In 1994 college friends and avid homebrewers Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit began producing and selling beer out of a small industrial space on Krams Avenue in Manayunk. At that time beer options were limited and craft beers were almost unheard of.
Leaving their full-time jobs, Kehoe and Bovit, now known as the “The Yards Guys,” spent long days brewing six-keg batches and delivering each keg to 13 bars around the city themselves. Their first account was with the Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk.
“I guess we would have been considered a nano brewery in today’s terms,” laughed Kehoe, recalling the brewery’s early days.
Flash forward 20 years and the Yards Brewing Company has grown to be one of the most noted breweries in Philadelphia, with an estimated production of 32,000 barrels this year. The brewery distributes throughout the mid-Atlantic region including Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and northern Virginia.
Moving on up
After a year and a half in their small space in Manayunk, Yards made a move to a larger location on Umbria Street in nearby Roxborough. Then it was on to the building that formerly housed the old Weisbrod & Hess Brewery in Kensington, now home to the Philadelphia Brewing Company.
Yards remained at that location for five years, growing in size and product and making a name for itself in the craft beer scene. In 2007 the brewery changed homes once again; this time it was a move to their current location at 901 North Delaware Avenue in Northern Liberties. The move allowed the company to focus on expansion as well as open its on-site bar and cafe, the Tasting Room.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” said Kehoe of the company’s growth. “Owning your product and having the beer community grow around you. We had a great little cult following in the beginning that really showed pride in local beer. But you can’t force yourself on Philadelphians.”
For Kehoe, beer is the glue of Philadelphia’s culture.
“Philadelphia is a city of food, variety and sustainability, and I think beer ties a lot of that together,” he said.
Since its founding, Yards has held a strong philosophy of sustainability. The brewery is Pennsylvania’s first 100 percent wind powered brewery and uses every opportunity to use local ingredients and materials and to recycle and reuse, even donating their spent grain to feed the bison they then use for their Tasting Room’s bison chili.
Back to the beginning
And it is through those sustainability efforts that Yards has returned to its Northwest Philadelphia roots this summer. In a collaboration with Jeff Lorenz and Annie Scott of the Manayunk-based Tiny Terra Ferma, the brewery erected a living hops wall on their building’s facade earlier this month.
“I’m really psyched about this project,” said Kehoe who noted the idea stemmed from an even larger project of an awning with rooftop garden. Red tape in the form of zoning and other approvals has put a hold on that project, but the brewery was excited to complete the hops wall in the interim.
For Lorenz and Scott, the Yards project was a fun one. “The main thing that Annie and I wanted to do with this project, which is actually the approach for many of our projects, is interpretive design — not just making a space look good, but making it functional as well.”
Lorenz and Scott who own the landscape design store on Main Street also work as designers and landscapers with an approach to sustainable land transformation in both small and large scale environments.
The green wall, which dons a brand new Yards Brewery sign, is made of black locust, a native tree that grows along the banks of the Schuylkill and is currently growing three kinds of hops: Mt. Hood, Centennial, and Cascade. A pollinator garden sits at the base of the wall filled with goldenrod, aster, brown-eyed susan, and echinacea. Kehoe noted that was an important addition to Yards’ efforts to help save the bees.
“With Yards’ great sustainability initiatives we were excited that we could come in and help translate that through this space,” Lorenz said. “We planted in order to further carry Yards’ message.”
While the hops won’t flower until later in the season, Kehoe says he does plan on making a special batch using the homegrown hops.
“Jeff and Annie did a great job,” he added. “The wall looks great and it will only get fuller as the years go by. We’re really happy with it.”