True story: Yuengling Lager was the first beer I ever chased.
I was young and Yuengling’s amber lager was something worth chasing. Sure, Upstate New York had its own blue collar beers. The names Utica Club and Genesee were imprinted on the exterior of aluminum cans hoisted by the men of my youth. Their strong hands made things like air conditioning parts and automobile transmissions, and assembled cars. And, when it was time for beer, they popped cans of beer made at the plants in the nearby cities of Utica and Rochester.
By the late 1990s, those bygone brands had seen better days (not unlike those manufacturing jobs), relegated to the cheap beer heap. And here I was, a college-educated graduate of a journalism school who would never fashion anything by hand outside of a school shop class, chasing Pennsylvania’s workman beer like it was a whale.
The beer with the funny sounding name was an obsession I could blame on my friend Phil, who introduced me to the beer during a visit to his Lehigh Valley home. Soon thereafter, cases of the green beer-filled bottles would make their way to my Syracuse house; either by way of Phil’s car when he visited, or during return trips from our visits to his house.
The Lager, as it is simply known in Central and Eastern Pennsylvania, finally entered New York in 2000, earning tap and shelf space next to the big boys like Budweiser, Bud Light, and Labatt Blue.
My love affair with Yuengling, like so many beers before and after it (see also Guinness, New Belgium Fat Tire, Shiner Bock, and everything by 21st Amendment), would end. Not because the beer changed, but because I did. The next big thing came along to distract me, or something shiny was sitting on the shelf during my out of state bottle shop visit. Obsessions shift and tastes change, a hard lesson taught to me by every girl I associated with in high school.
With a stroke of the pen, it became a craft brewer.”
The early 21st century pursuit of America’s oldest brewery was a product of the craft beer sensibility. Think about it: Yuengling’s lager is produced by a family-owned company that used a recipe stretching back decades. Does it get more craft beer than that?
Well, like so many other things these days, this is a subject of debate.
The Brewers Association, an industry group that makes lists, throws nice parties, and advocates for its associated brewereries, changed the definition of “craft brewer” in 2014, burying the new definition at the bottom of a press release.
The changes did not remain elusive. The biggest shift in policy was to begin counting brewers that used adjuncts in its recipes as craft brewers. It was rationalized as a means of no longer punishing brewers that utilized the resources available to them; in Yuengling’s case, corn is added to lighten the body. With a stroke of the pen, Yuengling became a craft brewer, meeting the criteria of producing fewer than 6 million barrels while less than 25% of the business was owned by a non-craft beer brewer.
In 2013, before the changes went into effect, D.G. Yuengling & Son Inc. of Pottsville, Pa. was merely the fourth-largest brewer in the land (by sales volume), behind Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and Pabst. With the new definition in place in 2014, it remained fourth overall but took the top slot among all craft brewers. It held steady in 2015 and 2016, the most recent rankings available. Yuengling’s place amongst craft producers is panned and rightfully so. After all, there does not seem to be much craft involved with this beer.
The sweet caramel malts in Yuengling’s Lager overpower the hops.”
The two most rated American Amber/Red Lagers on BeerAdvocate are the Yuengling Lager and the Brooklyn Lager. Though the Bros give both nearly identical grades (80 for Brooklyn, 79 for Yuengling), the flavors are truly distinct. The Bros, Jason and Todd Alström, reviewed the beer back in 2009, noting that it was better than most mass-produced lagers. I would implore them to revisit this beer as it’s not nearly as gentle and easy drinking as it once was.
Brooklyn Lager has a caramel sweetness with a floral hop bitterness at the finish. The sweet caramel malts in Yuengling’s Lager overpower the hops. You start with a beer indistinguishable from every other mass-produced beer on the market and, by the end, you find yourself with a bready, sweet finishing beer. The amber beer pours with a thin head and the aroma reflects the taste.
My primary complaint about the Lager is how filling it is. It’s a heavy weight beer for a lager, leaving you weighed down after the two or three. The situation is better on draft, but bloat is a side effect when drinking their bottled or canned product.
Yuengling's Traditional Lager is no longer my go-to lager or even a beer I would order when out at a bar or restaurant. But, it remains an important name in my journey as a beer drinker.