Yards Brewing Company and the Philadelphia Brewing Company keep up with the tradition of brewing good, local beer in Philadelphia.
When the Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence that every man had the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” it is quite possible that they considered beer a part of that.
Beer was a regular part of their everyday lives. George Washington brewed his own beer. Thomas Jefferson grew the ingredients for his original beer on his farm at Monticello.
The tradition of beer in Philadelphia goes back to its earliest days.
“Philadelphia was one of the biggest seaports in the colonies, and beer was an integral part of everyday life back then,” said Rich Wagner, founder of Pennsylvania Brewery Historians. “So Philadelphia, being a large city and a large port, had lots of breweries.”
In the 1800s, with an influx of German immigrants, lager beer was introduced to America and helped propel Philadelphia brewing to further success. By the 1880s, there were almost 100 commercial breweries in the Philadelphia area.
“Because Philadelphia was already an established brewing center from the very beginning and because we were in a highly populated area in the Northeast, we probably were one of the larger brewing centers,” Wagner said.
In 1920, Prohibition changed everything. The longstanding practice of Philadelphia brewing was shut down. While many companies continued to brew illegally, others utilized their facilities to manufacture ice, coal or other products. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, some breweries returned, but they didn’t encounter their former successes and died off one by one.
Today, Philadelphia breweries have made a comeback. This long-held Philadelphian tradition is being carried on by local breweries.
Yards Brewing Company is trying to embody this history.
“Philadelphia has such a great brewing heritage,” said Tom Kehoe, founder and brew master of Yards. “I think we came along and took that personality and said ‘Hey, we’re a real Philly brewing company.’”
Yards got its start when Kehoe and a friend started making beer in their dorm rooms at Western Maryland College. In 1994, they decided to turn their passion into a business and founded Yards Brewing Company.
“We ran up our credit cards and gathered whatever cash we had around and found a place to do it in Manayunk and bought some equipment and started making beer,” Kehoe said.
The road wasn’t easy for Yards in its early days.
“We were always growing slow,” Kehoe said. “We never had a lot of cash to put into the business or anything.”
However, they soon outgrew their three-barrel system in Manayunk and in 1996, were able to move to Roxborough and upgrade to a 25-barrel system.
“So we had a bigger system at that point and were able to make a lot more beer,” Kehoe said. “We were there for five years and we started bottling there – in the beginning we only did kegs.”
Yards continued to expand. In 2001, it moved to a location in Kensington where it was able to improve its bottling line and increase its output of beer.
Its current location on Delaware Avenue, where it moved in 2007, is the largest facility so far, with a 50-barrel brew house.
Throughout its journey, Yards has acquired a loyal following, due in large part to its unique recipes.
“We want to do real flavorful ales, things that [make] people really go, ‘Wow, this is a great beer,’” Kehoe said. “That was part of our philosophy from the beginning. We wanted to really bring good beer and inspiring beer to people.”
Yards has paid tribute to Philadelphia’s brewing history by partnering with City Tavern in 2003 to create its “Ales of the Revolution” line, based on actual recipes of the Founding Fathers.
“We have Ben Franklin’s recipe for spruce beer and General Washington’s recipe for a porter,” Kehoe said.
While paying homage to the city’s history, Yards is also progressively looking toward the future. Its brewery is 100 percent wind-powered.
“We try to be very green,” Kehoe said. “We try to do things that are all good for the environment.”
In honor of this, Yards was named the city’s 2010 Green Business of the Year by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Although in recent months, Yards has felt the effect of a poor economy, its business is still strong.
“It’s harder to grow, and prices are going up,” Kehoe said. “But I think people still like to have a beer even when times are bad.”
Yards offers free tours every Saturday for its customers.
“People can come to the brewery and see that we’re actually making beer here, and also we’re able to talk to people about how we do it and our philosophy on the beer and the passion we have for brewing beer,” Kehoe said.
Throughout their history, it’s this passion that has brought Yards to where it is today.
“It’s a lot of ups and downs,” Kehoe said. “Part of it is, we really like what we’re doing. So even when times are tough, we still go to work with a smile on our face, trying to work through everything.”
Part of the turmoil of Yard’s history led to the creation of Philadelphia Brewing Company, another brewery that is now successfully embodying Philadelphia’s legacy.
“There were a number of people involved in Yards Brewing Company, and a couple years ago, they decided to go their separate ways,” Wagner said. “Yards moved, took the brands and the name, and they moved to a new facility. And the people that wanted to start Philadelphia Brewing Company started a new company, and they stayed in the existing facility, and they got the equipment and the real estate.”
The PBC facility in Kensington, previously occupied by Yards, was originally built as part of the Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewing Company in 1885. This building illustrates the story of beer in Philadelphia. It was founded in 1880 by German immigrants and like many breweries, failed to come back after Prohibition.
PBC formed in the old Yards Kensington location, continuing brewing success.
“We’re pretty unique in the beer business, as far as breweries go,” said Bill Barton, who owns the company along with his wife, Nancy Barton. “We’re the only brewery that I’m aware of on the East Coast that self distributes in the matter that we do.”
Barton sees his company as a continuation of the Philadelphia tradition.
“History’s kind of repeating itself,” Barton said. “That’s the way all the beer was distributed 100 years ago. All the breweries sold directly, there was no such thing as distributors … And that’s how we operate. And since we don’t have any middle man, partnering with us to distribute and mark up the beer, our beer is much more affordable to the customers.”
The brewery has gained a loyal following because of its personal connection and original beer.
“[Coming up with recipes] is a democratic process,” Barton said. “We have a big staff, and everybody gives their own two cents, and so collectively, we’re a pretty good team of people from brewers to marketing people to just drinkers that work here. We try to help design things that from our experiences in the business, kind of create something that we think other people would enjoy as well.”
Like Yards, PBC offers free tours on Saturdays.
“People get to come out and get to actually see where their beer is made,” Barton said. “I think they have a good time and it’s an experience. People like to know where their stuff comes from, particularly beer.”
PBC takes its role in the Philadelphia community seriously.
“They’re very good neighbors, and they’re very conscious of the environment and also of being supportive of the community,” Wagner said. “When they moved into that neighborhood, they actually helped to improve the neighborhood a little bit by taking a building that was abandoned … and putting an enormous amount of work into cleaning it up and improving it.”
While the Bartons were with Yards, they pushed for the move to Kensington.
“Every time you have something like that happen in a neighborhood that’s sort of in distress, it helps. There’s a spinoff effect,” Wagner said.
Yards Brewing Company and PBC are bringing back the legacy of brewing in Philadelphia, one pint at a time.
“Both of the production breweries are a tribute to continuing the tradition, and both breweries make great beers in their own right,” Wagner said. “And they both have different styles, they each have their own flavor … they’re not the same beers in both companies. But they both represent Philadelphia’s brewing industry very well.”
The Founding Fathers would be proud.
Summer Beckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.