Inquirer Magazine March 2, 2003

Ale's Well that Ends Well

Kensington Again Has a Brewery, Thanks to Yards' Move from Manayunk

By Rick Nichols

Its address is Amber Street. But that is really the back of the new Yards Brewery, for a year now reanimating the shell of Weisbrod & Hess, one of the last of tattered Kensington's once-ubiquitous beer-makers.

W & H threw in the towel in 1939, though today you can still see its name carved high above the street, next to flaking mosaics of beer bottles and its old trademark, the golden-plumed peacock.

Yards actually opens on Martha Street, a lane- once gated at both ends- defining a cobbled compound that in the late 1880's held an ice-house and a barrel-making shop, a brew house, and still-standing sturdy brick stables.

Nearby, there were dozens just like this brewery- Straubmiller's, Proto, Frederick Feil, Gretz, F. Mott- offering Sunshine to the workingman and Exquisite Dark, Gretz Ale, and W & H's own Shakespeare Ale, famed, so its label boasted, for "The Taming of the Brew."

Might I suggest that destiny may have guided seven-year-old Yards, now Philadelphia's only full-scale brewery, to this piece of above-ground archaeology, this boneyard of breweries that (along with later ones in Brewerytown, 30 blocks west) once made the city the brewing capital of America?

The way co-owner Bill Barton tells it, he and his wife, Nancy, were killing time circling from nearby York Street when they spotted the "Bottling plant" sign on Amber. Serendipitously, it was when they were searching to relocate Yards from its cramped, higher-rent digs in Manayunk.

"We were desperate," Barton says. "She looked up and there it was." The writing on the wall.

Yards brews the old-fashioned way. It employs English techniques that predate the influx in 1840 of German lagers, using foaming, open-topped fermentation tanks installed in W & H's vast, empty chambers.

One happy result is its flagship brew, an amber Extra Special Ale that riffs off English bitter ale- upping the imported English hops content for more floral aroma, its body bulked with a subtle "chocolate malt," making for a deliciously lively, full-flavored beer. After brewing, a sack of dry British East Kent Goldings hops is added to each keg to boost flavor.

At City Tavern, which features Yards-made original-recipe ales favored by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the so-called "Ben Franklin" brew is, in fact, this Extra Special Ale. (The Yards line, bottled and on tap at 100 local spots, also includes a sweet Love Stout, brewed with oyster shells, whose calcium helps smooth the taste; a lighter-style Philadelphia Pale Ale; and seasonal British- and Belgian-style brews).

"They are at the apex of the pyramid," says Hatboro beer historian Rich Wagner, who has documented the final days of Schmidt's, and the false starts of Dock Street, Red Bell, and other latter-day pretenders to the city's old brewing throne.

The first time around, it was the hammer of Prohibition in 1920, that wiped out a good number of distinctive neighborhood brewers.

The second time around- over the last 10 years- you could argue that hubris and overreaching played a role in the upstarts' demise.

Yards is taking a different course, linking arms with history, building on firmer ground, staking a more sober claim as the natural successor to Kensington's once-proud tradition.

Let us raise our glasses…