On Jan. 29, D.G. Yuengling & Son Inc. expanded distribution of its traditional lager — along with a light version and a black & tan varietal — into Arkansas bars. Now you can buy six packs of the stuff all over the state.
Some people are rejoicing.
My buddy Randal, for example. He’s a beer drinker “and a Baptist.” And until recently, a bootlegger. He’s been smuggling Yuengling in from out of state for years. More than once, he’s mentioned the brand to me. So I asked him what was so great about it.
“Back in 1991, I went to a reptile expo in Pottsville, Pa.,” he says. “It used to be the biggest show in the U.S. for ‘hot’ — venomous — snakes.”
Randal, I should mention, likes snakes. And while I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, you can take that information into consideration when deciding how much weight to give his opinion. For Randal’s tastes are obviously not everyone’s. (I am fairly cool to snakes, while recognizing they have an important role to play in the balancing of the biome.)
“Anyway,” Randal continues, “after the show that Saturday afternoon, my host and I went to this little hole-in-the-wall bar. As we settled in, he said, ‘Have you ever tried a Yuengling?’ I said no. He said, ‘You’ll like it.'”
Randal had a draft lager, and he did like it.
“It was [bleeping] great,” he says. “Being a man of trying out beers of many flavors — IPAs, craft, even home brews from friends — I thought, what balance from a lager!
“I was hooked. I drove home, a two-day drive, with a case of Yuengling in my back seat. I was thinking, should I share this with any of my drinking friends? Being somewhat selfish, I said, ‘Nah.'”
But camaraderie being an important part of the experience, Randal did wind up sharing it with friends. Who immediately got hooked too. Or at least they drank it, he said.
Yuengling (pronounced YENG-ling, an Anglicized version of Jungling, its founder’s surname and German for “youngling” or “youth”) has a legitimate claim on being the country’s oldest brewery; it’s been operating continuously since its founding in 1829, surviving Prohibition by selling “near beers” with a 0.5 percent alcohol content, and running an ice cream-producing dairy and dance halls in Philadelphia and New York City.
“I thought it was available here in Arkansas, but no,” Randal says. “It wasn’t distributed west of the Mississippi.”
So for the next 27 years Randal maintained his Yuengling habit as best he could. He went back to Pennsylvania a few times, once touring the Pottsville brewery. At least twice a year he visited his home state of Florida, where the beer was distributed. When Yuengling opened a brewery in his hometown of Tampa, he toured that too. Over the years, he trafficked a lot of Yuengling.
It got easier when Yuengling began distributing its product in Tennessee. Randal’s brother lives in Memphis and comes to Little Rock about 10 times a year.
“He says, ‘Want me to bring some Yuengling?'” Randal says. “Ha ha ha ha.”
Now he doesn’t have to technically violate Arkansas law (and maybe the Federal Interstate Commerce Act) to enjoy his favorite brew. Good for him. He’s not the sort of person who needs his beer confiscated.
On the other hand, Randal knows I’m a beer agnostic. I think Americans choose their beer the same way they choose our elected officials; we talk a lot about character but tend to end up with something bland and smooth.
I remember when light-bodied Coors Banquet Beer enjoyed a similar sort of mystique; when it was smuggled out of Colorado into the Midwest and the East and even (most notably by Henry Kissinger) overseas. Paul Newman allegedly demanded it on ice on every movie set. Gerald Ford had it in the White House. (In those days, the Colorado-based brewery declined to distribute its product east of Oklahoma because, its spokesmen said, the lack of preservatives and additives in the unpasteurized beer made it too likely to spoil if it wasn’t kept refrigerated; that’s why Burt Reynolds had such a “long way to go and a short time to get there” in Smokey in the Bandit.)
I had a can of Coors in the late 1970s. It was OK. I think that the greater part of the Coors boom had to do with its relative scarcity and the allure of forbidden fruit; it was just another watery pilsner to me, a little barley malt, rice, hops and Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water.
But reasonable minds can differ. When, at the height of Coors mania in 1975, an interviewer asked then-chairman of the board William K. Coors to explain the phenomenon, he insisted there was “no mystique about Coors’ popularity. It tastes better than other beers, that’s all.”
Randal says the same thing about Yuengling. To him, it’s just better than other domestic brews, and better than the hand-crafted stuff he’s tried (which he dismisses as so much hipster indulgence).
Fair enough, I liked Yuengling Lager just fine, though not as much as I like a good Arkansas microbrew. I’d say Yuengling is about on par with regional mid-majors like Texas-based Shiner and some of the Louisiana-based Abita Brewing Company products. (About 20 years ago I went on a real Turbodog kick.)
The Black & Tan, a bottled blend of Yuengling’s Dark Brewed Porter with its “Premium Beer” (an American-style pilsner which isn’t available in Arkansas, at least not yet), is a decent approximation of the traditional English half-and-half style, with a little cocoa kick in the finish, but I’d rather have a draft Guinness. And Randal agrees with me that Yuengling Light is, like almost every other light beer, weak. (I think it’s slightly better than Michelob Ultra; he thinks it’s slightly worse, though he allows that his wife likes it: “So the regular Yuengling is downstairs in my office and the Light is upstairs in the fridge.”)
I like imports and craft brews, but I don’t mind the inoffensive wetness of Miller High Life or Corona. I respect beer as a subject — it’s deep and wide and deserves exploration — but it’s not my subject. Or, as Randal says:
“I know you’re a bourbon snob.”
Guilty, but one needn’t be a snob to recognize most beer sold in this country is very different from the rest of the world’s beer. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with preferring Miller Lite to Guinness Stout, or American Budweiser to Czech Budweiser made by the Budejovicky Budvar brewery. But out of respect to real beer drinkers we ought to call our famous national brand brews something other than “beer” — perhaps “refreshing grain beverage” or simply “Light Beer. ”
We like beer that tastes like tonic water lightly seasoned with hops. Yuengling improves on that a little. Or if you ask the bootlegger, a lot.