Celebrator Beer News: The Taste of Philadelphia.

Since the Celebrator Beer News website is—literally—a year out of date and because I am most pleased with my current “Atlantic Ale Trail” column, I thought I’d post it here. Note that, in one of my trademarked mind farts, I placed Manayunk along the Delaware rather than Schuylkill river in the print piece and that has been corrected here, courtesy of Tim Ohst who, along with Carl P., delights in catching me in one faux pas after another.



By Jack Curtin

I’m writing this over the first days of the New Year, amidst the coldest spell to hit the Philadelphia area in some time. Weather and calendar have thus conspired to create an ambiance conducive to huddling in front of the fire and contemplating days long past. Fortunately, huddling and ruminating are signature skills among men of a certain age….

A little more than 15 years ago, tiny Yards Brewing Company introduced its first brew to local beer drinkers who were immediately enraptured to discover just how much they had been longing for its arrival. That initial pouring of Yards Extra Special Ale (ESA) at the first Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival on April 30, 1995, was Ground Zero for the future of the city’s emerging beer culture.

Yards wasn’t born into a vacuum that spring. Harbingers of the future were already in place, notably the beers of Stoudt’s Brewing Company of Adamstown, the Commonwealth’s first modern day brewpub (1987), and those of two popular brewpubs, Samuel Adams Brew House (1989), a surprisingly good extract pub, and Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant (1990), an entity far ahead of its time which brewed an astonishing array of styles for those days. In terms of packaged beers, Dock Street, which began as a contract brewer in 1986, had four beers in the market along with the Stoudt’s offerings (also contracted), as did Pittsburgh’s Penn Brewing (Pennsylvania’s first microbrewery which opened in 1987, seemed all but dead last year, but is now back in business under the original ownership), New York’s New Amsterdam, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. And there was Yuengling, of course; there’s always been Yuengling (which came close to, or topped, two million barrels in 2009).

Two larger and doomed new breweries, Red Bell Brewing Company (contract, 1994) and Independence Brewing Company (production, 1995), had opened not long before the day of the ESA launch. Both were founded by stockbrokers and both were more about potential profits than beer. For serious beer aficionados, Yards was the real deal at last. Founders Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit were true beer geeks who cared about the product they were offering their customers more than they did the bottom line. The draught-only, cask-conditioned Bitter which they turned out from their tiny brewery the Manayunk neighborhood which runs along the Schuylkill River near the city’s western edge became an immediate cult hit.

“Our brewhouse was a three-barrel Frankenstein which we designed ourselves,” Kehoe recalls. “We had two 3bbl and two 7bbl open fermenters that were single walled and kept in a refrigerated room (refrigerated by an air-conditioner). We could brew 36 kegs a week, everything was cask conditioned and [local wholesaler] Ed Friedland bought every drop we made.” I had my first glass of ESA a few weeks after its debut one May morning in that 600 sq. ft. “plant,” which was situated in a courtyard nestled behind an archway on a side street. I laughed aloud when legendary beer writer and proselytizer Jim Anderson, who was also there, characterized it as “not much larger than a mobile home” and have been quoting him ever since.

Everything Yards did was hands-on in the beginning. The duo hand-delivered and helped tap every keg, all the while urging publicans to either revive or install a hand pump to serve it properly. The first to embrace that suggestion, the Dawson Street Pub on the other side of Manayunk, became the de facto brewery pub and my regular watering hole for several years. After Friedland finally convinced the Yards guys that he would treat the beer gently if they’d let him have the brand, he went out and got the rights to sell a British hand pump in the region and helped revive that tradition in local bars and taverns. It was a classic ripple effect: carrying Yards established the small company as the go-to distributorship for local crafts and each new account spawned additional ones.

Throughout the rest of ’95 and into 1996, craft beer developed a solid foothold in the Delaware Valley. Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, north of the city, Flying Fish Brewing across the river in New Jersey, Dogfish Head Brew House & Eats down south in Delaware, and Victory Brewing in the far western suburbs marked the boundaries of a region which was suddenly creating striking new beers. All those entities survive and thrive today; Dogfish and Victory have become industry icons, appearing on nearly everybody’s Best U.S. Breweries lists for years now. Other activity west of the city in 1995 saw openings for the Valley Forge Brewing Company in Devon, Lancaster Brewing Company in its namesake town and Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in Phoenixville opened as brewpubs. Valley Forge closed its two locations in 2005; Lancaster, having survived bankruptcy, is working toward a production plant and contract brewing its packaged beers, and Sly Fox now has a second location and a production brewery in nearby Royersford. In Bear, DE, just over the state line, Stewart’s Brewing Company opened a brewpub that same year. Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, a chain which now has eight brewpubs in three states (PA 5, DE 2, NJ 1), opened its first location in Newark, DE in November 1996.

Both Independence and Red Bell crashed and burned by the beginning of the new century. Henry Ortlieb, scion of the famous brewing family, opened Poor Henry’s, a brewpub and brewery, in 1997 and joined Independence and Red Bell in spectacular failure. Adding to the massacre, he managed take Dock Street, which had been sold to owners who had no idea what to do with it, down with him (the company, under original ownership, returned as a funky neighborhood brewpub, in 2007). Another local, Tun Tavern, which began life as a contract brewery in 1995, escaped by relocating to Atlantic City, NJ, in 1998 and reinventing itself as a successful brewpub of the same name, and is still operating in the shadow of the casinos and boardwalk.

Through it all, Yards proved to be the little brewery that could. The one company that seemed mostly likely to not survive all the turmoil just kept on keepin’ on. A 1996 move to a larger facility added a 25-barrel brewhouse and bottling line to the operation. Entire Porter, IPA, and Saison joined the portfolio, along with seasonals such as Love Stout (brewed with whole oysters), Trubbel de Yards (a Dubbel) and Old Bartholomew Barleywine. The partners split in 1998, with Bovit leaving the company. Bill and Nancy Barton signed on in his place the following year and added an infusion of much needed capital. The 2001 purchase of the historic Weisbrod and Hess Brewery in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood for which they were the driving force gave Yards a home of its own. After tensions developing in the partnership, the Bartons resigned from the company in July 2007 under an arrangement wherein Kehoe continued to operate as Yards in the Kensington building until the end of the year and then departed, taking the brand with him. The Bartons retained ownership of the building and brewhouse and created Philadelphia Brewing Company there in January 2008, shipping their first beers in March.

Yards announced the leasing of a building on Delaware Avenue along the city’s waterfront in October 2007 and said it would open a new brewery there in early 2008. That turned out to be wildly optimistic as a series of construction problems plagued the new site. Yards had to contract brew their beers for most of the year and, once again, the whispers began the brand might not survive. Kehoe, who may be the most cheerful, happy man in all the craft brewing world, calmly promised that all would be well and was a man of his word. Production at the new plant finally started in the fall.

Yards Brewing 2010 has a 50bbl brewhouse and giant 100 and 200bbl fermenters, and produced just about 10,000bbls in 2009. Its beers are distributed in the five-county Philadelphia market, the Lehigh Valley north of the city, Pittsburgh and New Jersey. The brewery’s year-round portfolio includes ESA, Philadelphia Pale Ale, IPA and Brawler (a British-style session ale introduced during the first flurry of brewing in 2008), together with the Ales of Revolution, three interpretations of classic Colonial brews done in collaboration with Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern. Some of  the seasonals are back (Saison, Love Stout, Old Bart), with the rest on the radar.

I welcomed in the New Year with a sample bottle of the just-released Old Bart Barleywine, followed by one of ESA, which was my inspiration for this column. The first of those beers was a promise for tomorrow’s aspirations, the second a reminder of yesterday’s dreams which came to fruition all those yeas ago in a hidden-away Manayunk courtyard. An old sentimentalist huddled by the fire might call them the taste of Philly.

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