About this Episode
Debbie Yuengling 0:00
Think because our name is on it, you’re the one responsible for it. You want to make sure that the liquid is great, the package is right, your consumers are happy.
Angela Giovine 0:12
Pop culture has become obsessed with entrepreneurship stories from Silicon Valley, and big startup. But the backbone of our economy is made of small local businesses. Every day, millions of small business owners deliver quality products and services, support the local economy, employ their neighbors and follow their passion. We think their stories are worth telling. I’m Angela Giovine, welcome to the extra ordinary small business podcast. Today on the show, how did this craft brewing company survive almost 200 years. This episode is brought to you by Click Funnels.
Angela Giovine 1:01
We’re doing something a bit different in today’s episode. It isn’t often that you get to speak with someone who can count six generations back of family who have walked the same halls as you, sat in the same offices and produced the same products. Yuengling, a 100% family-owned and operated craft brewery based in Pottsville, Pennsylvania is the sixth largest brewery and the largest craft brewery, in America. For those who aren’t steeped in beer terminology, let’s define craft brewery. This definition comes from the Brewers Association. A craft brewery is small, meaning it produces 6 million barrels of beer or less per year and independent, meaning it’s not owned by a larger conglomerate. So think about that for a moment. You have global conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev with an annual revenue of over 52 billion. Companies like Miller Coors, spirit conglomerates, like constellation brands, all publicly traded and Yuengling is number six in the US. That makes them small, but mighty. DG Yuengling and Son, is America’s oldest operating brewery in America. It was established in 1829 by David Yuengling, who emigrated from Germany. His father was a brewer in Germany, and as the youngest of his siblings, he was not destined to inherit the family business. So he set off for America and landed in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where there was a boom in coal mining. The perfect place to make a name serving thirsty beer drinkers. And that is how Yuengling was born. The original brewery which burned down in 1831 sits where today’s Town Hall stands. This is an unspoken testament of how Yuengling has really woven itself into the fabric of its community. In those early days, David Yuengling utilized his surroundings, great tasting, natural spring water and man-made caves for natural refrigeration, to create exceptional product. The brewery passed down from father to son, through five generations through good times and bad. Frank Yuengling, who took over the company in 1899 sat at the helm for the longest of his family, some 64 years. Frank was the owner that saw the company through prohibition, through grit and perseverance. Frank was a true entrepreneur. He diversified the business through real estate deals, and a product called near beer. He also built a dairy. After Frank came his sons, Richard L. and F. Dohrman Yuengling who were at the helm during the dawn of beer mega brands, and beer mass production. Local and regional brewing company started to disappear, either closing up or getting bought out. That was a challenging time for this company. And when Dick Yuengling, the current company leader, took over in 1985, he had many hurdles to overcome. During his early career, he had distanced himself a bit from the family brewery, opting instead to open and operate a nearby beer wholesaling business. But when the opportunity to lead Yuengling presented itself, he jumped in with both feet. Dick Yuengling is credited with many of the innovations and successes that have grown Yuengling into for many people, a household name. He increased production and has overseen a long period of growth. It’s under his leadership that Yuengling introduced their flagship brand, Yuengling Lager, which today accounts for 70 to 80% of their revenue, as well as another cult favorite that was known as the Black And Tan, along with Sam Cooke of the Boston Brewing Company, Dick Yuengling became a pioneer in what is known today as the Craft Brewery Movement, introducing the concepts of bolder flavors and colors to American beer drinkers. Today, Yuengling boasts many firsts in its history. It now operates in 22 states. It has added new brands to its table such as the golden Pilsner. And for the first time since its inception, the generation of Yuengling who will take over the family business from their father are not sons, but daughters. All four of Dick Yuenglings daughters, Jen, Debbie, Wendy and Sheryl joined the business as of 2014. With Jen joining first and operations, each daughter found a part of the business to satisfy their passions, Wendy in sales and marketing, Sheryl in order services, and Debbie with the employees. We had the honor to chat with Debbie Yuengling. Debbie shared with us her memories of the company from childhood, what drew her into the family business, what aspects of their business and culture have given them such staying power? And how family can work together to succeed, generation after generation?
Angela Giovine 6:25
What is your first memory of the family business?
Debbie Yuengling 6:29
Well, my dad’s been in the beer industry his whole life. So he actually had a wholesaler, distributorship when we were young. So we would go with him to work there and we would be around cases of beer and play with the dollies, push instead of stacking cases on the dolly, we would roll each other around up and down the aisles of the beer, roller skate because it’s a really great concrete floor. And then in 1985, he took over the brewery from my grandfather. So we would come to work with him in the evenings. He always came back in the evenings to sign the checks and two bills and to check on paperwork and invoices and loads of things for the next day. So we got to come back with them in the evening. So it was kind of quiet. I mean, didn’t have the hustle and bustle of a daily production going on. But you would walk through the bottle shop and you could see still some of the water dripping, and you knew they were just running for the day and not really knowing what had happened. I mean we didn’t have a concept of I personally didn’t, when you would walk past the boiler room, and that heat would hit you and, you know, I can still smell that as a kid. Like, those are the types of things that bring it back to me. And then great memory for me that I always go back to so the office that’s over at the original brewery. So the brewery was founded in 1829. Down in Pottsville where the City Hall is. It burnt down in 1831. So we rebuilt it on Mahantongo Street. And the offices that are there, is where David G my great great great grandfather used to sit and Frederick and Frank and all of the ancestors and generations always sat in that office. So I would follow my dad of those steps to the office. And then when I got to do that, working here, that was just something that was special to me, knowing that everyone else walked up those steps and they worked in that office. And it was just kind of a, it’s always a surreal, proud moment to know that I’m sitting there now where they used to be.
Angela Giovine 8:20
Truly. I mean, many of us don’t even know that many generations back in our family, but to not only know them, but to like really have an idea of what their stories were. And it’s all told through your company. It’s just, it’s so incredible. So you remember it from very early. Was being a part of the family business, always something that you wanted? Or was there a time that you really weren’t sure, maybe you were going to go do something different?
Debbie Yuengling 8:47
I don’t think I really had a plan starting out, going through high school and then I went through college. And when I was about halfway three quarters of the way through college is when, my dad sort of hit a road of, we need to expand or we need to build, we need to do something. I need to know what the plan is from my sisters and myself. So he sat us down and said, you know, if you’re all out, you’re out, that’s okay. There’s no pressure. But if you’re in, I’m going to make some adjustments and figure out what we need to do to continue with operations because the demand was so great at that time. So as I was finishing up college, I was finishing up with an accounting degree. So it was a really good decision and time for me to say, Okay, you know what, this is what I’m going to do. I can take accounting and business back to the brewery, you know, and start getting my feet wet and learning the business that way. So it was a good opportunity to say that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s when I decided so on I graduated college, I came right back afterwards.
Angela Giovine 9:50
Okay, and did all of your sisters do the same thing?
Debbie Yuengling 9:53
No, no. One went to graduate school, one went off and had a job elsewhere. I believe the third the one of the other ones did come back. So we all took our own paths,
Angela Giovine 10:03
Debbie Yuengling 10:03
which think is also really unique. Again, there was no pressure, there was never any pressure from my dad to have to come back here. We all did it in our own time. And I think what also helped is we all have fallen into our own niche at the company. So my one sister, Jennifer is Vice President of Operations, she has followed the production path and she’s down on the floor and the bottle shop and in the brew house since she has a brewmaster certificate. I’m more of the numbers and more of the people and working with the employees and things. So I’ve taken a different focus on a different area while I’m here. So that’s what’s been really nice is we’ve, we can all come together with the knowledge and the expertise that we have in the path that we’ve taken.
Angela Giovine 10:46
Yeah, you all fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It really worked
Debbie Yuengling 10:49
Angela Giovine 10:49
Debbie Yuengling 10:50
Good way to put it. Yeah.
Angela Giovine 10:51
Yeah. So pretty early on then you made the decision that yeah, even though there was no pressure on you that this is where you wanted it to be. If Yuengling didn’t exist, if you weren’t a Yuengling, where do you think you would be?
Debbie Yuengling 11:05
That’s funny. My kids ask me that question sometimes. My plan was probably something with accounting and math, and I’d probably be a teacher.
Angela Giovine 11:14
Debbie Yuengling 11:15
I think that’s what I would do. I like the educating. And it’s also funny how things evolved. Because when in school, I thought, okay, I want to teach high school, I didn’t want to be with a little kids all the time. But now, getting older, and being a mom to my kids and seeing how they’ve grown up. I think I would really love to teach the little kids and encourage them that you have an open world, you can do anything you want.
Angela Giovine 11:39
Debbie Yuengling 11:39
And so that’s sort of something on the side that I have a passion for that I think would be really great. So that’s probably where I would ended up. if I wasn’t here.
Angela Giovine 11:46
Wow. So business or education. Two, very different, but two awesome paths to take. You mentioned that you have children.
Debbie Yuengling 11:54
Yes, I do.
Angela Giovine 11:56
Do see a seventh generation in the future, or it’s just not decided?
Debbie Yuengling 12:02
There’s nine of this group generation. So there’s a huge age gap with all of them. Some of them have come to work over the summer. But I think at this point, they’re all still too young to have made any final decisions.
Angela Giovine 12:14
Debbie Yuengling 12:14
So were not forcing on the fifth and sixth generation right now.
Angela Giovine 12:17
Sure, sure. Yeah. It’s sort of like the royal family. There’s a few generations there right now. So you’ve got lots of longevity. That’s-
Debbie Yuengling 12:24
Absolutely. We’re fortunate for that.
Angela Giovine 12:26
So since you have seen this business for so much of your life, and obviously so much of it is documented. I’d love to get your perspective on, what are some big overall changes that have happened throughout, you know, working at Yuengling and also what has stayed the same?
Debbie Yuengling 12:44
I think what stays the same is, the Yuengling way. Our core values, our grit, our resiliency our perseverance. And I think that correlates really to what a also has changed when you look at the traditions and the obstacles that we’ve overcome. So back in the early 1900s, were a brewery that were essentially told we can’t make beer.
Angela Giovine 13:05
Debbie Yuengling 13:05
And we survived that, we made it through that. They were very creative, and they started making near beer, as well as opened up a dairy. So that was my great grandfather. So he opened a dairy up across the street from the brewery and started making ice cream and some other products. But I think to make it through that, and then the great depression and the world wars, and then even where we’re located, we’re in a coal region. So in the 1960s, and 1970s, there was a plethora of craft or small breweries, I should say they were the regional breweries. And you sold to your local markets and your consumers, but it started to get very difficult than in the 70s and 80s, because that’s when a lot of the bigger breweries started mass producing and consumers were able to afford that a little bit more. But we still made it through that. You know, you can go back to my grandfather, I’ll tell you there were times where he didn’t have enough money to make payroll. And there was just- demand wasn’t as great, but then nobody wanted to shut it down. We were so proud that, you know, that point he was the fourth generation and nobody wants to be the one to say, Oh, we didn’t make it. So to know that we can overcome those obstacles, I think that strength and resiliency stays with all of us. I know my dad has it. You know, he took over in 1985, when it was really at a low point. And he is a production person. And he figured out how to sell it. And he came up with the traditional lager, which is our flagship beer, and he put that out there to the market. So it’s a very impressive story.
Angela Giovine 14:36
Grit is in the DNA. I love that word.
Debbie Yuengling 14:38
Angela Giovine 14:39
I mean, and just to just touch on that for a minute for your father to take over the business at a point where it wasn’t a slam dunk. It wasn’t here, son here is a business that is a turnkey operation. He chose to take over something that he knew was going to take significant stress and resources and time and energy that says a lot. It really does show the grit that is in the culture.
Debbie Yuengling 15:07
Absolutely. And I think it’s a lot about taking risks and trusting yourself in the company and your employees. We have amazing, loyal employees. And, you know, as I said, my dad came out with traditional lager and put that out there and it just took off. And I think that’s something that we’re seeing my sisters and myself. Back in 2018, we came out with the Golden Pilsner. Which was a new year round beer. Yep, absolutely. Thank you. And that was 17 years till we did that, you know, we hadn’t come out with a new year round brand in almost 20 years, but, you know, we felt that the market was ready for it. It was something we can test our brewmasters with that, you know, we challenged them with coming up with different beers. This past year, we came out with a flight by Yuengling, a new low calorie beer but it just we listen to our consumers and our fans and taking a risk for us, to put that time and money and investment into coming out with a brand. But, we listen to ourselves and our past generations and our consumers. And I think we’re going to end up being successful with all of that, hopefully.
Angela Giovine 16:11
So the traditional really changed the game for the company in the 80s.
Debbie Yuengling 16:15
Angela Giovine 16:16
And that was something that really helped you grow, like grow back up to a place of stability. Would you say?
Debbie Yuengling 16:23
Yes, that’s right. So the traditional lager became our flagship brand. And we were only selling in a handful of states at that time. So the traditional lager took off, and we couldn’t supply the demand that it was creating. We also had a black and tan brand that was available out at that time. A lot of people were familiar with that. So that’s a combination of our porter and premium. And we started canning that to reach out to some of the other markets and consumers of different tastes. But the lager then started taking off and that’s still one of our primary core brands that’s are, you know, when you go out into a bar and you order a lager, you’re going to get a Yuengling.
Angela Giovine 17:05
What was it about that lager that made such an impression on people? Was there a marketing plan behind it? Was it all just word of mouth? How did it grow? How did it become so popular?
Debbie Yuengling 17:18
I think a lot of it is a testament to my dad wanting a really good liquid. It wasn’t a Pilsner beer, it was made with a caramel malt. So there’s a little bit of a sugar coating on it. So had a little bit of a darker color, of kind of sweeter taste to it. So it was the different flavor for consumers that they really enjoyed. It was a little newer take on the traditional beers that people were drinking at that time. And I think the packaging that he did with it, it was in a green bottle. So he’ll tell you that he just wanted a little bit more of an upscale look to it instead of having a brown bottle beer and I think just that image of it resonated really well with consumers for something different and for all of that included, he did phenomenal. He hit a homerun with that.
Angela Giovine 18:02
So you’d say he trusted his instincts. It wasn’t a matter of doing some market research and this is what people want. He had a gut feeling about what could be differentiated about the beer.
Debbie Yuengling 18:17
Absolutely. He was primarily all gut instinct. I mean, he knew the business, like I said he had in his whole life. He started working when he was about 14 15 years old in the beer industry. Still to this day, he understands the industry and understands what consumers are looking for. So back when he developed lager, it was not about a marketing research and doing surveys. It was what he wanted to put out there to our consumer.
Angela Giovine 18:43
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Angela Giovine 9:40
You mentioned now that you have your second year round beer after 17 years, and you also talked about listening to your consumer so it sounds like history has repeated itself- it’s a culture of listening to the needs of the beer drinker and meeting those needs.
Debbie Yuengling 21:56
Right, and I think that’s a way you can see how the industry has changed, and our lifestyles. You know, the Golden Pilsner is for an active lifestyle, so refreshing beer, and I think, you know, that was something that we wanted to come out with in 2018. And that took a long time to develop. And then you start to see the healthier lifestyles of consumers and the younger age are looking for something in the lower carb area, low calorie area, that we were looking to see what consumers were drinking and listening to our – the fans because that’s not something that we necessarily had in our portfolio. So the flight by Yuengling is a 2.6 grams of carbs, 95 calories, it’s a 4.2 alcohol by volume, and it’s that refreshing beer that you can have a couple while you’re at a baseball game, you’re on a boat, while you’re sitting in a backyard by a fire. And you can feel good about indulging in a few beers.
Angela Giovine 22:50
Yeah, that makes sense. And it gives you an opportunity to even reach more people who maybe weren’t drinking your beer to begin with.
Debbie Yuengling 22:58
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what we think – it shouldn’t be taking away from the lager drinker necessarily, I think we’re just drawing more consumers to our brands and educating them as to who we are as a company and seeing that we have a wide portfolio of options.
Angela Giovine 23:13
So talk to me about change. One thing that I talked to a lot of our small business owners about is, tell me about a risk that you’ve taken and how is it paid off? But for you, I want to ask, Is it hard to bristle up against what has always been done? Is that something that is a challenge for you and your sisters as a company, to constantly go back and forth with the history and what works compared to taking those risks and making those changes?
Debbie Yuengling 23:43
I think it’s something that you can hear from other breweries and competition, but again, we fall back on we’re very patient. We are methodical in our decision making, coming out with the new beers, we don’t come out with a new brand, just to keep up with the industry. We take our time to make sure it’s right for us as a company, and that we’re staying true to who we are. We make good liquid. We’ve listened to the consumers, they are loyal to our brands, because we have a really great beer. And we don’t want to necessarily stray from that just to keep up with what the industry is doing. I think a lot of that can also be seen in our territory. We’re only sold in 22 states. So for being here, almost 200 years, we’re not even in half the country. And there again, that’s a process that’s very slow and very methodical, because you have to interview the distributors, and I’m not even sure of the whole process that goes into it, but you want to make sure that we have the supply of beer that we can get to that state and that the price is going to be right because we only have three breweries. We have two here Pottsville, Pennsylvania, we’ve one in Tampa, Florida. So we have to be able to make sure that logistics are the right way. So I mean, we don’t necessarily feel the need to have to conform to the industry, I think we’re staying true to ourselves and making sure that everything feels right before we make a decision.
Angela Giovine 25:06
I really respect that, because I think in today’s culture, there’s such a knee jerk reaction to just take investor money. And now we can be in all 50 states and 40 countries and how have you staved that off? Is it ingrained in the culture? What makes you as a company decide to be very careful and put quality above all?
Debbie Yuengling 25:29
Think because our name is on it, your family-owned.
Angela Giovine 25:32
Debbie Yuengling 25:32
You’re the one responsible for it. You want to make sure that the liquid is great, the package is, right, your consumers are happy, but you’re listening to them to make changes or adjustments if you need to. So it’s a personal decision and being family-owned is something that you want to be proud of.
Angela Giovine 25:47
Along those lines, has there ever been tempt to sell some of the business, sell the whole business take on those investors? Or has it really just never been something that you wanted to ever consider?
Debbie Yuengling 26:00
I think because we’ve been able to say we’ve been here almost 200 years. And we’re America’s oldest brewery, that’s something that we want to hold on to that story and continue that.
Angela Giovine 26:10
Yeah, yeah. I love that. So let’s talk about working with your family. It’s great that you as your sisters, the four sisters have such different interests that you all are able to occupy different parts of the business, but you must butt heads sometimes. Tell me about the collaboration and also how you work with people that you’re so close with.
Debbie Yuengling 26:32
I think what works really well is kind of what I had said before is we’re all in different areas. So we’re not necessarily on top of each other all day, every day. We do really well outside of work, we can have a beer, we hang out, we can talk, try not to let business overwhelm the conversation, but sometimes being in a relaxed atmosphere it, it helps the situation. When we do come to the table and we work with my dad and we sit with them. We all have our own expertise and knowledge to bring to the table so, it’s bringing the pieces together. And as you kind of put it, put the puzzle together by our knowledge and education in different areas.
Angela Giovine 27:08
Has there ever been a time where it’s been like, you have to really take a step back and separate the work from the family or it’s just so ingrained in the family that the family is the business? And
Debbie Yuengling 27:22
Yeah, I think it’s so ingrained in it and it really helps because when you’re sitting around you have beer in your hand too. So it’s right there.
Angela Giovine 27:28
Absolutely, absolutely. So I’ve read that you have beer running through your blood, your sisters and you. So obviously, you must love your product. You must all be beer drinkers, right?
Debbie Yuengling 27:41
Yes. We really are. Yeah.
Angela Giovine 27:43
Yeah? What’s your favorite of your products?
Debbie Yuengling 27:45
Right now it’s the flight.
Angela Giovine 27:47
Debbie Yuengling 27:47
Right now the flight with the low carb, it just has amazing flavor. The taste of it, is just wonderful. Very refreshing. I’ve been really enjoying that. The brewmasters did a phenomenal job this past year putting that together. I also I like the Black and Tan a lot, times I like that heavier beer. So, you know, that’s one of another core brands that’s out there. And then the Golden Pilsner that we just came out with too, we had a really big part in developing. So that has a multi flavor that’s, you know, slightly different. So a lot of it depends on the taste. But for now, if I have to pick one I’m going with the flight.
Angela Giovine 28:23
It must be fun to try the beers that aren’t yet in production. And I’m sure you’ve thrown things away that haven’t come to market. But that’s got to be a really fun part of the business is just trying stuff and seeing what kind of new directions you can take the business.
Debbie Yuengling 28:37
Sure, absolutely. And the creativity and being very inventive with what you can come up with and listening to the brewmasters where it’s their knowledge, and knowing how they put the ingredients together, which is beyond my expertise. It’s exciting. It’s a very exciting opportunity that we’re able to do.
Angela Giovine 28:52
I always end our interviews with two questions. So the first one is I would not be standing here today. If not for
Debbie Yuengling 29:00
I’m going to say our the past generations and our employees. I think their perseverance and resiliency of getting through those challenges in the whole 1900s, that whole century of prohibition and the world wars, and then the 1960s and 70s. And then my dad being very persevering and being and very creative and coming through the time that he took over the brewery. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them, pushing through this and being proud of the company. But our employees, we have almost 10% of our employees have, have had family that works here. So we’re a family-owned company our employees are family as well.
Angela Giovine 29:41
A family of family.
Debbie Yuengling 29:42
It’s really incredible. The father-sons and a husband and wife, you know, that work here, at the company. So their loyalty and strength and staying with us through all those years has kept us here. So if it weren’t for both of them, then I wouldn’t be here. So I’m very grateful. I’m forever grateful for all them for getting us almost 200 years.
Angela Giovine 30:02
Company picnics must be really fun.
Debbie Yuengling 30:04
They are very fun.
Angela Giovine 30:05
How many employees do you have in total?
Debbie Yuengling 30:08
We have about 350.
Angela Giovine 30:09
Debbie Yuengling 30:11
and that’s with the 3 breweries.
Angela Giovine 30:12
And has that grown over the past couple of decades or-
Debbie Yuengling 30:15
Yes, just because of sales staff, and then even production staff. We’ve been able to do second shifts in the last couple decades. So yes, that has grown. But we’re still a family of employees. And in my role now, with employee engagement and the culture, it’s important to me to reach out to the employees, make sure they’re welcomed, and they feel the culture and know that they’re a part of our family.
Angela Giovine 30:37
What is one piece of advice you would give your 18 year old self?
Debbie Yuengling 30:41
Know that there’s still a whole world out there. It’s not a tunnel vision. I think you look at the world then and you feel like you have to have all the answers. But you know, in your 20s you can say you learned so much, in your 30s and your 40s. And I think just knowing that you’re going to evolve and learn so much more, just because school is over doesn’t mean that’s it. And I think you feel like you’re supposed to know it all then, and have all the answers, but you can keep evolving and change your roles. You know, going back to my role, I started here in accounting. And then I went to pricing, and now I’m in culture and employee engagement. And then I’m a numbers person. So it’s, but I love it. If you would have told me 10 years ago, that’s what I would be in, I would have relish that opportunity. And I think just knowing that you can keep evolving as you grow older is something important to know that.
Angela Giovine 31:28
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time, and I loved hearing your story.
Debbie Yuengling 31:33
Thank you. Thanks for having me. Thanks for putting this story out there for everybody. I really appreciate it.
Angela Giovine 31:38
I really love hearing about a brand that has the desire to stay family-owned deep into the future.
Debbie Yuengling 31:46
For sure we’re not going anywhere.
Angela Giovine 31:49
One more shout out again to today’s sponsor, Click Funnels. Make sure you go get yourself that offer it is amazing. Head to extra ordinary small business dot com backslash clickfunnels.
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