he best things in life always begin with a little heavy lifting.
I was able to confirm as much last Friday when I visited Yards Brewing Co. at its brand-new facility at 901 N. Delaware Ave. Though my technical knowledge of brewing is limited to my knowing that I really, really enjoy the end result, I'd always understood that making good beer requires years of hands-on experience, insane attention to detail and unfair levels of patience.
But it all starts with a few guys bending at the knee and not the waist.
When I arrived, Yards employees Rick Anstotz and Andrew Horne took me down to their lounge and threw me a pair of hard-toe rubber boots. I was ready to work. (Or at least get in everyone’s way as they worked.) The job: brewing a half-batch of Philadelphia Pale Ale, the most popular of Yards' flagship varieties.
Now that I was properly shod, Anstotz and Horne led me on a quick-hit tour of the new digs, which Yards founder and brewmaster Tom Kehoe began leasing last October. (First based locally in Manayunk, Yards was brewed in Kensington until last year, when Kehoe split from business partners Bill and Nancy Barton. That space is now home to the couple’s Philadelphia Brewing Co.)
This place was meant to be a brewery. Formerly Title 10 skate park, the space is roughly 26,000 square feet in size, about 6,000 square feet bigger than what they were working with in Kenzo. Sunlight filters into the brewing side of the facility, which is separated from the 180-bottle-a-minute production wing by an epic hand-built wall. (Over on this side, new filling and packaging equipment will up Yards' shelf life from three to four weeks to six months.) But one of the most vital interior features is the 28-foot-high ceilings, a space-saving boon for a brewery that plans on producing 20,000 barrels of beer annually. (One barrel equals 31 gallons — two kegs.) "You have a small footprint for a tall, 100-barrel tank," said Kehoe. “It doesn’t use much more space than a 50-barrel tank."
From here, I made friends with a head-spinning array of gadgets — Cold boxes! Filtration systems! Bright tanks! Keg washers! Bottle fillers! Case gluers! — before making my way into a ceilinged room containing one big, bad, noisy grain mill — step one of the brew, where much of the aforementioned heave-hoing takes place. My guides, joined by several other Yardsies, dragged out sack after cut-open sack (2,500 pounds in all) of German pilsen base malt to pour into a fixed funnel situated in the corner of the room. I feebly tossed in two sacks myself, so I can now make the entirely specious claim that I helped.
The milled grain travels via a chain-driven ceiling system into a silo that feeds the setup where the brewing actually begins. A raised platform allows access to three 50-barrel tanks — the mash tun, where milled grain combines with boiling water to convert starch into sugar; the lauter tun, where spent grain is separated from the mash to produce wort; and the whirlpool, which circulates the wort to filter out proteins. (The wort must be boiled with hops before entering the whirlpool — Yards is using the mash tun for this step while they wait for a separate boiling kettle to arrive.)
I hovered over the shoulders of brewery manager Tim Roberts and lab manager Frank Winslow as they oversaw the processes. What these guys do is best described as cerebral — drawing out bits of mash with a ladle bent onto a rake to test with iodine, keeping an eye on a sight glass to gauge clarity, pouring drops of the liquid onto a handheld refractometer to test for a specific density.
It’s serious, scientific business — and it takes a while. Before the wort enters the 100-barrel temp-controlled fermenting tanks to receive yeast and more hops (this is where the beer actually becomes beer), the brewers dance with it, in various capacities, for about two hours. "At this stage, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait," Winslow said.
Great time for lunch, then, in the front area of the brewery that's been the subject of quite a few rumors lately. Will it be a brewpub/restaurant? A bar? A tasting room? Kehoe’s not sure just yet. "I’m thinking it’s going be more like a beer garden," he said. "Nothing too structured. There’ll be a bar, you can do tastings, go on tours, sit down at a table … and possibly
get something to eat."
That's a big possibly
right there. But don’t tell that to City Tavern chef Walter Staib, who showed up toting an insane cold cut spread, fresh-baked rolls and a steaming-hot kettle of his famous pepper pot soup.
Kehoe told me that the chef's been visiting on recent weekdays with lunch for the crew — if they do decide to serve food at Yards, Staib wants to be involved. "A couple more weeks [of his food] and we might be sold," laughed Kehoe. (The pair's worked together since 2003, when Yards began producing Revolutionary Ales, specialty beers based off the recipes of the Founding Fathers for the Old City landmark.)
So the grub situation's still up in the air — but most other aspects of this newborn operation are right on schedule. The Philly Pale batch is currently fermenting alongside two prior test brews — the Extra Special Ale and the "TJ," or Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale. The plan’s to get the flagships out first, then dive into specialties; they'll soon revive the Brawler ruby session ale.
The brewery’s environmental policies are taking shape: They're aiming at 100 percent dependency on PECO wind power; spent grain is donated to a local farmer; and they’ve hired the Pedal Co-Op to haul their recyclables.
Distribution goals are clear-cut: Philly’s in front, but director of operations Steve Mashington says their next step is to grow into New York and D.C., then the rest of the East Coast. (Ideological differences toward expansion were at the root of Kehoe’s divorce from the Bartons.)
It’s all very ambitious. But as far as I can tell, Kehoe hasn’t lost sight of where he started. The proof's in the kettles — the same tiny homemade brewing system that he used to craft beer in a Manayunk garage rests on the new brewery floor, ready to rock. They'll use it to make six-keg one-off batches — and Kehoe wants each member of his nine-man crew to test out his own beer recipe on the rig. "If we come up with something special, hopefully that’ll turn into a regular brew," he said. "We definitely have a bunch of bright people. Your best ideas always come from within."