The Little Brewery That Could...And Did

by Jack Curtin

        Four years ago this Sunday, "Home Boy Brews," my cover feature in The Philadelphia Weekly, opened with this paragraph:

        "We are standing in the middle of the decidedly minimalistic facilities of Manayunk's Yards Brewing Company at 10:30 in the morning of a hot and muggy Monday, four of us: Jon Bovit and Tom Kehoe, which is to say the entire management and staff of the company; Jim Anderson, incipient guru of the contemporary Philadelphia beer scene, and me, each sipping fresh glasses of the enterprise's best and only product, Yards cask-conditioned Extra Special Ale, and I am thinking to myself that the decision to take a look at Philadelphia's suddenly exploding beer culture which has led me into a world where quaffing a pint or two is normal, indeed expected, behavior any hour of the day was a damned fine decision indeed."

        Those were the first words I ever wrote about the local beer scene, a scene I've never stopped writing about since, and they were dead on the mark. By chance more than design, I was in the right place at the right time. Yards ESA rapidly became the sine qua non for every decent beer bar in the region and the cult favorite of an emerging customer base for craft beers that sold themselves on the basis of quality and taste rather than clever amphibians and paeans to mountain ranges. The beer was extraordinary and it certainly didn't hurt that it was also difficult to come by. Bovit and Kehoe struggled to produce enough to meet the growing demand out of their tiny brewery (Anderson described it that day as "not much bigger than a house trailer").

        Jon and Tom, Tom and John….they were the golden boys of a wonderful new era of Philadelphia brewing in which we would all enjoy endless pints of world-class brew and live happily ever after.

        A lot has gone down around these parts since that glorious morning. New breweries have sprung up (some have come and gone) and a lot of beer has been made, some of it very good, some of it apparently created in the belief that merely calling something a microbrew somehow makes it worth the price even if the quality does not. The reaction to entirely too much of the latter variety has led many of those willing to pay more for better beer to turn increasingly to a growing import market, putting added pressure on small breweries which are already struggling for a foothold in a difficult market. There are only so many taps out there.

        Yards was always The Little Brewery That Could, started on a shoestring and operating about as close to the edge as any brewery ever did. They finally moved into larger quarters and got the product into bottles last year, an essential step for survival. For a while, though, the flagship ESA was never quite the same; brewing it in more spacious surroundings rather than within the yeasty confines of the original brewery had its cost. Still, both their wonderful Old Ale and a new, mass-appeal Yards Premium Beer also are now available in bottles as well as on draft (the summer seasonal Saison may make that same transition this year). And the appearance of a Yards Porter or Stout or most especially the high-octane Old Bart on tap continues to be a delight for enlightened consumers.

        It has been an increasingly open secret, however, that Bovit has not been an active participant in the brewery for months. This past January, driven by the need for a stable income to support his family, Bovit took a full time job as a beer salesman in New Jersey. Last month, with even the affable and hard-working Kehoe and indispensable aide Tuna overwhelmed by trying to do everything, Yards finally took the necessary steps to put things in order. A new partner, Bill Barton, bought into the company and will take over sales and sales management (his wife, Nancy, has been a part time sales person for Yards for a while and he has a background in sales). Kehoe is now sole director for Yards Brewing and Bovit officially a silent partner.

        This is, in the real world, a Very Good Thing. The infusion of new money and talent can do nothing but help insure Yards future. In the end, brewing is business. For just a moment, though, join me in toasting the Jon and Tom of four summers gone, the guys who believed enough to take the chance.

        They were our golden boys and we owe them.

Copyright (c) 2000 Jack Curtin

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