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Brewer you've never heard of is No. 1 in US, depending how you count

A beer maker many drinkers haven’t heard of has become the top American brewer. Depending on how you define “American brewer.”

G.G. Yuengling and Son didn’t as much dethrone Budweiser, Miller and Coors as it had to wait for them to get acquired by foreign companies. Although December sales figures are preliminary, the maker of Yuengling Lager passed Boston Beer, brewer of Sam Adams, to take the crown for 2011, according to trade journal Beer Marketer’s Insights. The ranking is for beers brewed in the U.S. with American ownership.

“It’s a little ironic" that Yuengling is the No. 1 brewer, given its lack of a national profile, said Eric Sheppard, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. “There are a lot of caveats.”

“It’s not that long ago Yuengling being the largest in the U.S. would have caused people to go, ‘Wha?’,” he said.

Despite its lack of recognition, Yuengling is no upstart. A family owned brewer founded in 1829 and based in Pottsville, Pa., the company sells seven brands and distributes its product in 14 mostly southeastern states. The company's signature brand is its flagship traditional lager.

“By default we’ve slowly climbed our way to the top after 183 years,” chief financial officer David Casinelli said.

He downplays any No. 1 talk, saying the Buds and Millers of the world, even if foreign-owned, “are brewed in American breweries with American jobs."

"Those rankings are more important to industry gurus," Casinelli told msnbc.com. "What’s important to us is we’re growing in an industry that’s declining.”

Anheuser-Busch, brewer of the iconic Budweiser brand, was bought by Belgian conglomerate InBev in 2008. Miller and Coors are owned by a multinational that is based in Britain and Canada.

According to figures supplied by Insight, with preliminary December numbers, Anheuser-Busch InBev has 47 percent of the American market and brewed 99 million barrels in 2011. MillerCoors is second at 28 percent with 60 million barrels.

Yuengling’s numbers that make them dominant? Two-and-a-half million barrels brewed, for a 1 percent market share. Boston is less than a hundred thousand barrels behind.

 Casinelli credits a push this year into the Ohio market that was “far more successful than we planned” for pushing them over the top. But if you live in, say, Texas or California, don’t plan on ordering one any time soon. The company has no more expansion plans at this time.

“We are a regional brewery," Casinelli said. “We will grow as we feel we can handle it. But we’re not going to run across the U.S. and become a national brand.”

But they don’t plan on going away either.

“We’re a fifth-generation business. Most don’t make it past, what do they say, two.”