How Yuengling beer survived 182 years to become America's oldest brewery, now on sale in Ohio

After 182 years, the people of northeast Ohio can now get their hands on Yuengling beer. To get to this point, though, the family-owned Pennsylvania Brewery had to survive the Civil War, World Wars I & II and -- if that wasn't enough -- Prohibition.

"You know my grandfather made a comment," recalled Yuengling Owner and President Dick Yuengling, "that when they passed Prohibition it was going to be 15 years."

He was close, it was a month shy of 14 years.

It was a period that claimed many of the nation's breweries. Yuengling survived by building a dairy across the street from the brewery that -- though scaled back -- continued to operate.

"If you take a manufacturing facility such as a brewery and close it down for 10 years or 15 years, you'll never get it going again," said Yuengling.

They did what they were allowed to do during Prohibition and began making "near beer" or beer that had less than half-of-one percent alcohol, similar to today's O'Douls.

What many people don't realize though is Yuengling was also allowed to continue to make a certain amount of regular beer.

"It was sold through pharmacies and you had to have a doctor's prescription to get a case of beer or porter," said Yuengling.

To celebrate the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 and the end of Prohibition, Yuengling sent a truckload of beer to President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House.

Prohibition, though, was in some ways easier to weather than what they would face less than a decade later.

"The biggest challenge was probably during World War II when you couldn't get gasoline to deliver beer, you couldn't get ingredients. I mean everything went to the war effort and you had an allotment and that was all you were allowed to make," recalled Yuengling.

The war rationing also affected what they could do with the beer after it was brewed.

"You couldn't get cans to sell canned beer, you survived almost entirely on returnable bottles," said Yuengling.

They themselves were in short supply.

"If you didn't send them back to us from the distributor, you didn't have any bottles to fill for that guy. So they all made sure you got your bottles back or they didn't get any beer to sell," he said.

Dick Yuengling's grandfather Frank Yuengling ran the brewery for 64 years until his death in 1963, at which time his son and Dick's father Richard L. Yuengling took the helm and 22 years later was in a position to turn the business over to his son. But the future for the family brewery was not looking bright.

"Dick took it over at a very tough time," said Yuengling Chief Operating Officer David Casinelli.

"The company was struggling, small regional breweries were on the downside they were going out of business and I think there was this severe threat that Yuengling was going to join them and be another one of those family-owned regional breweries that was not able to survive," he said. "Dick vowed he was not going to be the last Yuengling to own this place."

Dick Yuengling, who is the great great grandson of the company founder D.G. Yuengling, started in the brewery in 1958.

"I saw the rough days of the business," he recalled. "I've also seen many regional brands come and go, Pride of Cleveland is one." Carling and Schmidt's were two others he said here in Cleveland.

So he first looked at what they were producing.

"My dad had a lot of low-priced beers that he was selling," recalled Yuengling.

He knew his future was not going to be a success selling $4 cases of beer. At the same time, the craft beer segment of the industry started to grow as brands like Samuel Adams and others started to spring up.

"I felt if we could have a brand, similar to craft beers like an amber colored beer which is today's lager, we could join in on that but I didn't want to charge $30 a case for our beer.

"I thought if we could do it at domestic premium pricing we'd get more volume out of it and give the brewery the opportunity to run 100 percent to capacity," he said.

It was the turning point.

"It took a foothold and has been growing ever since we haven't had a down year with the Lager brand since we introduced it," he said.

Yuengling is the second largest brewer in the United States just slightly behind Sam Adams, which is available in all 50 states, while Yuengling can only be found now in 14, including Ohio.

Before the company expanded in the mid 1990s, though, building a second plant in Pottsville and acquiring another in Tampa, Florida, Dick Yuengling had a conversation with his four daughters, making sure there was going to be a sixth generation of Yuengling's to run the place.

"I said I'm not going to commit the money to a new brewery, it's a lot of money, a lot of expense and at my age I'm not going to do it unless I know I have somebody to continue this thing on," he said.

"At the time we didn't realize what a monumental discussion it was," said daughter Wendy Yuengling Baker. "We were all still in college and high school and he talked about the need to grow the business and

invest in the company and he wanted to know what our commitment was to doing that."

They expressed their interest and today nearly 20 years later they are a part of the operations preparing for the day they take over the business, which is what Dick Yuengling said he wanted more than anything.

"Our goal more so than how well can you do today is survival and continue this on through the family for generations to come," he said.

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