Charles Darwin could have had the Wilkes-Barre, PA-based Lion Brewing Co., Inc. in mind when he spoke of survival of the fittest. It seems an appropriate phrase to describe the more than 100 years of evolution that has characterized this regional player’s success. While countless other smaller American brewers also have faced the need to adapt, far fewer have survived over a century, overcoming challenges—the lean years of Prohibition, ownership changes and a transformation in business status from private to public, back to private again—that might have put lesser businesses under.
Originally known as the Luzerne County Brewing Co., Lion got its start in 1905 after buying land from the Delaware and Hudson Company for $1, in return for starting a 100,000-barrel brewery within one year. “There are only a handful of breweries that are our vintage,” says Chuck Lawson, Lion’s president and CEO, “and they’re sprinkled across the US.”
“If you trace the brewing history,” he adds, “there were literally thousands of breweries prior to Prohibition.” All that changed during the Prohibition years of 1920-1933. The majority of American brewers, no longer able to sell their staple products, simply couldn’t afford to stay afloat. During that time, however, Lion kept its doors open by adapting to the changed market and switching its production over to alcohol-free cereal beers (“near-beer”).
In 1933, after having survived the Prohibition years, the brewery was purchased from the Luzerne County Brewing Co. by Ted Smulowitz and given its current moniker, the Lion Brewing Co. (also known at that time as Lion-Gibbons).
Prohibition wasn’t the only hurdle to smaller breweries like the newly renamed Lion. While the post-Prohibition years saw a surge in brewery growth, that growth diminished between the 1960s and 1980s, when, Lawson explains, “The big breweries kept getting bigger and then the smaller guys just couldn’t keep up.” Lion, ever the nimble competitor, was able to weather these waters as well. “Our brewery, Lion, has been able to diversify somewhat, and where our own beer business in those decades was not as good as it might otherwise have been, we were doing a lot of non-alcoholic products. We’ve diversified and we’ve continued to make products to fill the capacity.”
Today, those diversified product offerings include Lion’s Olde Philadelphia line of all-natural gourmet, non-alcohol sodas, and Lion Brewery Root Beer, an old-fashioned draft-style beverage. Traditional beers remain at the core of the brewery’s operations, however, with a lineup that includes its Pocono line of premium lagers and ales, as well as its value-priced Lionshead and Lionshead Light brands, all of which are sold primarily in Pennsylvania. And, in a nod to its roots, the brewery still makes very limited batches of Gibbons, one of its original pre-Prohibition beers.
Perhaps the biggest beverage success story for the brewery, however, has been its Stegmaier brand, acquired when Lion’s Wilkes-Barre neighbor, the Stegmaier Brewery, closed up shop in 1974, making Lion the largest brewing company in Northeast Pennsylvania. Established 150 years ago this year, Stegmaier had been a gold medal-winning area brewery and, for a time, one of the largest independent breweries in North America. Lion bought the Stegmaier label from its now-shuttered rival and began producing that brand’s popular Gold Medal, Porter and Light beers. The Stegmaier brand is distributed in New York and New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania, whereas Lion’s Pocono beers are primarily sold in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Among Lion’s newest brews are the Stegmaier Seasonals, a line of rotating seasonal beers that have proven quite successful. First introduced in December 2005 with Brewhouse Bock, the line also includes Stegmaier Midsummer White, Stegmaier Oktoberfest and Stegmaier Holiday Warmer. Joining them is the newest addition to the Stegmaier brand: Steg 150, a year-round, all-malt Vienna lager launched in June of this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Stegmaier brand.
The Stegmaier seasonals and Steg 150 are Lion’s main marketing focus at the moment, Lawson says, and the all-malt, all-natural brand remains a source of pride for the brewery. “All of the four seasonals and the Steg 150 (are) craft brewed with the four basic ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water.”
As important as strong product offerings and savvy marketplace acumen are to a regional brewery such as Lion, a forward-thinking business plan remains at the heart of the company’s continued success.
Lion continues to invest in its business by keeping facilities and equipment up to date and functioning well. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve invested over $10 million in refurbishing and new equipment,” says Lawson. “As you can imagine, in an old facility like this, you’re constantly updating it.” The most recent update is a new, stainless steel kettle, installed in February 2006 to replace a copper kettle that had been in use since 1954. Additional updates also have been made to the bottle shop as well as the conveying system.
With these changes in place, and maintaining its firm foothold in the Wilkes-Barre community as one of its largest employers, the Lion Brewery seems poised to continue its evolution far into the future.
LION BREWING CO., INC.
PRESIDENT & CEO: Charles “Chuck” Lawson
HEADQUARTERS: Wilkes-Barre, PA
PROJECTED ’07 VOLUME: 6 million cases
EMPLOYEES: 125-130 year round, total of 150 during peak seasons
GOALS: To continue to evolve, adapt and thrive in a changing beer market.
From Beverage World July 15, 2007