Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May, 2003

Yards Brewery - Kensington's Brewing Tradition Continues

By Rich Wagner

 When I heard Yards Brewing Company was moving into the old Weisbrod and Hess brewery on Frankford Avenue in Kensington, my reaction was one of joy and disbelief. Joy, because I always like seeing old breweries being turned into new breweries, and disbelief, because after photographing the building back in 1985, I never thought anyone would ever make beer there again.

But Yards has been unbelievable from the very start. I remember walking into their brewery on Krams Avenue in Manayunk back in May of 1995. Tucked away in a building much too small to be a brewery was a very large Tom Kehoe, toiling over his steaming three-barrel kettle. My reaction at the time was, "I've only ever seen places like this in Northern California!" There they were, making six kegs at a time. When I asked where the cold storage was Tom replied, "Our beer isn't refrigerated until it's delivered to our customers, it needs time to condition!" Keg conditioned beer in Philadelphia? Then I found out it was dry hopped in the keg, something I hadn't seen or heard of since I visited Bridgeport Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon nine years earlier. I never believed I'd see that back home in Philadelphia.

They developed quite a following with their unique product line. Within three years they moved to a larger facility in Manayunk and installed a bottling line. They grew slowly and kept their debt low, and survived as Philadelphia's only producing microbrewery—no small feat in one of the nation's largest and toughest beer markets..

When it came time to move again, they quickly discovered that Manayunk and Olde City weren't the places to find affordable real estate. They spent a lot of time looking. They even checked out another old brewery near Frankford and Girard, the old Proto brewery, a favorite stop on my Philadelphia Brewery Tour over the years. So when I heard they were considering the old Weisbrod and Hess brewery, I was ecstatic.

I've been sleuthing old breweries in Pennsylvania for the past twenty-three years. Many of them are little more than foundations or walls, and many of the ones that are still standing are barely doing that. I remember finding the old Eberhardt & Ober brewery on Pittsburgh's north side back in 1980. I made sure to take plenty of photographs because it looked like it wouldn't be around much longer. When Tom Pastorius opened it as a brewery eight years later, it was like a Phoenix rising! That made me wonder about some of the other 'white elephants' that dotted Pennsylvania's industrial landscape.

Then came Jim Bell who did the impossible in 1996 when he moved Red Bell into the old Poth brewery, the most complete brewery complex left in Brewerytown. Henry Ortlieb followed a year later when he reinvented part of the old family brewery in Northern Liberties and reopened the bottling house as a microbrewery and brewpub. What's not to like? To a brewery historian and industrial archeologist like myself, it's a best case scenario: old breweries reincarnated as new breweries! Unfortunately these two success stories didn't last.

I found another example of a "phoenix" in 1982 while searching for standing breweries in south-central Pennsylvania. Several locals responded to my questions with, "Have you been to Bube's brewery?" I went directly to the town of Mount Joy and toured the "catacombs" in a classic old, intact brewery complete with wooden fermenters and hogsheads.

Owner Sam Allen saw promise in the dilapidated old brewery site. It was abandoned and hadn't produced beer since 1917, three years before Prohibition. With an enormous amount of hard work he created a restaurant/bar/museum business. He wanted to start producing beer on site, but back then he couldn’t have a liquor license and a brewery license, so his dream of making beer had to wait. Well, they say that good things come to those who wait, and when I tasted that first glass of Bube's beer on November 28th, 2001, it was a good thing worth waiting for! So now we've got craft beer being made in renovated breweries from one end of Pennsylvania to the other.

Not long after Yards commenced brewing in their new location, I got a call from Joe Sixpack of the Daily News who was doing a story on the new Yards brewery. He asked me about other old Kensington breweries. I rattled off a few names: the Straubmuller brewery, which was torn down and is now a school across Frankford Avenue from Yards, the aforementioned Proto brewery, the familiar Gretz brewery smokestack on Germantown Avenue, and the now-demolished Schmidt's brewery on Girard Avenue. I then spent many hours pouring over my copy of American Breweries II creating a comprehensive list of all known breweries in Kensington. I came up with a list of fifty-five and posted it on my website.

Shortly thereafter Ken Milano of the Kensington Historical Society sent me an email. He had just finished doing a story about "Old Kensington" for the November, 2002, issue of Pennsylvania Legacies Magazine. He checked out my list and told me that many of the addresses were not in Kensington. Not being one to perpetuate inaccuracies, I handed him my copy of American Breweries II and asked him to make corrections. He spent many more hours examining all of the addresses in Philadelphia. The new list contains 85 breweries, at 135 locations! It turns out that the boundaries of Kensington are akin to the pseudopods of an amoeba. They undulate depending on who you talk to and what era your talking about.