Last week, Eric Trump visited one of the Yuengling Brewery’s production facilities in East Norwegian Township, Pa., where Dick Yuengling, the fifth-generation owner of the family concern, endorsed Trump’s father for president.
“Our guys are behind your father. We need him in there,” Yuengling told the younger Trump, who returned the effusive praise: “This is an amazing success story.”
No denying that: Yuengling is the oldest working brewery in America, with a continuous lineage stretching back to 1829, the year Andrew Jackson stormed the White House after a campaign that ushered in the modern era of partisan politics.
Yet Trump’s remarks and Yuengling’s endorsement spurred utterly predictable results. Within days, a couple of bars in Philadelphia stopped carrying the beer. Others threatened to do the same; heretofore faithful Yuengling tipplers vowed on social media never to drink the brand again. A Democratic state legislator in Philly, careful to note Dick Yuengling’s constitutional right to endorse whomever he pleased, encouraged the boycott.
As Donald Trump himself might tweet, “#Sad.” Beer — craft beer in particular — unites. The industry, and its fans, should remember that its use as a political prop almost never ends well, even when things look fairly innocuous and don’t involve an endorsement.
In early 2015, at the start of the electoral madness that (hopefully) terminates next week, Smuttynose Brewing Co. on the New Hampshire coast hosted Hillary Clinton for a small-business roundtable. The brewery had hosted several other candidates of both parties over the years — hard not to in a state that holds the first presidential primaries — but Clinton’s visit, which did not yield an endorsement from Smuttynose co-founder and owner Peter Egelston, prompted especially harsh criticism of the brewery and its brands from opponents of Clinton.
Nothing much came of the Smuttynose brouhaha — some boycott threats came from areas of the country where the beer wasn’t even distributed. It’s exceedingly unlikely that any Trump-related boycott of Yuengling’s brands will hurt the Pennsylvania brewery.
It’s seen far more potent challenges anyway. When Dick Yuengling took over from his father in the mid-1980s, the brewery appeared headed for obsolescence, another regional producer ground underfoot by the brewing industry’s consolidation.
Before Prohibition in 1920, there were hundreds of breweries nationwide, many, if not most, producing beers for a local audience. In the decades after World War II, a handful of these breweries — Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst, Coors, etc. — either edged out or bought up competitors. Pretty soon, the nation’s biggest five breweries produced most of its beer. Analysts by the early 1980s predicted that there would be maybe one or two American breweries as the 21st century dawned.
That did not happen, of course. A handful of smaller regional producers such as Yuengling hung on, and a whole crop of so-called craft or micro-breweries sprung up, making beer from more traditional ingredients in more traditional ways, the pair standing athwart Big Beer’s takeover of the marketplace, yelling stop. Along the way, they made America perhaps the world’s most enviable marketplace for the drink in terms of style and brand loyalty.
For Dick Yuengling and his brewery, that meant modernizing operations in a way his familial predecessors had not and resurrecting at least one old recipe — Yuengling Traditional Lager, in 1987 — that became the company’s best-seller. It also meant new advertising and marketing initiatives, and pushing into fresh marketplaces. Philadelphia, 100 or so miles to the southeast, was quite the get shortly after Dick Yuengling took over.
His brewery now reaches 18 states plus Washington, D.C., and is the largest independently owned brewery in the United States. It’s also the fourth-largest overall, behind Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Pabst Brewing (and just ahead of fifth-largest Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams).
It remains, though, way, way behind the top trio. The corporate parent of A-B, for instance, earlier this month closed perhaps the biggest consumer-goods merger in history — the $100 billion takeover of SABMiller — and thus now accounts for nearly one out of every three beers sold worldwide.
Scrappy histories and comparatively tiny sizes make Yuengling, Smuttynose and their brethren irresistible props for major-party candidates. They contain just the right mash of entrepreneurial moxie, manufacturing chops and strong brand loyalty to all but scream, “Successful American small businesses!”
Plus, it’s beer. There is no such thing as Joe Wine Bottle, but there is Joe Six-Pack. The term originated sometime in the 1970s to describe blue-collar workers (and voters) who preferred cans of Bud and Miller with their weekends and weeknights. Sarah Palin famously wedded “hockey mom” to Joe Six-Pack during the 2008 vice-presidential debate.
But hockey mom hasn’t really had the staying power. Because it’s not beer.
Beer is the nation’s most popular alcoholic beverage by far — 43 percent of Americans who drink alcohol choose beer, compared to 32 percent wine and 20 percent spirits, according to Gallup. There are now more breweries than at any time in the nation’s history — 4,200, give or take —with most smaller, more traditional breweries such as Yuengling and Smuttynose.
The majority of Americans now live within 10 miles of a craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association trade group. In denser areas such as the D.C. metro area, it’s probably more like two or three miles, plucky operations uniting citizens of myriad allegiances and tastes, stronger together as they make American beer great again.
Let’s keep politics out of it. Cheers.