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Country's oldest brewery is a family affair

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2005

POTTSVILLE, Pa. -- Forget decorated Clydesdales or Rocky Mountain streams. America's oldest brewery is decidedly more working class.

Located in downtown Pottsville in Schuylkill County on steep Mahantongo Street on the side of Sharp Mountain, the D.G. Yuengling and Son Brewery sits next to a church and a few blocks from the offices of the local newspaper. Nearby are a house where author John O'Hara lived, fabulous mansions once owned by coal barons, even some scruffy row houses. Visitors to the landmark red brick building see the anthracite-rich hills of the city, where a pro football team called the Pottsville Maroons once played.

Dick Yuengling Jr. runs the place, the fifth generation of the family that has produced beer in Pottsville since 1829. His great-grandfather, David G. Yuengling, a German immigrant, founded the company as Eagle Brewery. Until a fire in 1831, the brewery stood on the site of what is now City Hall. The name was changed to D.G. Yuengling and Son Brewery when David's son Frederick became a partner in the company. The business survived Prohibition by producing ''near beer" and porter for ''medicinal purposes only." When Prohibition ended in 1933, the company celebrated by producing Winner Beer, and shipped a truckload to the White House. During that time the company opened a dairy across the street, which operated from 1920 to 1981, making ice cream and other dairy products. Dick bought the brewery from his father in 1985, following the family tradition of each generation purchasing the business from the previous one. Yuengling's four daughters have joined him in the business, which now includes two other plants: in Tampa and Port Carbon, outside Pottsville.

The seven Yuengling brews, from the Black and Tan to a Light Lager, are available in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. There is no New England distribution. The beer cannot be purchased at the brewery, either, but there is a gift shop for taking home Yuengling keepsakes from T-shirts to temporary tatoos.

Touring the brewery is like exploring an old high school basement with exposed pipes, cement floors, and worn steps. Visitors enter through a wooden door by a historic plaque and pass into a place rich in history, with old newspaper clippings and pictures of professional athletes and politicians on the wall. Maps show the global interest in the brewery, with pins stuck in Zaire, Sumatra, and New Caledonia, homes to people who have taken the tour.

The Rathskeller is the tour's gathering place. In the European-style pub with exposed beams, wooden benches, deep-colored wood, and a clock that chimes and interrupts the guides, employees once took their breaks to have a bite to eat -- and drink beer. Guide Debbie Altobelli talks here about combining the corn, barley, and hops into beer before she leads the group up the narrow stairwells to the brew house. Here, huge kettles are surrounded by stained glass and murals of keg makers and stern-faced bottle washers. The tour continues past the grain storage area and into bottling and canning, with its busy clank of 22-ounce bottles being washed, filled, capped, and packaged.

Altobelli warns visitors that the white foam coming off the conveyor belts is not beer, but soap. And before entering the dimly lighted bowels of the brewery, she jokes, ''There is no beer dripping from the walls. It's only water."

Into the cave go the 23 people who make up the tour, some from as far away as Oregon, others from Reading, a half-hour away. Water does drip from the walls, but the beer is not all that far away.

Cool -- a constant 42 degrees year-round -- and dark, the cave was once a storage area for kegs. Hand dug with shovels and axes beginning in 1831, the space -- 50 feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 150 yards long -- was 10 years in the making. It was opened to visitors last year when the brewery celebrated its 175th anniversary.

After inspecting the cave, it's back to the Rathskeller. Altobelli opens the pub window to show how close the church next door is. The brick is 6 inches away.

And unlike the water dripping from the cave walls and the white foam on the conveyor belts, actual beer flows from the taps of the Rathskeller -- into our plastic glasses for a taste of Yuengling.

Contact Marty Basch, a New Hampshire-based writer, at marty@martybasch.com.

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