Lion Brewery adds 70 employees while undergoing $15M expansion

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Inside the Lion Brewery, workers bustle around new equipment that has created more than 70 jobs over the last 18 months.
The Lion Brewery, one of the oldest breweries in Pennsylvania, has undergone a $15 million expansion and now has a new can production line and an automated racking system, which cleans and fills half-kegs of beer.
Cliff Risell, president and CEO of the Lion Brewery, Brewmaster Leo Orlandini and Tom Farina, senior vice president of sales and marketing, recently led a tour of the new equipment at the 106-year-old brewery on North Pennsylvania Avenue. The state, Luzerne County and the City of Wilkes-Barre assisted with funding the $15 million expansion, Risell said.
The state-of-the-art racking system cleans and fills 40 to 60 half-kegs of beer an hour. The new line produces about 800 16-ounce cans a minute and about 1,100 12-ounce cans a minute and packages them.
“We felt there was a large opportunity to get into the can business,” Risell said. “A lot of our customers were asking for cans. We also needed to upgrade our racking system.”
Risell and a group of investors purchased the Lion Brewery in November 2007. Together, they have facilitated the brewery’s growth without sacrificing any of its work force, which consists of about 175 people. They have focused on restoring the roar of Lionshead and Stegmaier beer brands. They also pack for a number of customers, including other beer brands and soda.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for this area of the country, Northeastern Pennsylvania, to expand and to run a business and obviously, make a decent business return,” Risell said. “That was the worst of times when the economy went south, but we stuck it out and we weathered the storm for the last couple years and we made a strategic decision that we were going to invest in our business.”
When Risell and investors purchased the Lion Brewery in 2007, it had two bottle lines. Since then, the investment in new equipment has grown business by about 20 percent, Risell said.
“We’ve added a significant number of large customers on a national basis. Our business has grown quite well,” Risell said. “At the same time, we’ve been able to maintain our profitability and we’ve also added jobs.”
The 70 to 75 jobs added thanks to the investments have included supervisors, managers, brewers, bottlers, mechanics, forklift operators and quality control staff.
“Since Cliff took over, it has been magnificent what they’re doing,” said union President Clarence Gallagher. “They’re hiring people. Before, they were laying off people.”
The Lion Brewery is the only remaining brewery in Luzerne County and the second largest in the state after Yuengling.
Farina has assisted in the growth by expanding territory where brewery sells its products to 17 states. In 2007, its brands were sold only in Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey and New York. Working with Scranton-based distributor LT Verrastro President Pat Verrastro, Farina also has assisted in expanding the Lion Brewery’s brands to more bars and restaurants throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania as well.
The Lion Brewery got into the craft brewing business about a year ago and decided to revamp its Stegmaier brand, keeping the traditional Gold Medal label that has been around since 1857.
“We’re going to continue focusing on the craft side because the craft side of this industry is where it’s at today,” Farina said.
The Lion Brewery bought the Stegmaier name in 1974. About a year ago, Risell said he and other officials at the Lion Brewery decided “we’re going to make Stegmaier work or we won’t have Stegmaier.”
“Since that time, with Leo’s help and Tom’s help, we have fixed that brand from a quality standpoint and a recipe standpoint,” Risell said. “With Tom’s selling and marketing, we have had tremendous growth.”
Among the other growth at the Lion Brewery, its offices have moved to Laird Street in Wilkes-Barre.
“We continue to invest every year in our business,” Risell said. “We’re investing in our brewhouse to make us more efficient and capable. We buy new cleaning equipment every year, including trucks and forklifts. We’re spending a significant amount of money every year to make our business better. Our business is growing. Our customers are demanding more and we’re spending more.”