D.G. YUENGLING & Son made it through the Civil War, Prohibition and untold skirmishes with the giants from St. Louis and Milwaukee. But those were nothing like the challenge it faces in the age of endless choice.
These days, the shelves are filled with everything from Lime-A-Rita to triple IPA. Samuel Adams has a TV commercial boasting that it makes more than 60 styles.
Yuengling, meanwhile, is still plugging away with a portfolio of just seven full-time brands and three seasonals.
“We hear it a lot: the newer, the better, the funkier, the more local, whatever,” said Jennifer Yuengling, the family-owned brewery’s plant manager and one of the next-generation of daughters who will someday run America’s oldest beer maker.
So, with more than 8,000 different brands on the shelves and tap handles in Philadelphia alone, how does Yuengling grab the beer-drinker’s attention?
This year, it answered that question in simple, yet surprising fashion: Yuengling Summer Wheat.
The new brand is Joe Sixpack’s 2014 Beer of the Year.
It deserves recognition on two fronts:
First, as is always the case in evaluating beer, this one tastes great. I don’t mean “tastes great for Yuengling” or “tastes great for its price point. ” I mean Summer Wheat tastes like an authentic imported Bavarian hefeweizen, smooth and refreshing, with that classic banana-and-clove aroma you’d expect in a tall, cloudy glass from Germany.
Second, the beer – the first true ale in Yuengling’s modern history – shows that America’s most traditional brewery is still relevant in today’s changing sudscape.
“We don’t want to be recognized as a seasonal brewer,” Yuengling told me. “We’re very reliant on our sessionable beers: Lager, Light Lager, Black & Tan and so on.
“But we felt we needed to get our toe in the water, so in 2009 we came out with our Bock in the winter, and [in 2011] Oktoberfest for the fall. Then we had to fill the gap in the summer. “
She continued, “We had a general idea of where we wanted to go with it. You know, with the success of shandies and even radlers that we’ve been seeing, we knew we wanted something that was off-base from what you’d get from our existing portfolio. “
To produce the complex flavor profile of a classic wheat beer, though, the brewery would have to use something other than the standard Yuengling house yeast.
“We knew we were going out on a limb,” Yuengling said. “Any time you introduce a new yeast to the brewhouse, you have to be concerned with cross-contamination. . . . We had a lot of confidence in our brewers. We did a lot of research and preplanning to decide which tanks we’d use, which lines we’d isolate. It entailed a lot of additional work, with the cleaning and the processing. “
Not to mention the usual difficulty of brewing with wheat, which tends to clog the runoff of extracted wort in the lauter tun.
But brewing the beer was just the start.
For a company of Yuengling’s size, the introduction of a new brand is not so casual as a spur-of-the-moment brewpub one-off. It involves a range of logistics, from packaging to distribution to sales – details that were complicated by the brewery’s decision to limit production of Summer Wheat to just one of its three plants.
“We weren’t sure what the volume numbers would be, and we didn’t want to expose more than one brewery to the new yeast, so we had to play it safe,” said Yuengling.
Playing it safe is a core value of Yuengling, one that clearly has served it well over a 25-year period in which it built a second brewery in Pottsville, purchased another in Florida and expanded production 20-fold through steady, disciplined growth in just 15 states.
But that conservative approach can seem out of step in the modern craft-beer era of quickly changing tastes.
For example, the Brewers Association, the industry group that represents small American breweries, wouldn’t even define Yuengling as a true “craft” brewery because it uses corn in its recipes (though not in Summer Wheat). Never mind that Yuengling has brewed with corn since its founding in 1829; the association viewed the grain as an impure, “nontraditional” adjunct ingredient that cheapened beer.
The association finally got around to changing its definition last February, so Yuengling is now part of the craft club.
As usual, the lesson here is that Yuengling didn’t change.
Nor does Summer Wheat represent some great shift at 501 Mahantongo St., in Pottsville.
“I can pretty much guarantee we’re not going to go crazy with too many seasonals. . . . We don’t want to be known as the beer of the week. That’s not who we are,” said Yuengling. “We just need to be patient and realize that consumers are going to come back to what tastes good.
“For us, it’s just a matter of being true to ourselves.