Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pa.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pa.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
(Pottsville) — Thirty-nine years ago, John Callahan was looking for a new job, and as a then-22-year-old living in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he had a decision to make.
“Either go into St. Pat’s church and be a priest or the brewery was right next door,” he said. “I figured there was more money in beer than there was bingo.”
The brewery Callahan walked into was Yuengling, the oldest in the United States, which is celebrating its 190th anniversary this year.
Callahan, started with unglamorous work in the original Pottsville brewery — cleaning tanks, scrubbing floors — and apprenticing until he climbed his way up the ladder to brewing manager.
Now, Callahan oversees the brewing department in both Pennsylvania facilities, from the people who unload the caramel malts and hops to those responsible for brewing its iconic lager. He helped Yuengling open its second Pennsylvania brewery just outside Pottsville, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The first batch of beer there was brewed in 2001.
While Callahan’s job might sound like a dream come true to some, he and other employees don’t quite see it as a calling.
“People look at the romantic side, but to us, it’s a job,” said Callahan. “But it’s a fun job.”
Callahan is proud to make a product that makes people smile as much as “puppies and baseball,” and enjoys that the company is “a big family around here,” which isn’t just a corporate metaphor.
D.G. Yuengling and Son has remained in the family for six generations, a point of pride for the owners — though it’s not just the top brass that’s stuck around. Company officials claim about 10% of the 150 employees at its Schuylkill County breweries go back at least two generations.
“My son actually brews on night shift,” said Callahan, whose two daughters worked office jobs at Yuengling all throughout high school and college.
The Phillips-Van Heusen clothing warehouse where Callahan’s wife worked closed eight years ago. After she was laid off, she got a job in the brewery’s accounting department.
“For a few months, we outnumbered the Yuenglings,” Callahan said.
For Yuengling employees, working for a family-owned company that’s survived for nearly two centuries brings job security in a county that has seen population and industry decline over the recent decades.
Employees said they see their bosses around the breweries every day. A Yuengling personally hired Charlie Sibbett.
When he was 28 years old, Sibbett worked up the courage to approach Dick Yuengling, Jr. — the fourth-generation owner — during a softball game in the 1960s.
“I said, ‘How about getting me a job at Yuengling brewery?’ And [Yuengling, Jr.] said, ‘You want me to give you a job at Yuengling Brewery and you’re drinking Mount Carbon Beer?’”
Mount Carbon was a competing brewery in Pottsville that would later close in 1976.
Sibbett says he told the company patriarch, “Well, I’ll drink Yuengling beer if I get a job.”
Now in his 80s, Sibbett started to work for Yuengling in 1964 and retired 37 years later. During his tenure, Schuylkill County’s economy would continue to change, and Yuengling would go from a struggling local brewery to a household name in cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where “lager” is part of the lexicon, to the top-selling craft beer company in the U.S.
Yuengling is not the largest employer in Schuylkill County, but it’s one of the most recognizable companies offering manufacturing jobs in what was previously a robust anthracite coal region.
Mining helped put Schuylkill County on the map as it fueled the Industrial Revolution in cities like Philadelphia and Boston, said Brian Hansbury, vice president of the Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation.
However, the industry would experience a drastic decline by World War II, as anthracite mining became increasingly costly and alternative fuels, such as petroleum oil, became more popular.
The closure of coal mines was also a blow to several breweries in the county, which found themselves with a shrinking local customer base and competition from bigger beer-makers.
Hansbury said many of those who lost mining work were able to find jobs in the garment industry — something Charlie Sibbett remembers. His first job was at a shirt factory.
“Long johns, shirts, jeans, socks — you name it,” Hansbury said. “Pretty much every major community in Schuylkill County had multiple garment industry operations in place.”
However, that industry’s stability would be short-lived, as it took a hit during the 1970s and 80s when production became cheaper in other countries, said Hansbury.
Yuengling was also scraping to survive at that time.
“When my dad took over the business in the mid-80s, I think we could have gotten to a point where we shut our doors,” said Jennifer Yuengling, the company’s vice president of operations.
Dick Yuengling, Sr. opposed the costly investments proposed by his son. Those investments would ultimately keep the brewery competitive. After Dick Yuengling, Jr. took over in 1985, the company made new deals with distributors, and eventually opened that second plant just outside Pottsville, and a third in Tampa, Florida.
Yuengling also reintroduced the Traditional Amber Lager in 1987 and came out with its iconic green bottle.
“It was a marketing ploy, that’s all,” Yuengling told the Associated Press in 2011. “Our name is hard to pronounce. People in Pennsylvania know how to pronounce it. But bartenders in Maryland and Virginia, they didn’t know how to pronounce it. We said, ‘Just call it lager,’ and it worked.”
Charlie Sibbett took his son Kevin with him to cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to deliver beer.
And when Kevin Sibbett found himself looking for full-time work after high school, Dick Yuengling, Jr. gave him a personal offer, just as Yuengling, Sr. had done for his own father.
“And he says to me, ‘I’ll hire you on one condition,’” Sibbett remembers. “And he says, ‘I don’t see you here in 10 years.’ Well, that was 31 years ago.”
Yuengling, Jr. is now a billionaire, and Sibbett is one of the company’s lead brewers at its Mill Creek facility outside Pottsville.
“We have that long history of perseverance and being in the brewing business for 190 years … That’s the story that no other brewery in this country and I would venture to say not too many businesses in our country are able to say,” said Jennifer Yuengling, who will take over the company along with her three sisters once their father retires as President and CEO.
The family is quick to tout its ability to make it through tough times like prohibition, two World Wars, and waves of brewery closures and mergers.
More recently, Dick Yuengling, Jr. announced he was backing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and gave his son, Eric Trump a tour of the Mill Creek brewery just two weeks before the November election. Yuengling’s support for Trump drew boycotts, but the company came out relatively unscathed.
The original Pottsville brewery still attracts tourists from all over the world.
Hansbury said the company’s international appeal makes it a marquee brand in a county where young people have been leaving for college and not coming back. The U.S. Census estimates Schuylkill County lost more than 6,000 people out of more than 148,000 between 2010 and July 2018.
Though most residents are employed in service jobs around the county, manufacturing remains a large source of high-paying jobs.
“The better they do, the better we all do,” Hansbury said of Yuengling.
Stacy Balulis can talk brewery visitors through any of the moving parts that go into bottling their choice of Yuengling beer. She’s worked at the brewery’s gift shop and museum in Pottsville for five years, although her relationship with the brand began long before she worked there.
Balulis’ father used to drink lager and thinks her first beer was a 16-ounce bottle of Yuengling Premium.
“They were 16-ounce, right?” she asked her husband, Adam, a 13-year Yuengling veteran who works in bottling. “Yeah! The returnables.”
When Stacy Balulis’ father came out of retirement to drive trucks again, naturally, he went to his go-to brewer.
While they say they’re happy at their jobs, Adam and Stacy Balulis admit they didn’t fantasize about working at the brewery when they were growing up.
“When I was a kid, I pictured myself playing baseball professionally, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Adam Balulis, who came to Yuengling from an aluminum plant in search of better hours and benefits.
Stacy Balulis said if you can get a foot in the door, you can stay for life.
“People don’t leave here. There’s people here for 40 years,” she said. “There’s a reason for that.”
The couple, who are in their 40s, hopes to do the same.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.