Philly Maker Series: Behind the Scenes With Yards’ Top Brewmaster
Head to any bar in Philly and odds are they will have at least two things on tap: Yuengling (obviously) and something from Yards. The Northern Liberties brewery has been a city favorite since the first pint of Extra Special Ale was poured way back in 1995.
So to kick-off our inaugural Maker Series interviews -- where we interview the locals behind iconic Philadelphia companies -- we sat down with owner and original co-founder Tom Kehoe over a few pints to learn more about Yards' storied history and what exactly is so great about owning a brewery in Philly (spoiler: everything).
So let’s start way at the beginning -- how did you first get interested in beer?
We started experimenting with beer right from the get-go. We had our quarters beer [note: quarters is a drink game] in early college that was cheap, American beer and then we would always get a few imports, which were the nicer beers that actually had flavor. The first beer that I had where I realized that beer could be something different was a Beck’s Dark -- but it wasn’t the beer that got me into craft brewing. [That happened] when I was a freshman in college. We went to Dunderbak’s in the Lehigh Valley Mall, and I had a beer called Anchor Steam... and it was made in the US. It was awesome. I couldn't believe we can make beer like this in the US... of course we can make a beer like this.
And it was at that point I started to seek out microbrews, craft brews, and better beers. Later in college I began making beer in my dorm room.
That doesn’t exactly sound legal...
Well, it was was legal at the time -- and I was old enough to do it. And it was great. Before going out for the night we would have our homebrew.
Do you remember the first beer you made?
I think I called it TK lager -- for Tom Kehoe Lager -- we got a kit, and we made it from malt extract. And we were able to make it, I think, with a hot plate in the dorm. We boiled it, added the hops and water, and put in the fermentor. The beer turned out OK. It wasn’t great, but it was ours and there was something about making it that inspired us to try and do it again.
And a funny thing is a professor comes up to us one day and says “I heard you're making beer” and we didn’t know if we were going to get into trouble or not. Turns out, he was a homebrewer doing all-grain brewing and wanted to try it. He invited us over and then brought us to the British Brewing Company (in Maryland).
After that, I started showing up pretty much every week to the British Brewing company for a tour. It wasn’t like many people were doing brewery tours back then and eventually I just started working there -- basically volunteering and then next thing you know, I was working there. At that point it turned out to be a full summer job. Per capita, we consume more draft beer in PA than almost every other state. We had multi-taps with 12 different beers available well before other states did.
Per capita, we consume more draft beer in PA than almost every other state. We had multi-taps with 12 different beers available well before other states did.
So at what point did you want to branch out and do your own thing?
I worked there [at British Brewing Company] for a full summer, and part of the school year. A bit after graduation I realized that this is what I wanted to do but was getting paid next to nothing. I had to go out there and get a real job. And it was either do it now or never do it. So [along with co-founder Jon Bovit] we maxed out our credit cards and bought the equipment. We still have that [original] three barrel system here that we are using as a pilot brewery. Then we found a place to set up shop in Manayunk. We were there for about a year and a half before moving to Roxborough. We were selling everything we could and had to increase the size by eight times to keep up with demand. It was a real learning curve. Bigger batches, expenses. Learning how to run a business is difficult.
How did you first start selling to bars?
It was amazing. When we first came on the scene in April of 1995 [it coincided with] the first craft beer festival of Philadelphia. We premiered the ESB there, before we even sold it. We were licensed, giving it out to Philadelphians that showed up. And the response was great -- people loved it and couldn’t believe we were making beer like that [in Philly]. We got all of our first accounts there: Dawson Street, Cavanaugh’s, and the Khyber. And after that it was basically just word of mouth. We had people calling us and had 13 bars and selling every beer we could make.
So you’re in 13 bars selling the ESA, how long did it take before branching out with different varieties?
We had this idea of doing historic beers right away, but we didn’t start doing the Ales of the Revolution. We started with a beer called the Entire porter, that was based off of beer that porters would originally drink. To make it, we brewed a dark mild -- which is now the Brawler -- and an Imperial stout, and we blended those together to make a great porter.
[At Yards] we’ve always focused on English Ales and beer engines, which is the old style of pouring beer. It was more beer traditions (not necessarily the history of Philadelphia). The third beer we made was Old Bart which is out right now... it was a big barley wine that we did. And eventually we came out with a saison.
We’ve retired a few along the way, but we definitely have our core beers like the Philly Pale, the IPA, Brawler, Love Stout, and the ESA all year round. Then we have the Ales of the Revolution. We’re also working on a lineup of seasonals, available each quarter. And we have -- right now -- two limited release beers that come out as standards to be sold everywhere. And some of the fun stuff that is available in the tap room, which we will send out to bars as a special surprise.
We enjoy being the hometown beer, the local beer.
So what do you think of Philly as a beer city? And has that helped Yards to be so successful?
With Philly, it’s two-fold. It’s a city with a great beer heritage, an industrial town, with lots of factory workers, and they all drank beer. There wasn’t soda or anything else. They drank [beer] at lunch when they worked. It didn’t have to be strong but it was refreshing, and it was the only drink. It was part of everyone's life.
And [because of Pennsylvania's liquor licenses] six packs weren’t always available until very recently, and because of that, people went to the bar to drink. Per capita, we consume more draft beer in PA than almost every other state. People are already used to drinking beer on tap, and we had a revolution of beer taps way before other areas. We had multi-taps with 12 different beers available well before other states did. It’s a big advantage.
Do you feel that people’s tastes have changed since you started?
Absolutely. And that drives diversity in the market. It allows for smaller brewers to succeed.
There was a Sam Adams brew pub in town and there was Dock Street. There were two breweries before us. We came in the same week as Independence came in. Right after that there was Red Bell, Poor Henry's, and Gravity Brewing, but none of them survived that first weed out of craft breweries.
Where is Yards available currently, and are there any plans to expand?
Right now, only in the mid-Atlantic. We are all of PA except for Erie. All of NJ and Delaware. In Maryland for the 95 corridor east, and in portions of northern Virginia. We would rather sell more beer in the places we are already selling beer than keep expanding further. We enjoy being the hometown beer, the local beer.
On that hometown front, what’s the best thing about being a Philly-based business?
Having Philadelphia attitude. It’s a big part of it. You have to have that little swagger and Yards definitely does that. We’ve built up a fantastic culture here -- both how our employees feel and how the community feels about us. I’d like to think that this is a Yards neighborhood around us.
You can’t force someone to like your beer in Philadelphia. You have to earn it just like anyone else. If you’re screwing up, they will tell you.
What’s the most popular beer at Yards?
Among customers, it’s the Philly pale ale. But my favorite is still the ESB and the Imperial stout when it comes out. We’ve also brought back a few things, like Love Stout in a bottle.
Asking the beer-expert here, what’s your favorite bar in Philly?
I love people and bars where you can sit down and talk to people. My local is Bridgid's, which is right in Fairmount, but I also go to Bishop's Collar and London's a lot. Bishop's Collar and the London sell a heck of a lot more [of our] beer, but I met my wife at Bridgid's so I have to say there. Right now, Frankford Hall sells the most Yards. And the beer gardens have been great -- they go through a ton of beer.
Finally, outside of business, what’s the best thing about living in Philly?
The proximity to everything. I love the people. We are absolutely genuine, wear our hearts on our sleeve, and will give you the answer to something whether you like it or not. Philly is a character. And I love the fact that I can just sit down at a bar [here], nobody knows my name, and just talk beer with someone -- I absolutely love it. That’s something that when people come into town, it’s what makes you fall in love with Philly.
And you can’t force someone to like you in Philadelphia, can’t force them to like your beer. You have to earn it just like anyone else. Sports teams have to earn it, and if you’re screwing up, they will tell you. And it’s the same with beer.
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Dan McKay has also gone on the public tour of Yards and can attest to its awesomeness -- it's free, you get free beer -- what’s not to like? You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter @dannypageviews