Homeboy Brews

by Jack Curtin

        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.

        New Jerseyites Bovit and Kehoe knew one another casually back in high school and became buds when they were fraternity brothers and members of the wrestling team at Western Maryland College. In between classes, they also became avid home brewers, which ultimately led them to the Big Decision. After apprenticing at a Maryland brewery, the duo debuted Yards at the Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival this April 30. It is a bitter English-style ale well worth seeking out by anyone wanting to venture beyond the Bud-Millers-Coors culture. "Seeking out" is the operative phrase here: Yards is only available on tap in nine of the city's better beer bars.

        "Hey, we've managed to get a tap in every bar we've approached so far and if we can maintain that record, we'll be millionaires one of these days," laughs Bovit, before becoming serious to acknowledge that "we figure we can supply maybe 15 bars at a maximum. We're producing 24 kegs a week comfortably right now and can increase that if we need to. There's only the two of us, though, and we do everything." Kehoe chimes in: "We even deliver the beer ourselves, so we get to know the bartenders and customers. As a result, we have a personal relationship that's different from anybody else in the business. We've been there every time a bar tapped its first keg of Yards."

        The Yards Brewery is a small, two room building in the rear of a courtyard behind a furniture warehouse on the west side of Manayunk, a facility that Anderson, making sure first to have his glass refilled lest the proprietors take offense, describes as "a little larger than a mobile home." Not that this two-man operation is the smallest brewery in the country. "There's a guy in Texas or someplace who brews something like a half keg a week specifically for one restaurant and he's been legally classified as a brewery," explains Bovit.

        Brewing is begun in a brick lined insulated brew kettle and finished in the kegs themselves. "Cask conditioned" means that beer is put into the kegs flat rather than artificially carbonated, then a small amount of unfermented beer is added to each, allowing fermentation to occur in the keg while creating natural carbonation. There is still live yeast in each keg and a "hop pocket," or small mesh bag of hops is added just prior to sealing, a process know as "dry hopping." Because the beer continues to ferment in the keg, it changes and matures, offering a slightly different experience from day to day.

        The result is, again in Anderson's words, "something that John Courage and Bass Ale and Watney's have never been able to pull off. This is an authentic, London-style ale that those brewers have never been able to translate overseas." Anderson's opinion counts because he's a guy who takes beer seriously. Together with his wife, Lisa. he publishes the new bimonthly newsletter, Beer Philadelphia. "Now that the micro revolution has finally arrived in Philadelphia, it seemed a good idea to provide a source of accurate, solid information," he explains.

        The most interesting thing he says is this: "You know, if we were in Seattle or Denver right now, chances are Jon and Tom would never have tried this, much less been able to pull it off. There are some advantages to the fact that Philadelphia is behind the curve in what's happening in beer."

        Philadelphia has, as Philadelphia will, come a bit late to the party. It's ironic, because There was a time when this city was arguably America's "Beer City," with as many as 100 breweries reputed to have been serving its various neighborhoods. There were more than 700 active breweries across Pennsylvania at one point, but it's been in places like the Pacific Northwest and California and Colorado where the contemporary beer movement has grown and flourished.

        This craft brewing wave has been transforming American beer drinking habits at an impressive rate ("craft brewing" is the general term which encompasses the micros, the contract brewers and the regionals, all the guys who aren't Budweiser, Millers or Coors and, for the most part, damned happy about it). Industry statistics claim more than 600 microbreweries in the U.S. at present. Sales passed the $1 million mark last year, about one and a half percent of the $87 billion national beer market. Growth is exponential: a 56 percent annual increase over the past three years according to some estimates (one trade publication says micros had a 50 percent production increase and 40 percent rise in market share from 1993 to 1994 alone), with projections that craft brewers will control anywhere from five to seven percent of the market by the end of the century.

        Locally, in addition to Yards, names like Independence and Tun Tavern have appeared in 1995, major expansion plans been announced from existing players such as Red Bell and Dock Street, new brewpubs have appeared or been promised ("brewpubs" are breweries cum restaurants which are restricted to selling only the brews they produce on the premises) and more and more bars are dedicating taps to something other than one of the national brands.

        Here, as appears to be the case nationally, the malt resurgence is broken into two factions: those who have gotten caught up in the romance and excitement of brewing like Bovit and Kehoe, primarily driven by the desire to create one or more great beers, and those who have recognized the financial potential in the craft beer market. You got your beer guys and your money guys....

        The paneled, suit-infested Market Street offices of Janney Montgomery Scott are about as far away from the affable informality of Yards as you can get. This is home base for stockbroker Jim Bell, president of Red Bell Brewing Company, which has been contract brewing its products at the Lion Brewing Company in Wilkes Barre since 1993. Red Bell started with its signature Blonde Ale and added an Amber last November. A hoppier, more full-bodied India Pale Ale is scheduled for release this month.

        Bell readily admits that he was attracted to the beer business as an investment opportunity. "Back in 1992, Jim Cancro, who's now our brewmaster, came to me to see if there was a way to raise the money to start up a brewpub," he explains. "I put together a business plan for him, but we were never able to get that deal to work out. Since I already had about 400 hours of my time invested, I decided that I wanted to be a part of it all. I put up a lot of my own money to start, then went out and recruited 15 investors to back us up."

        Once they had decided to start off with a contract beer rather than a pub, Bell laughs, "I suggested to Jim that he come up with something like Budweiser, because that sells so well. He told me very definitely that he was not going to brew Budweiser." The two spent three weeks in Europe, touring Germany, Holland and Belgium, and decided to start off their endeavor with a variation of a German Kolsh beer and to utilize the European "Blonde" to distinguish it in the marketplace. "It was the most popular and drinkable beer we had, tasting 25 different options daily," he says.

        Now, having promoted Red Bell as "Philadelphia's Hometown Beer" since its first appearance, the company plans to establish itself as a true local microbrewery by year's end. Red Bell has acquired the former site of the F. A. Poth Brewing Company at 31st and Jefferson Streets, on the edge of the North Philadelphia neighborhood once known as Brewerytown. The brewery, one of the largest on the East Coast in its heyday and an ultra-modern facility when it was constructed in 1895, closed in 1932. When ready, the new Red Bell Brewery will be able to produce 30,000 barrels annually from its 260,000 square foot plant, Bell says.

        While the primary emphasis is on making Red Bell an even more solid company in its own right, there are also hopes of making the brewery a major player in the larger market. "We expect to offer craft brewers the opportunity to contract their products at our site," Bell explains. "We will have state of the art equipment and will be able to deliver beer to them in lots as small as 300 cases at a time. That will be a major advantage, since most contract brewers today require first brewings as high as 8000 cases."

        The folks over at Independence Brewing Company think that's a solid business plan. In fact, they're already putting it into action as the first new brewery in the city since Prohibition (not counting the brewpubs, which operate on a much smaller scale). They began shipping Independence Ale in mid-April and Independence Lager last month from a spacious 32,000 square foot plant on East Comley Street in the Northeast. President Bob Connor, who presides over things with the help of his impressive Neapolitan mastiff, Louie, was an investment banker who worked with Jim Bell.

         "I've always been interested in beers," he said. "I was an Anheuser Busch representative while I was a student at the University of Richmond and did some home brewing for a while. When I saw what Jim was doing, I really got interested. I didn't want to just jump in and compete with him, so I got involved in trying to create a brewpub instead."

        When that didn't work out, Connor and shareholders set their sites on establishing a microbrewery in the city, backed by loans from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. They looked at some buildings that had been part of the Schmidt's and Ortleib's breweries, but eventually opted for the Comley Street site, which had been home to various light manufacturing businesses previously.

        One thing home brewing taught him, Connor says, is that "I could not do this myself; I needed a good, solid brewer to create our beers." That turned out to be brewmaster Bill Moore, who was a dedicated homebrewer himself for about ten years before signing on at Stoudt's Brewery in Adamstown in 1990. He soon became brewmaster there (winning several medals for his brews) but wanted to get into a situation where he had total brewing control, an opportunity that Connor provided. "I'm a shareholder and I determine the style of beer here," Moore says. That style, at least in the ale, is strong and assertive, vaguely reminiscent of the best of Stoudt's offerings but with a definite character of its own.

        Like his friend Jim Bell, Connor considers himself a businessman first and acknowledges that his company is primarily a financial investment. With the exception of a 30-year old bottling line (which broke down early on and delayed Independence's entry into the market, originally scheduled for February), all equipment is new and top of the line. The plant is already brewing for two other micros and producing a house beer for Dave and Buster's, with hopes of doing more contract work.

        Monty Dahm, president of the Tun Tavern Brewing Company, which entered the market at the beginning of the year, appears to be more of a hands-on executive than either Bell or Connor, at least the day I visit him. We are going to the Lion Brewery in Wilkes Barre, where his beer, like Red Bell and several others, is contract brewed, to see the monthly bottling. But the brewery has run short of kegs and we are rattling around in a large u-haul, bound first for an Allentown distributorship, where Dahm and a warehouseman will wrestle 167 empties into the back of the truck.

        Dahm and his backers bid for and won the rights to the Tun Tavern trademark when it became available for licensing in 1991. The original tavern was Philadelphia's first brew house and the birthplace of both the Continental Marines (forerunners of the U.S. Marine Corps) and the Masonic movement in the United States. "I was in the Marines for six years, active duty and reserves," he says, "and I know that every Marine in the world knows the name 'Tun Tavern.' It's one of the first things they drum into you at boot camp. I figured when any ex-Marine heard there was a Tun Tavern beer out there, he'd want it. And it's working. We started shipping in March and hope to be available in 18 states by the end of the year. A lot of times, we don't even have to call the distributors, they call us. Some Marine has been in and told them he wants his Tun Tavern." This large and ready-made market gives him an advantage in the struggle to survive in the marketplace, Dahm figures, and he is the only one of the newcomers not talking, for the moment, about setting up his own facility.

        When we arrive at the Lion Brewery, we wander through the plant, past the Rube Goldbergian bottle washing machine and up a set of meandering steps to a small room at the very top of the brewery, where Bill Moeller is waiting, happy as a brewmaster can be. "Here, taste this," are his first words, thrusting glasses of fresh beer at us as soon as we walk through the door.

        "Good beers are brewed, great beers evolve," says Moeller, once we've settled in. He's a fourth generation brewmaster who's been in the game for 45 years and has a wall full of awards. He worked for Ortleib's and Schmidt's in the old days and created the original Dock Street beers and a lager and a brown ale for the respected Brooklyn Brewery. "The fun of brewing is to get the beer to about 95 percent of the way you envision it," he continues. "The art of brewing is to tinker with it and work on it and improve it as you go along. This," he holds up the bottle we are tasting, fresh off the line, "is very close to perfect." Moeller, who visits the brewery three or four times during each brew process and has samples shipped to him overnight each step along the way, describes Tun Tavern as "a lager pilsner, not quite as round and full as a regular lager" which has "an assertive bitterness that is not cloying or overpowering." A second brew, a new ale with a name Dahm won't reveal, is promised for Fall.

        The ride home is perhaps even wilder than the one to the brewery. With the truck at his disposal, Dahm decides to take some Tun Tavern back with him, so we have two 2000-pound pallets of cases rocking and rolling in the compartment behind us. Two tons of Tun on the road--all we need are some revenuers in an open roadster chasing us down the pike with shotguns blazing and it'll be the 1920s all over again. Nonetheless, Monty Dahm is a happy man, delighted with himself, his company, his life. Laughing, he quotes that old reprobate, Ben Franklin, a habitué of the original Tun Tavern: "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

         Out in Devon, the newest brewpub in the area has just opened in the former movie theater in the Gateway Shopping Center just off route 202. Brothers Greg and David Biles' attractive 300-seat Valley Forge Brewing Company features four standard offerings and a daily specialty brew. In Manayunk, Harry Renner has plans to operate the Philadelphia Brew Works on a potentially spectacular site under his Farmer's Market, if only he can overcome the objections of a local church and work out things with the LCB. Similar endeavors have opened, or are planned, in outposts like Allentown and Lancaster.

         The first brewpub in the city was the Samuel Adams Brew House, above the Sansom Street Oyster House, a partnership between the Oyster House's Dave Mink and Jim Koch, who has turned the Boston-based Samuel Adams Brewery into the craft beer version of Budweiser: it is the one micro brand you're mostly likely to find at the neighborhood tappie. The place has more than doubled in size since it opened in 1989 and the number of taps has as well, up to six at present. Interestingly, because of the cramped quarters, brewmaster William Reed uses malt extracts rather than full grain ingredients, making the process closer to that utilized by most home brewers.

        Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant on 18th Street, which opened in 1990, is scheduled to open a sister pub in Washington, DC in November. Jeff Ware was the first contract brewer of a "Philadelphia beer" a decade ago, with Dock Street Amber (produced in Utica, NY), and notes today that "when we started, we were all alone, a voice in the wilderness trying to educate the consumer as to what the value of microbrewery beers really is. The fact that this is a growing market in Philadelphia is at least partially a tribute to how well we've done." There are generally six brews on tap at Dock Street, selected from approximately 75 styles that have been brewed there over the years.

        Amateur brewers are, of course, one of the major underpinnings of the new beer culture. The spiritual home locally for most such folks (and a stopping point along the way for many in the business professionally) is Home Sweet Homebrew at 2008 Sansom Street. There, owners George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg, aided by a humongous cat named Nugget, preside over a Beer Mecca with shelves laden with all the equipment and arcane packets necessary to the development of one's own special brew. At one of the regular Wednesday night beer tastings (which, this time, include an impressive cream ale, steam beer and, shades of Merrie Old England, mead), Hummel assures me that "a lot of people just don't know they like good beer until they actually get a chance to try one. We try to help them along and pretty soon a lot of them are doing it for themselves."

        While the purists will undoubtedly sneer, those so inclined also now have a do-it-yourself option for beer making that eliminates much of the fuss and bother. America U-Brew, in a shopping center at the foot of Spring Garden Street, is the only brew-on-premises facility this side of Boulder and one of only 15 in the country. You go in, select a recipe from the 100 or so available in a computer database, dump the appropriate ingredients in one of eight large brewing kettles and you're on your way. The resulting brew ferments on the site for two weeks, at which point the customer comes back and bottles it. The ability to create their own labels on the premises is one of the great appeals of his operation, says co-owner Mike Morrissey. "That seems to be half the fun for most people. You end up with five and half cases of custom beer out of each batch and it's nice to put a photograph or something personal on the label."

        One of the people best able to put the local beer scene in perspective is Rich Wagner, high school science teacher by trade and Pennsylvania beer historian by choice. Back in 1980, he and partner Rich Dochter set out on a vacation trip to visit all existing Pennsylvania breweries (they managed to hit eight of nine) and were impressed along the way by the number of impressive old brewery sites and buildings still standing. "Afterwards, I said, almost as a joke, why don't we try to photograph every existing brewery building in the state," he recalls, "and we have gone ahead and essentially done that." The partners today write magazine articles, conduct bus tours of brewery sites and otherwise contribute to the repository of Pennsylvania brewing history.

        Wagner, who began homebrewing in 1983, today grows his own hops and is dedicated to brewing at historic locations (he's brewed at William Penn's country estate, Pennsbury Manor, for example, and along the Oregon Trail). His current dream is determining the exact spot at Penn's Landing where the first lager beer was brewed in Philadelphia in 1840. "That was the beginning of a whole new style of beer," he contends, "an American beer lighter in body and color. I want to find that spot, brew there myself and then have the state establish an historical marker there. To me, that place and that date is something of historical import."

        Noting that there are now 19 operating breweries in Pennsylvania instead of the nine that existing when his research began, Wagner says that "it boggles my imagination to see the changes that have occurred. We thought we were recording the end of a story, but now there's a whole new story just beginning."

        Tracking that story has taken me from board rooms to bar rooms and most every likely spot in-between. A visit to the Craft Brew SummerFest at KatManDu on the Delaware on July 1 gave me the opportunity to try all the locals again, as well as sampling offerings from some of the top micros in the nation. And, at the hard-to-find Ashton Food Market in Upper Darby, I gazed in awe at what must be the largest selection of beers by the bottle available anywhere in the area. "There are 500 beers registered to sell in Pennsylvania and we carry every one of them," says owner David Reh, proudly.

        I've enjoyed a draft of Kwak, extraordinary because of its nine percent alcohol content, at Copa, Too, the only place in the country that this classic Belgian brew is available on tap (manager Tom Peters said he'd ordered 16 kegs of the stuff and poured nine of them in the first ten days or so). Copa, Too is one of the city's great beer bars, a list that is growing steadily: Sugar Mom's Church Street Lounge, Khyber Pass, Silk City Lounge, Dickens Inn, Bridgid's, Bethayers Tavern, The Irish Pub....

        Grand places all, but I expect I'll be doing much of my quaffing in the future at the Dawson Street Pub, over on the opposite side of Manayunk from the Yards Brewery, where Dawson Street runs into Cresson Street and both come to an abrupt dead end. "If you want to taste our ale exactly the way its supposed to be," Bovit and Kehoe instructed me early on, "then you have to taste it at Dawson Street."

        Dawson Street is definitely not your upscale beer boutique: the place is rundown, dark and definitely worn, with a pool table in the back room and a friendly, loose atmosphere--in short, a real freakin' bar. Hey, the shabby look, says owner Dave Wilby, is actually an upgrade. The place was an old biker bar known as Uncle Charlie's Tavern when he took over about six years ago and featured black walls, a red floor and shag carpeting covering the marble bar. "There was more meth than beer passing through here in those days," he laughs. It took a while to turn things around, including a brief closing, but now the bar's eight taps feature such delights as Newcastle Brown Ale, Guinness Stout and, of course, Yards Ale.

        Wilby was impressed enough with the Yards operation from the start to go out and purchase a traditional British "beer engine" to serve the ale properly. Rather than pump the beer via a pressurized gas system, a beer engine draws the nectar up as a result of a vacuum created by pumping (hence the British "pull me a beer, mate"). The equipment, plus the decision to serve the ale at a more traditional temperature of 48 to 50 degrees instead of the colder levels required by pressurized systems, results in a dark, often cloudy and thoroughly quaffable pint. "Life," says Wilby, echoing his bar's slogan, "is too short to drink bad beer."

        Not a bad motto to live by. For myself, though, I turn to A. E. Houseman, favorite poet of my lost youth, those halcyon days when a keg was keg regardless of the contents and two cases of Piel's Real Draft in the back seat and a car pointed toward the shore or the Poconos was about as good as it got:

Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think;
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
        The beer's gotten better, and the sentiment holds.

Copyright (c) 1995 Jack Curtin