For a couple of years, I drank Yuengling. A lot. Almost exclusively. Then, I stopped… for seven years.
Yuengling is a thoroughly decent beer. And it’s relatively cheap. Until recently, at least in my neck of the woods, it was definitely the best beer you could hope to find in a gas station. The Beer Advocate crowd gives it a 78, and the guys who run the site give it an 80. That places it on the high end of average or on the low end of good. It’s nothing flashy, but it’s there when you need it. (By the way, it's heartening to note that among Top-20 beers ranked by sales volume (detailed here by our own Blake Murphy), Yuengling absolutely blows away the competition in average Untappd rating. Its 3.41 is over half a point higher, on average, than its closest competetior, Heineken, which clocks in at 2.88).
I didn’t care about any of this when I started drinking Yuengling. But I loved it immediately. The guys on Beer Advocate knock it down a peg or two for its lack of head. They’re right. But I drank Yuengling in the moonlight, out of a can.
There’s talk of notes of this and aromas of that, but when I was drinking Yuengling, I almost wasn’t tasting it, and I certainly wasn’t smelling it, and I loved it for that. Yuengling was, in a peculiar — but very real — sense, a companion. It was just there: a part of the experience, not something to analyze.
I should back up and explain myself.
In college, a group of us would traipse down the hill behind our tiny, Virginian campus, across a creek (taking us, officially, off our “dry” campus), and down a winding path to the banks of the Shenandoah River.
We had a deal with the owner of the land that we would keep the place clean and chop firewood in exchange for the use of a little plot on the banks of the river. We made our pilgrimage to that spot every Friday night (Saturday night, after the vigil, during Lent), set up a roaring fire, dropped a few cases of Yuengling by a gnarly tree, and proceeded to sing Irish dirges, lively old folk songs, and slow Americana ballads well into the night.
Sometimes twenty others would show up, sometimes a hundred. But the core of fifteen or so was constant: constant like the slow, winding Shenandoah, the Irish dirges, and the Yuengling.
I wasn’t there when The River, as we called it, started. It began before my time, and it began in a different state at a different college. But it came to us, and we embraced it, Yuengling and all.
Yuengling at The River, in some ways, was probably an accident. It’s cheap and readily available, but it’s not a light beer or Busch or Milwaukee’s Best. It is, as I said before, thoroughly decent. But it’s also old. It’s the oldest family-owned brewery in the United States. It has endured and grown. And despite its growth, it has kept that notion of family.
It was the perfect beer for our gatherings. We were, consciously, harkening back to an older time, but not in some horrible hipster way. We were grasping at tradition, catching pieces of it, and holding on for dear life.
There was something in those songs, lilting melodically in and out of our reach; something winding around us in the Shenandoah and swirling up through the trees in the smoke of the fire. And, odd as it may seem, there was something in the Yuengling; something that connected us to the best of the times gone by. It wasn’t mere nostalgia that brought us to The River, it was a desire for a good and a community that for us could only be found in those songs, near that river, and in those cans of Yuengling.
Yuengling wasn’t just a beer, it was a symbol—of family, tradition, and community. And that’s what The River was about. And that’s why Yuengling was our beer.
I lost a little bit of that tradition because somewhere along the way, the memories of drinking Yuengling around the fire, in the dark, by the river, changed into the still-good memories of drinking warm fallen soldiers the next morning while cleaning up from the night before, and then, finally, those memories morphed into just the taste of warm, shaken-up Yuengling.
And warm, shaken-up Yuengling is repulsive. So I stopped drinking it. For seven years.
Then, a couple of months ago, my wife called me on my way home from work. We had new friends coming over and we needed beer. I ran into the gas station closest to our house and stared at the beer wall for a while. It was a wasteland.
In the years since college I’ve slowly become a craft brew drinker. I’ll drink a light beer or a mass-produced lager if I must, but I prefer something better. The gas station near my house, apparently, doesn’t offer “something better.” I somewhat reluctantly opened the door to pull out a 12-pack of Coors Light, and then I noticed, on the shelf below, a twelver of Yuengling. I contemplated it for a minute, and finally put the Coors Light back and grabbed the Yuengling.
I was wary of that old, warm, frothy Yuengling, but my hesitancy was unfounded.
Instead, it was a rush of taste and memories and tradition and drunken Irish songs and the slow, churning gurgle of the winding Shenandoah and the low, hot burn of the steady fire. And it was my friends, huddled together singing the “Dead Man’s Set” in memory and in honor of our friends who had gone.
And, now, it was new friends, too, joining that tradition and community, years later. These new friends didn’t replace the old ones. They never could. But they joined us at The River, so to speak.
Instead of singing Irish dirges, we talked about our kids. And instead of a fire, we sat around a coffee table. But we talked, and we started building a bit of that community and bond that I had forged with others in the fire by the river a decade ago.
And we drank Yuengling. After all those years.
The fire isn’t roaring, our friends have scattered up and down the coast, and I’m hundreds of miles from the Shenandoah River, but I can still crack open a Yuengling and I feel like I’m right there. And if I hand a bottle to my new friends, I can bring them with me.
So while Yuengling gets a deserved yet honorable 80 on Beer Advocate, and while there are a host of other beers that I like better, I’ll be damned if it’s not among the finest beers on the planet.
Appearance: 3.5—Yuengling is an Amber lager, and it shows: It has a rich, amber/copper color. The aforementioned lack of head knocks the score down.
Smell: 3.0—Normal is, I think, the word here. Yuengling smells like beer. Which is not a bad thing.
Taste: 4.0—Yuengling is light enough to drink whenever, but it packs enough notes of caramel and hops to make you feel like you’re drinking a beer. Something many of the large breweries seem to forget.
Feel: 3.0—Again, mostly light and smooth, but it can feel a little over-carbonated at times.
Overall: 3.5—Yuengling is a good beer, often surrounded by crappy beers. So, it gets some points from the big-fish-small-pond effect. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Yuengling is still a thoroughly good beer.