The Lion Brewery: Pennsylvania Brewer Uses Diversity to Tap Potential

The Lion Brewery has cause to celebrate. The Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-based brewer turns 100 this year, and while it prefers to keep its potables’ recipes under wraps, the secret to its ongoing success is no mystery. Founded in 1905, the brewery has survived both Prohibition and widespread industry consolidation, and is one of the few remaining regional beer-makers left in the country, producing about 400,000 barrels of product annually.
A business plan that relies on time-honored brewing traditions along with product diversification, plus a growing contract-packaging operation allows Lion to thrive in a business climate dominated by mergers, acquisitions and fierce market competition.
“We have diversity, we’re flexible and we’re able to produce a variety of different beverages, whether they be our own beers, beers for other people, high-end soft drinks and kosher and organic-certified beverages,” explains Chuck Lawson, Lion’s president and chief executive officer.
While new products are a key ingredient in its success, Lion’s premium beers also have potential for increased sales and marketing opportunities. To celebrate the brewery’s 100th anniversary, for example, brewmaster Leo Orlandini is working on a limited-edition original recipe that will be on tap later this year. The brew’s debut will coincide with a number of promotional anniversary events also scheduled to kick off during the summer and run through the rest of the year.
Recipe for success
Unlike large national brands, Lion’s beers are brewed in smaller batches to ensure product quality and freshness. Smaller runs, combined with original recipes deliver the unique profile that Lawson and Orlandini describe as fuller-flavored beers. “We do small pilot brews in the lab, taste it, run it through the equipment to get all the parameters, see where it is and tweak it until we get something the consumer will like and something we can repeat consistently,” says Orlandini.
Lion’s beers are also brewed following the Reinheitsgebot tradition, or German Purity Law of 1516, which states only four ingredients — water, malt, yeast and hops — can be used to make beer. Additives such as corn syrup, a popular ingredient in other brands, are strictly prohibited.  The Bavarian Duke, Wilhelm IV instituted the law at the Ingolstadt Parliament in 1516 to ensure the integrity of beers made during his reign. At the time, fruit, herbs, weeds such as anis, myrtle, oak leaves, ivy, along with the poisonous seeds of herbstzeitlosen, raspberries, elderberry, caraway were used as substitutes for hops for their intoxicating effect or natural properties that extended shelf life. Brewers today who follow the tradition do it voluntary in order to claim a higher brewing standard.
Brewmaster Orlandini uses imported malts from Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany. Compared to American malts, European malts can cost $0.40 to $0.50 a pound, but Lion believes they produce superior quality. Lion has racked up a number of medals both nationally and internationally at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Championships in recent years. 
Lion’s beer portfolio is made up of its flagship Stegmaier brand, which includes Stegmaier Gold Medal, Stegmaier 1857 American Lager, Stegmaier Porter; Lionshead and Lionshead Malt Liquor. In May 2002, Lion’s brewers expanded its selection and introduced the Pocono line. Each beer — Light, Pale Ale, Black and Tan, Caramel Porter and Summer Wheat — is brewed under the same German Purity Law guidelines.
Expanding to new categories
After delivering successful beer brands to market, Lion capitalized on its name and success with a new line of bottled flavored malt beverages and soft drinks.  
Lion’s Long Island Iced Tea is an original blend of Long Island Iced Tea flavor with a hint of lemon. Other flavors include Lion’s Cosmo, Lion’s Kamikaze and Lion’s Happy Hour. The brewery also produces high-end soft drinks, including Lion Brewery Root Beer, and the Olde Philadelphia Soda line.
Lion seized another opportunity when it was given the green light to bottle natural soft drinks for Steaz Green Tea Soda and the Napa Valley Soda Co. “It’s an area of the marketplace that’s growing and we think it’s going to continue to,” explains Lawson.
“Certified organic” means that a non-profit, state or private certification organization, accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture, has verified that products labeled as organic meet strictly defined organic standards. An organic plant such as Lion’s is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Program to meet site-specific conditions that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.
“We make sure we follow the letter of the law,” says Orlandini. “There are a lot of operational things you cannot do. It’s a pretty intensive process.”
Even though organic certification adds extra layers of compliance — cleaning protocols, storage regulations, book-keeping procedures — the value added in terms of product diversification outweighs the downsides of retooling its operations. After all, it’s the flexibility to take on new challenges such as organic certification that has kept Lion Brewery going for 100 years, and will drive it into its next century. BI