The Yuengling Brewery
Pottsville, Pennsylvania, USA
The road to Yuengling Brewery winds through some strange, backwards country: heaps of churches, porno shops, and prefab houses, set on the small, steep hills, all facing the road, so that each looks into another’s backyard. Down the road is the smoking turf of Centralia, where coal mines were accidentally set on fire fifty years ago and will burn for hundreds of years to come. A dreary sky broods behind dark clouds and throws an occasional spatter of rain at us. The macadam is gray. The journey is holy. Mecca. Jerusalem. Lhasa. Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
Pottsville itself is built on steep hills and the car is forced to crawl up through a narrow rowhouse street. The brewery looms above the abandoned coal-town like a brick troll, amber walls looking dark and old, and since this is America’s oldest brewery, the materials are no doubt the originals. Three friends and I walk around the complex, finding a dark blue sign with white lettering that proclaims this a national historic landmark. We locate the entrance that says tours and gift shop, but it leads into a gray, concrete room with piles of boards in the corner, causing confusion. Undaunted, our group of four thirsty travelers explores and heads through a doorway into another similar room, where the shiny bottom of a huge vat pokes through the ceiling. Up a dirty, narrow staircase and finally a few people milling around signal that the destination is near.
The gift shop is cheap and extensive, including a museum that wraps around the back, chronicling the rise of the brewery and the Yuengling family. Jared, an aspiring screenwriter, calls attention to an antique bunghole. My other friends wander around and decide what they’re going to buy before the tour starts: gray T-shirts, tall lager mugs and stout glasses, and posters with smoking dogs. Finally, our tickets are called and we find the tour packed on a Tuesday at 1:00. Thirty people cram through the gray concrete hallways in knots. The middle-aged, female tour guide asks who has been here before and several people answer affirmatively, obviously friendly local beer hounds after the free beer at the end of the tour.
In the double-level brewing chambers a mural sweeps across one wall and a stained glass window squares itself in the ceiling. These contrast with the grimy appearance of the floor, the railings, and the brewmaster. The huge stainless steel vats look spotless, however. Workers clean them at the end of every day. The crusty guide explains that the vats used to be copper and the glare was so bad from the ceiling window that the colored glass was installed. Someone makes a joke about this being a church and no one laughs.
The smell is a cross between baking bread and a kitchen floor after a keg party. “Smells like feesh,” notes Johann, an astrophysicist and lifelong friend. I can’t say I’ve had the same kind of relationship with beer. I hated it until my early twenties, balking at the bitter, hoppy tang. I mention this failure and my brother Andy calls me an idiot for sidelining beer in any way. Outside now, the group passes Dick Yuengling, the tie and khaki owner of this fine establishment, talking to some of the greasy truck drivers. Giant white tractor trailers with the brewery insignia creep into docking bays, cramped by the jumble of buildings and cracked alleys.
The bottle shop is obscured by steam pockets and huge, unfathomable machinery. We watch the beer fill the green bottles at amazing speed, labels being glued on for the consumers, sturdy cardboard boxes capturing the bottles for delivery. The place where the kegs are filled is inaccessible, unfortunately. The silver tubs make a home deep in the hillside, where over a century ago, Yuengling dug huge tunnels into the steep slope, caverns where the temperature never rises. Fragments of green glass make the floor of the shop a concrete maze. The sign states that safety glasses are mandatory, but the malty hops herders wear only overalls and dirty baseball caps.
Finally, we are led into a narrow, wood-paneled chamber that houses a bar with several taps. We sit down on an oak bench and check out the ancient photos and awards that line the walls. Everyone is given the choice to taste any of the Yuengling brews: lager, black and tan, premium, light, Lord Chesterfield ale, and the number one porter in the world. The beer tastes fresh and smooth like malted spring air. We all comment on the wonderful flavors and textures, praising the process we had so recently witnessed.
Jared asks if the brewery will expand in the future and we’re told that plans are already in the works. What about national distribution? Local demand is probably too great, says the guide. Everyone loves the taste. Amazing how something as strange and sad as alcohol can unite so many people. It is hard enough to agree on politics, philosophy, television programs. With the choices of beer, you’d think more arguments would break out, and of course they sometimes do. But here, in this coalmine corner of North America, in a two hundred mile radius from this spot, Yuengling is agreed upon. Perhaps if more people drank it in this fragmented world, they would not disagree on so much else.
My three friends and I leave and head back into our home province of Berks County, to the Wild Wing CafÃ© at the Reading Airport. We all joke and talk reverently about the experience, mentioning other friends we want to bring here, talking about buying sweet pitchers of lager at Wild Wings. We unite through beer. The buffalo wings at the cafÃ© are another matter, and soon we will disagree on the best flavors and spice intensities. But that doesn’t matter, because they have all you can eat.