk over flagstone steps worn smooth over the past 175 years. Once up the steps and through a cavernous foyer, you see the first signs of modern life: a museum and gift shop selling Yuengling T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters and decals.

The tour begins near the museum with a display and explanation of the beer's key ingredients: corn, three types of malted barley and hop pellets.

Visitors go from there up a flight of steps to the brewhouse, where there is a striking stained-glass ceiling, murals depicting 19th-century workers and four large vats used to heat and brew the 600,000 barrels of beer produced annually at the plant each year. Each barrel holds 31 gallons of beer.

From there, it's down more steps, through the machine shop, outside and up a hill to the bottling shop. A warning is issued here: Don't drink the foamy stuff dripping out around some of the bottles.

The warning is necessary, tour guides say, because some people might want their free beer before the end of the tour. But that foamy stuff isn't beer -- it's soap.

The beer is bottled amid a constant din from the clanking of glass as bottles bump into each other zipping along an assembly line, where they will be washed and injected with beer at the rate of 450 bottles per minute.

From there, it is on to the underground caves, dug 50 feet into the earth to keep the beer cool while it is stored. This is literally the coolest part of the trip: The temperature here hovers at 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

The tour ends in the rath-skeller, where a finely carved version of the Yuengling eagle is perched near one end of the bar. Here, visitors are given a choice of Yuengling's seven brews. The lager is the biggest seller, accounting for 80 percent of the company's sales. Other brews include a porter, a lighter beer called Premium and a pale ale called Chesterfield Ale. Underage visitors get a nonalcoholic beverage.

The brewery has remained in the Yuengling family, now in its fifth and sixth generations, since it opened. The current owner is Dick Yuengling, and the future owners are likely to be any or all of his four daughters, who all work at the brewery.

People used to hear the name Yuengling and think it was a Chinese beer, the tour guides will tell you. Not anymore. The beer has developed something of a cachet among urban drinkers.

After he took over the brewery from his father in 1985, Dick Yuengling expanded to Philadelphia and began winning over customers, perhaps attracted by the claim that Yuengling is America's oldest brewery in continuous operation. In the past 10 years, the company has increased annual sales by 25 percent, it says, and its beer is sold along the East Coast.

Increased demand prompted the Yuenglings to buy an old Stroh's brewery in Tampa, Fla., in 1999. They opened another brewery on the outskirts of Pottsville five years ago. Together, the three plants produce more than 1.4 million barrels of beer a year.

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