THEY’RE brewing beer again in Kensington.
Forty years after the crusty neighborhood’s last brewery went belly-up, a small crew of devoted beermakers has returned to boil hops and bottle suds.
You can smell the malt from Frankford Avenue, just below Lehigh, where the towering brick smokestack marks the site of the old Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewery.
It’s the new home of Yards Brewing, the micro formerly of Manayunk.
In a relocation that took nearly a year, the brewery moved its equipment eight miles east and rehabbed Weisbrod & Hess’s long-idled bottling plant.
Last week, Yards made its first “official” delivery. Brewery chief Tom Kehoe climbed aboard a horse-drawn beer wagon, and headed down 2nd Street to City Tavern with kegs of its trademark ESA and other specialties.
“Not a bad ride,” said Kehoe as he jumped off and grabbed a pin (a mini keg) of Thomas Jefferson 1774 Ale.
He might have been talking about the history of his growing brewery.
Founded in 1994 by Kehoe and a college pal, Yards was one of a bumper crop of craft breweries that made the city an East Coast beer mecca. In a former bakery about the size of a two-car garage, Yards produced a tasty array of English-style ales, notably served at cellar temperature.
The brewery grew – from 10 barrels a week (about enough for a decent frat party), to 3,500 barrels a year. It moved to a larger, rented space on Umbria Street, put in a bottling line, and struggled like any small business.
“We reached capacity in Manayunk,” said Bill Barton, who takes care of Yards’ business side. “We needed more space.”
Almost from the start, the company knew it had to leave Manayunk, where trendy Main Street development has driven up the property prices. They searched in South Philly and Northern Liberties, and suffered sticker shock.
Finally, they started looking in Kensington, poor, old Kensington.
The long-forsaken neighborhood is a dangerous and drug-infested place, a mass of impoverished people trying to carve out some decent living space amid the squalor of broken glass and sealed-up crack houses. Kensington’s glory days, as the center of the city’s 19th-century industrial might, aren’t even a memory anymore. Few know that those crumbling walls were textile mills, dye works, the old Stetson Hat factory – or a brewery.
One hundred years ago, Kensington – like Northern Liberties and Brewerytown – was alive with pitched yeast and simmering mash tuns. Pennsylvania Brewery Historians, who have traced the city’s beer-making lineage to the pre-Revolution era, count at least 30 breweries that once operated in Kensington and adjoining North Philadelphia.
Most collapsed before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933. A handful like Weisbrod & Hess (which apparently brewed, illegally, for the first six years of Prohibition,) lasted a few more years. Kensington’s last one, Gretz Brewery on Germantown Avenue, closed in 1960.
Thus, when the Yards crew spied a huge, old brick building on Amber Street at Hagert, they were surprised to find they were stomping on sacred brewing grounds.
“We couldn’t believe it when we looked up and saw the words ‘Bottling Department’ ” on the building’s cornice, said Barton. “Nancy [Barton’s wife and a Yards employee] said, ‘This must have been a brewery.’ ”
From above beckoned the faded, inlaid tile logos of Weisbrod & Hess and its best-known brand, Rheingold Beer.
Originally located in a Germantown Avenue saloon, the brewery was formed in 1880 by two German immigrants, George Weisbrod and Christian Hess. Most of their beer was consumed on site, like a modern-day brewpub. But two years later, they moved to Frankford Avenue, where the brewery became one of the first in America to bottle its beer.
Bottling and mass distribution, of course, would eventually be the death of Philadelphia’s brewing industry, as familiar names like Schmidt’s, Ortlieb’s and Erlanger, fell to the giants of St. Louis and Milwaukee. Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewing Co. went bankrupt in 1938.
But in its heyday, the plant produced about 300,000 barrels a year – Vienna-type lager, Czech-style pilsner, Kulmbacher and something called Shakespeare Ale. It also made Peacock brand soda for Acme markets.
When the company introduced “Certified Beer” in 1935, a press release proclaimed, “Mr. Herman Dambacher, master brewer of the Weisbrod & Hess brewery, states that in his opinion, it is the finest beer he has ever brewed, and comparable to any on the American market today.”
Another report, dug up by local brewery historian Rich Wagner, describes a busy factory. “Old-timers in Philadelphia will recall the beautiful horses and wagons, of which there were some 60 odd vehicles, which served the customer routes of the brewery.”
Yards is nowhere near that size. It has one delivery truck – two, if you count Kehoe’s aging Isuzu Trooper. Eight full-time employees produce about 5,000 barrels a year – less than a week’s worth of brew at old Weisbrod & Hess.
But its move to Kensington is welcome news.
“For them to move into this neighborhood and reuse an old brewery is really pretty amazing,” said Sarah Thompson, director of economic development for the New Kensington Community Development Corp. “To actually bring in new business is an encouragement. It gives us confidence, it shows it’s not just a dying neighborhood.”
Indeed, many of Kensington’s old mills are being reused, on a considerably smaller scale, by a range of anonymous businesses – warehouses, stamping plants, brush-makers. Small companies looking to grow can find incredible deals in these mammoth, century-old factories.
Yards paid just $160,000 for 40,000 square feet of space, then spent a half-million dollars in renovations. It’s cutting costs by renting some of the space to an artist and a Mini Cooper parts shop run by former Dock Street brewer Eric Savage.
“It’s a very manageable building,” said Barton.”
“I can’t believe what it’s like to have a mash tun that’s level,” said brewer Michael “Tuna” Martinovich.
It took almost a year to outfit the place. Friends and family helped clean out debris. Windows, long sealed with cinderblocks, were opened. Used tanks from Victory Brewing in Downingtown were rolled into place. A pair of brick-coated kettles were fired up. And a new bottling line was installed.
“It used to take a day and a half to bottle one batch,” said Kehoe. “Now it takes three hours.”
The project was backed with $300,000 in loans arranged by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
In recent years, investors have been burnt by failed microbreweries, like Red Bell and Independence. Poor Henry’s, a brewpub at the old Ortlieb’s bottling plant in Northern Liberties, was financed with about $3.8 million in tax-exempt bonds packaged by PIDC. It went out of business in just three years.
Joe Aylmer, a PIDC senior vice president, doubts that will be the case for Yards.
“When you’re lending money in neighborhoods to small businesses, you can go through all the lending practices and theories, but an awful lot of your payback is based on your confidence that the people know what they’re doing,” said Aylmer. “I never had any doubt about Yards.
“Red Bell, Independence – they weren’t really breweries. They were marketing companies, in my opinion. But when you’re talking to Yards, these guys are buying the right hops, they’re filtering the water, they’re brewing the beer themselves.
“These guys are really into their art.”
It’s been a generation since anyone could say that about a beer-maker in Kensington.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a pint of Yards ESA.