23 January 09: Don't call it a comeback

"'Frustrating' is an accurate term, I'd say," Yards Brewing Company president and co-founder Tom Kehoe says when asked if 2008 was the most frustrating in Yards' 15 years of brewing. "But it wasn't the end."

In terms of consumer beer production (as opposed to just brewpubs), Yards is the longest tenured brewery in the Philadelphia area, but at the end of 2007 it hit a well publicized snag when Kehoe and his partners Bill & Nancy Barton decided to part ways. The Bartons kept the Kensington brewery and Kehoe kept the brand. The Bartons' Philadelphia Brewing Company made a grand entrance at last year's inaugural Philly Beer Week (7 March 08: Beer Week for Breakfast) and hit the ground running, Kenzinger becoming an instant staple at discerning pubs where Yards was already popular.

Yards, meanwhile, had to set up an entirely new operation just to keep the brand going. Since the space they leased at 901 North Delaware Avenue was most recently the Title 10 Skatepark, it was not brew-ready, and as a stopgap, they relied heavily upon their existing -- and finite -- inventory and rented operations from the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre just to keep their signature Philadelphia Pale Ale in stock. As someone who drinks a lot of the stuff, I can tell you it was just not the same, so it was with much relief in September 2008 that I heard beer was finally coming off the line on Delaware Ave.

"It was a rough go, early on," the awesomely-named Steve Mashington, Yards operation manager/dog walker/chain puller, says of starting back up. "We only sold 30 out of every 50 barrels in those first few batches."

Suffice it to say that they have since ironed out any kinks. The former skatepark, and before that Acorn Iron & Supply Company, is now in full swing, with a projection of 16,000 barrels for the calendar year 2009.

And again, as someone who drinks a lot of the stuff, I am convinced that it's better now than ever. A month or so ago at Memphis Taproom, I had a pint of Yards' ESA, the first of that ale I'd had since production hit its stride, and it was one of the best beers I had ever had. "It's great, isn't it?" Brendan Hartranft, owner of the Taproom says, confirming my surprisingly strong satisfaction. "There were a few frankly bad batches (after production started back up in Philly), but they're definitely back."

"ESA is what everyone remembers us by," says Kehoe (pictured at right) of Yards' once flagship beer. "British visitors, beer snobs, (the late) Michael Jackson . . . it's the one with the lasting impression."

It's funny, then, that Philly Pale Ale has supplanted it in popularity and consumption. "Philly Pale accounts for 50% of our operation," Mashington says. "I think it's a combination of people liking lighter beers and a regional identity thing."

Indeed, it's easy to order a Philly Pale Ale in Philadelphia. Even bars that don't subscribe to a local-only philosophy tend to carry it. At Citizens Bank Park, where like any major sports venue the lowest taste denominator prevails, with either Bud Light, Coors Light or Miller Lite at nearly every stand, Philly Pale Ale has been available for years. PBC's Kenzinger debuted at the stadium last year. And both beers were along for the championship ride at the ballpark.

"There's room for both of us," Kehoe says of Yards and PBC before adding, "and there's room for several more. Beer drinkers here will support competition." As one Fishtown bar owner said last year, "divorces happen all the time. We want mommy and daddy to succeed."

One area of competition Kehoe doesn't want to get too deep into, though, is the sale of single beers. That is, a much anticipated brewpub at the new Yards facility won't quite be a full-time brewpub, as Kehoe doesn't want to cut into the nearby bars in Northern Liberties and Fishtown who sell his beer. "But really, we don't want to be here until 2 in the morning," Mashington (pictured at left) says with a laugh.

But they will be selling beer there -- by the pint, by the sixpack, by the case -- and soon. "Philly Beer Week is coming, and we'd like to have the place presentable by then," Kehoe says. It was his beer that Mayor Nutter tapped last year to kick off the first ever event, and this year he has an all new home for hosting.

The first priority of beer production now taken care of, the last details of what will be the public space are now being hammered out. Mashington says there will be a bar and lots of tables, but nothing too extravagant. The kind of place where you can unwind on your way home from work -- or wind up on your way to a concert at Festival Pier.

"Really, we just love the visibility here," Kehoe says of the location under the morning shadows of the Waterfront Square towers next door. "Maître d's wouldn't often send tourists to Kensington, but they'll send them to Delaware Avenue." Looking out toward the Delaware River, Kehoe pauses and smiles, "and I'm a bit of a nautical man."

There's some truth to his laugh -- he keeps a 1978 Ericson sailboat in the marina at Piers 3 & 5. It's named Saison, after Yards' belgian ale, which will return this spring. A batch of Love Stout, the chocolaty stout that once used oysters in the brewing process, had just finished production when I stopped in last Saturday and will be ready for consumption in early February.

In addition to these seasonals and the signature ales -- Philly Pale, ESA (extra special ale), IPA (india pale ale) and Brawler, the English session ale that returned with the new facility after a decade long absence -- Yards brews the Revolutionary Ales served at City Tavern, the reproduction of the colonial tavern popular during the Revolution. The General Washington Tavern Porter and Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale never missed a beat during the 2008 slowdown, and both are readily available at beer distributors now. Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce Ale, the spicy, Christmasy ode to Ben Franklin, will return to production later this year.

City Tavern is a major participant in Philly Beer Week, hosting several events featuring their ales during the week, including a 'Meet the Brewer' with Kehoe. But the event worth circling on your calendar is the one to be hosted at Yards: Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em. Smoked beers, smoked meats, and cigars that will be smoked are the theme of the definitive event at the new brewery, to be held on Friday the 13th of March.

It will be a hell of a public introduction to the new room, which will no doubt become a go-to spot, even if it will close at 9. You just can't beat a beer that's so fresh off the line it doesn't even have to leave the building it's brewed in. And that it's brewed in Philly just makes it taste that much better.

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An exact date isn't set yet, but tours of the brewery will also resume once the public space is ready. The kettle room has the potential to double, and Kehoe and Mashington expect it to, eventually. A custom stainless steel piping system pumps it from the kettles into the bottling and barreling room, where new machines currently fill 120 bottles a minute and 40 kegs an hour.

Even though they've been around since 1994, Yards still has something to prove, so another major piece of reestablishing its brand is a reestablishment of the branding itself. Mashington oversaw an update of the packaging. "It was too all over the place," he says of the pre-move styles affixed to bottles and cases. "I want to be able to sit across the room and tell someone is drinking a Yards."

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After a dip and a deep breath last year, Yards is back in action, and they're looking to grow. With the quality of the beer coming off the lines and flying off the shelves, there's no reason to think they won't. And once the bar opens? Hot damn.

Philly's beer history -- from William Penn's homestead to the Brewerytown & Northern Liberties heyday of the late 19th century to the craft beer revival of the 80s and 90s -- has come full circle back on the Delaware River.

–B Love