written by Lisa Grimm
Back in 1994, two home-brewing college buddies pooled their resources to start a brand-new brewery in Manayunk; Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit brought a love of quality English-style ales, some hands-on professional experience in Maryland’s British Brewing Company, a 3.5 barrel brewing system, and a few recipes to the table—or, more accurately in this case—to the tiny garage that served as the first Yards brewery. They weren’t the first on the local scene, as Stoudt’s was already making waves beyond the city limits, but within Philly proper, there was still very little going on when compared to today’s abundance of local beer. Dock Street Brewing Company had moved from the suburbs into Logan Square in 1989, and Red Bell Brewing Company had opened in Brewerytown in 1993, but beyond a handful of bars willing to experiment, it could be hard to get a microbrew (as they were all known then), much less a local one. And as for cask-conditioned ales? Were there even local drinkers who gave enough thought to the brewing process, and who wanted that final in-keg final fermentation? Even if there were, good luck finding a beer engine to serve them as intended—’modern’ taps serving big-name lagers were the norm.
But that was all about to change.
In April of 1995, the inaugural Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival was held at the Civic Center; brands like Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked Ale represented the national scene, but even most of the few locals around were still produced outside the city limits. As Tom Kehoe recalls, the timing could not have been better for the fledgling brewery. “We were the newest beer there and we were from Philly. There were some other Philly brewers and contract brewers there, but we were the real deal. The public tried Yards for the first time and we were a hit.” The beer they debuted was Yards Extra Special Ale, and after that first sample at the festival, it seemed everyone around town wanted to serve it. Kehoe continued, “Dave Wilby from the Dawson Street Pub was there and he placed an order right then, and he received the beer three weeks later, as our first stop on our first delivery day. We didn’t have to sell anything—they were calling and contacting us. We were just deciding who to sell it to. We were small; only able to handle 13 accounts for the first few months.”
Dave Wilby remembers the event just as vividly. He had been working to change Dawson Street from a biker bar into a destination for a good-beer-loving crowd, and he recalls that on that first meeting with Kehoe, they just ‘clicked’—Yards wanted to make great cask-conditioned beers in America, and they were hoping to find bars that wanted to serve them. Within just a few weeks of that initial meeting, Wilby had ordered a beer engine, not a simple matter back then, but one that involved considerable research, and a transatlantic purchase. And the beer engine proved to be a real draw; once word got out that Dawson Street was serving the beer on the hand pump, courtesy of an article by longtime local beer scribe Jack Curtin, the pub was, to quote Wilby, ‘slammed’ the day after the story came out—and this was long before beer geeks could simply check Twitter or their favorite local tap list website for the latest updates. Yards ESA has been on tap at Dawson Street Pub without a break ever since. Another bonus for the Manayunk bar was the proximity of the brewery. Wilby loved that it was “…literally being brewed in the neighborhood—I never thought I’d have the opportunity to sell beer made in my own back yard.”
But the 900 square foot brewing space couldn’t keep up with the demand for Yards for very long, and in those early days, Kehoe and Bovit were working flat out to keep things moving—they were still the only two employees at the brewery, and they did everything—cleaning, brewing, quality assurance, distribution, publicity and all the rest. It was a different world from some of the other local breweries which arose around the same time: Red Bell Brewing Company and Independence Brewing Company were both founded by investors looking to make a profit on the microbrew craze (as the market saw it)—with their capital, they could afford to employ other people to worry about the quality of the beer. For Yards, it was all about the beer, and maintaining quality. Ironically, the smaller cash reserves may have been an advantage, though it may not have seemed like it at the time. Kehoe reflects: “We survived because we were small and kept true to the value of quality, consistency and valuing our relationships with the restaurants we served. The early brewers that went big did not have the sales to support their size brewery in the market. We were lucky because we were brewing at capacity right away. In the beginning, it was all about surviving and paying the bills. Living through the early years is the success of the brand and the character going forward. We were building a local beer culture and didn’t realize it.”
Slow, organic growth meant a move up the hill from Manayunk to Roxborough, and the introduction of a bottling line. More capacity meant more beer, and now-familiar beers like Philadelphia Pale Ale and Yards IPA joined the regular lineup. Continued close contact with bars and restaurants helped confirm the role Yards was playing in growing that local culture—Tom Peters invited Yards to host their first beer dinner at Monk’s in the Roxborough years, and Dawson Street Pub was able to ditch Guinness for Love Stout on a permanent basis. Yards was maxing out at 3,000 barrels a year—already quite a leap from the 900 barrels they had been able to produce at the first location. But having reached capacity in Roxborough, it was time to move again.
The early-to-mid 2000s heralded a period of change for the company. The former Weisbrod & Hess brewery in Kensington, one of the more than 50 breweries designed by noted brewery architect A.C. Wagner, was built in the late 19th century. Though abandoned as a brewery in 1936, it was revitalized and became Yards’ home in 2001. Jon Bovit left the company to spend more time with his family, and Bill and Nancy Barton came on board as investors and co-owners. Under the new management structure, production continued to increase, with a capacity for 7,500 barrels a year, and new beers debuted. The Ales of the Revolution series, designed in conjunction with City Tavern to recreate 18th century beers inspired by recipes teased from the archives of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, is a product of this era—but although everything seemed quite promising, all was not well.
Disagreement behind the scenes among the three partners was brewing (as it were), and the bubble had burst for investor-led microbreweries—Red Bell and Independence were both gone. Distribution issues also arose, further clouding an already-muddy picture. In 2007, the long-rumored split took place—the agreement left the Bartons with the brewery and staff, and Tom Kehoe with the Yards name and recipes, but no employees or physical plant. While it was certainly no fun for the key players involved, Philadelphia drinkers emerged from the dispute in ruder health—you may now know the Bartons’ brewery as Philadelphia Brewing Company. For a time, Yards was contract-brewed at the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, but it was merely a stopgap measure until the new brewery sprang into life.
Despite the turmoil of that period, Tom Kehoe doesn’t consider it to be the greatest challenge Yards has faced. Rather, maintaining high standards and managing growth have been his key concerns throughout the company’s history: “The toughest challenge so far is not selling ourselves out, not just sending beer to 50 states and having a windfall of cash, but being patient and growing organically and gaining strength in our current markets as demand for our product grows in markets that surround us. We want the new markets to be in demand for Yards, not just a new product, when we add that territory. Our philosophy is not only to make great beer but to make beer that people will come back for over and over again, that won’t happen if you are just making gimmicky beers that sell once and are replaced by the next great trend the next year.” Dave Wilby concurred, noting that while the brew team at Yards is certainly capable of making anything they want to, and making it well, they’ve found success by sticking to their core principles and maintaining a consistent brewery identity—a clear through-line from those first English-style ales to the present lineup of beers.
The current Northern Liberties location opened its doors later in 2007, with Yards once again rehabbing an older building, this time a former warehouse. The space is large enough to allow the brewery to produce more than 40,000 barrels annually, and to host events such as the annual Real Ale Invitational, which features cask ale from Yards as well as like-minded national and international brewers, and them gives them scope to continue to support the local community. Indeed, community development has been an important part of the Yards philosophy from the start; Dave Wilby recalls that even as a two-man operation, Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit were always happy to donate time, money and, of course, beer to support local causes. That continues today on a grander scale, as Yards supports the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House and the Tyanna Breast Cancer Foundation, among other endeavors. In addition, the brewery is 100% wind-powered—the first in the state to achieve that sustainability goal.
But continued growth means that eventually, more room will be required, though that must be balanced with the personal touch that has served Yards so well in its first twenty years. When asked to consider the future for Yards, Kehoe said, “Looking ahead, we want to build a larger brewery that we can take our time growing into. Be able to expand if we want, and be selective in the markets and areas we sell beer, to ensure quality and support. And by support, I mean having representatives from Yards working in the markets we are selling beer.”
Given their small-time beginnings and ups and downs of the craft beer market over the past two decades, the surprise has been not success, but rather the scale of that success. Kehoe recalls, “…back then, the largest microbrewers were approaching 15,000 barrels. It would have been an epic achievement to sell that much beer as a microbrewer, more then we could have wished for.” But by 2010, Yards had surpassed that mark, and even early champion Dave Wilby says that in retrospect, he’s not surprised, given that he thought Yards would do well, but that he “…couldn’t have seen it then. I’m amazed at how big that place is and how much beer they turn out—up to fifty people from just two.”
And that sense of community, rather than outright competition among other craft brewers has been a touchstone, says Kehoe: “I have been very impressed that the brewing scene has evolved in a way that I would hope the whole country learns about, so every industry can learn how to grow an industry like a craft brewer, and the fact that the consumer supports the local companies who are also supporting local suppliers. The idea of not needing to be dependent on foreign goods, and the craft brewing industry is proving it. I hope we are showing other industries how to reinvent themselves. It has really led to a lot of pride in the craft and pride in the consumer. We have an industry that is open to sharing ideas and how to better themselves, and the great thing is after discussing how we better ourselves we have each other’s beer with each other.”
Sounds like a Tom Kehoe TED Talk on business leadership would be an ideal way to celebrate two decades of Yards Brewing…with a Yards beer in hand, of course.
Here’s a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings from Yards early years. There’s also some of their old advertisements from old beer publications.