Operating America’s Largest Brewery

How has America's oldest brewery managed to keep it in the family for almost 200 years?
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
February 08, 2012

America’s largest brewery isn’t what you think it is. Budweiser? MillerCoors? Nope and nope (both companies are foreign-owned). The largest brewery in this country can be found on Mill Creek Avenue in Pottsville, Pa., a 14,000-person town located about two hours northwest of Philadelphia. The name: D.G. Yuengling & Son, and last year the company produced a whopping 2.5 million barrels of beer.

D.G. Yuengling & Son isn’t just the largest; it’s also the oldest. The company was founded in 1829 by 21-year-old David G. Yuengling, who settled in Pottsville after immigrating from Germany. Since then, the company has not only stayed private, it’s also stayed in the family—being passed down son to son. Today, 68-year-old Dick Yuengling Jr. runs the operation after taking over for his father in 1985.

What is this brewery’s secret to success and how have they managed to keep it in the family over all these years? I sat down with Yuengling to find out.

Did you always know you wanted to own the brewery?
Not at all. I wanted to be a baseball player. I started working at the brewery during summers when I was 15 and really enjoyed it. But at that time (late 50s, early 60s), business was not good. My father told me to go to college and find something else—that there was no way the company would survive.

Did you end up going to college?
I did, but only for a year. I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to work in the brewery, so I did that but ended up leaving in 1973 to work on the distribution side of things. I did that for 11 years and learned a lot. At the same time, the craft beer segment was starting to grow and I saw an opportunity for us to really grow and thrive, so I bought the business from my dad in 1985. We were doing 137,000 barrels at the time. Four years later, I brought on David Casinelli, our first director of sales. He was the one that really grew the brand.

Other than hiring David, how have you managed to grow from 137,000 barrels to 2.5 million?
As we’ve grown, we’ve added to our original brewery in Pottsville. In 1999, we opened another facility in Tampa, Fla., which really helped. We were growing faster than we could produce, so that was a big boost. We also built another brewery here in Pottsville, to replace the original, which was a great help.

In addition to the physical brewery locations, we’ve gained a great reputation for being a regional brewer. Keeping things local has helped us grow and keep our costs low.

What challenges have you faced along the way?
One challenge has been dealing with the fear of over building and having too much capacity. One of our secrets of success has been having a manufacturing facility and running it to capacity. We are doing that now and just expanded to Ohio and are doing exceptionally well there. It proves that the consumer is looking for an alternative brand to Miller, Bud and Coors at the same price.

Another challenge has been just to get our breweries to run efficiently and transforming from a small brewery to a bigger one.

How do you keep your costs low?
We run very efficiently. We have 290 employees. Other companies our size might have around 600. That is where we win. We don’t have extra management people—no supervisors or assistants—that just isn’t our style.

Do you have sons that plan to take over the business?
No, I have four daughters. Two of them are involved in the business. One is in administration and the other is in order services. They plan to take it over some day.

Would you ever consider selling the business?
No.

When do you see yourself stepping out of the business?
I want to be in it forever. I really enjoy it and have been committed to it for a long time. It’s especially rewarding to pay people well here. To be able to provide a good place to work is gosh darn rewarding. It makes me proud to help support a community.

What advice can you give to other family-owned small businesses?
Make sure one person is the boss. You can’t have six bosses. If you do, you will have disagreements and those disagreements will lead to a closure in business. Always make sure there is a member of the family willing to take over.

Photo credit: Courtesy company

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed