President of Yards Brewery, Tom Kehoe, and Head Brewer, Tim Roberts, sat down with us to talk about chugging, Questlove, and a rather strange beer ingredient. A special thanks to the guys for letting us try a fresh batch of Cape of Good Hope!
CTH (to Tim): Could you introduce Tom?
Tim: Tom Kehoe, President of Yards. He still comes here day to day, he makes tons of brewing decisions; he is the face of Yards.
Tom (introducing Tim): Tim Roberts, he's our Head Brewer, production manager. He's basically in charge of brewing operations and shipping operations. He has a very detailed and busy job.
CTH: What is Tim's best quality?
Tom: His has an even keel-ness through tough situations. He has a very even temper. He strategically goes about his job; he’s organized. He gets everything done.
CTH: What does he bring to Yards beer that nobody else does?
Tom: It’s hard to say. A lot of people bring passion, which Tim has. I think what he brings is, not conservatism, but a regimented idea of what our beer should be and how we go about doing things. As far as production and process it's real important to have a strong backboard of where things go. I think Tim is that backboard, that lever pushing everything forward.
CTH (to Tim): What do you think is Tom's best quality?
Tom: I can chug. [laughs]
Tim: You’ve never seen him chug a beer, have you? [laughs]
I think his best quality, and it's a little unusual for me to have a brewer who’s a boss, that could work both ways, but Tom understands that issue very well. He understands all the things that I'm dealing with on a day to day basis — and then some. His other strong points are his understanding of the physical plant (how pumps work, how pressures work) and his creativity within the confines of what I think of Yards beer being, which is balanced and drinkable and not necessarily flavor of the month or trying to throw 27 ingredients in the beer. That's not to either of our tastes.
Tom: If I told him I wanted a rhubarb beer with a grapefruit zest, he would immediately say, "No, not ever."
CTH: So, at its core, what do you think Yards is trying to accomplish with each pint? If someone sits at the bar and takes a sip of one of your beers, what should that be like?
Tom: I want them to think that this is a beer they can drink every day. I want them to think they're never going to not have a beer from Yards that's not fresh and exactly what they’re expecting to get every single time. We hope to have beers that are drinkable.
Tim: I heard someone once say that the best way to compliment a beer is to say you want another one after. I think that's what we're all about. We're not trying to make extreme beers necessarily; we want beers that are drinkable, that you do want to continue to have. From a more processing standpoint, I want it to taste the same every time and I want Yards to be known for that.
CTH: Are there any beers that are challenging you currently? That are pushing the envelope?
Tom: We have challenges with capacity. Our physical limitations are our biggest challenges right now.
Tim: I don’t know if we can talk about it in such detail, but we are talking about brewing some beers that take a little more tank time. When you talk about the capacity of most breweries you're talking about fermentation capacity. In terms of pushing the envelope, we introduced Pynk last year, or two years ago rather. When Tom brought it up we were all a little dumbfounded when he wanted to brew a fruit beer. We thought, “How did he want to make that?” We approached that beer, and while it's still very drinkable, it's sort of a unique beer.
CTH: What was the impetus behind Pynk?
Tom: We had done Pynk years ago. It was meant to be one of those hard-to-do beers that was almost a lambic, but not really taking it all the way there, pulling it back. When we redesigned it here we knew we weren't going to mess around with any crazy bacteria to do a lambic or aging it in oak. Over time we knew we didn't have that. We wanted a beer that had character and a tartness that was 180 degrees from a hoppy beer or a tart beer. We wanted something aggressive, yet drinkable and we really hit it with Pynk. It's funny, it's one of those beers where you think it's a fruit beer. Then you try it and go, “Oh this wasn't what I was expecting!” It's not. It's a tart, really drinkable, dry, really refreshing ale. This year we bumped it up a month. When we released Pynk people said, "It's so much better this year!" It's the exact same beer! [laughs] I think it's because it's warmer in the summer it’s more appealing right now. People love it, it was hot in July.
Tim: We made more test batches of Pynk than any other beer we've ever done here. Six or seven on a small system. Towards the end, looking around the table, people were really drinking a lot of beer. I always take that as a good sign. If you don't like it, you're not drinking it.
CTH: Could you talk about the progression of the Cape of Good Hope?
Tim: It took 6 years to create Cape of Good Hope. The yeast would drop out. We warmed it up, tried rousing it with another stronger beer. Then we threw in hops in. Throwing the hops in really got it to drop, to ferment. We would just throw another box of hops in. Finally, it was this monstrously hoppy beer. It probably needed a little more time, but we needed the tank off so we racked off what kegs we had and sold them.
That was the original Cape of Good Hope. A kind of beer that was in the tank so long it could have taken the journey around the Cape all the way to India because it had so many hops in it. We tried to recreate the same thing next year and fell short. That's when we said we're going to make it a West Coast Double IPA. Every year we bring up some new hop or change the dry-hopping around to give it a new character. It's always something new, something on the edge. We call it an epic ale; it's a double IPA, west coast style.
CTH: What is the strangest ingredient Yards has used in a beer?
Tom: We have our oysters, which we used to use in our Love Stout. If you look at history books about brewing, oysters shells were a big part of it. The brewing industry didn't have the ability to look at water consistency or makeup; by adding shells, the calcium would change the hardness of the brewing water.
Tim: I'm thinking. Isinglass? We don't use it very much. It's from the swim bladder of a sturgeon fish. It has a positive charge and attracts the yeast which has a negative charge. It brings them together, it clumps out, and as the clumps enlarge, the yeast drops to the bottom of the cask and you get a clearer beer.
Tom: This was discovered when beer was being stored in ship hulls. Beer was put in the swim bladder of a sturgeon. They noticed, when they pulled the beer out, it was perfectly clear. That's how isinglass began to be used in beer.
Tim: Egg whites will do it too.
CTH: That's bizarre.
Tom: Some people say that beer is not vegan because of that.
Tim: We've had emails about that. We do not use isinglass currently.
CTH: What do you think makes Yards uniquely Philadelphian?
Tom: To be something in Philly, you have to earn being a Philly brand. We've been around for a while. We've grown with the bars. You can’t just come into town and be accepted by Philadelphia. You have to go through hard times with them. Yards struggling and moving, being the underdog all the time, and coming out pretty much on top is a testament to what Philly wants in their character. I think Yards has that.
Tim: What makes Yards really Philly is that Tom and Yards now stick to its guns. We get asked to do a lot of crazy things. I think you could start to make every beer hoppy like some brewers do, but I think Yards — we still love ESA, we still love Brawler. That's what Yards is about in my opinion.
CTH: So you have Yards Tavern Ale, Tavern Spruce, and Tavern Porter, all those beers kind of draw from historical inspiration, sorts of celebrities. Is there a contemporary Philly celebrity who really deserves a beer? Who would it be?
Tim: Tom Kehoe! [laughs]
CTH: Mayor Nutter. The Mayor Nutter Pale Ale. [laughs]
Tim: I'm trying to think, who are Philly celebrities? We have our politicians; they're in the limelight. The Philly Phanatic. There are fictional celebrities like Rocky.
Tom: Questlove? Bradley Cooper? [laughs]
CTH: What’s in store for the fall brewing season?
Tim: For this fall we're doing a big monster of an Imperial Stout. We're gonna do some bourbon barrel aged Washington on draught only. We're going to do Bart again, which is one of my favorite Yards brands without a doubt. Old Bartholomew barley wine. Beautifully simple recipe with really nice ingredients.
Tom: When we first did that beer in 1995, we wanted a Christmas beer. But we didn't want a Christmas beer because they were all spiced. They had pine tree in them or cardamum. All this crazy stuff. We said, "No." We want a warmer, a burner. One that you drink and you go “Oooh." That's where the Old Bart came from.
Tim: There's just one malt in that beer and that's all you really need. Malted Barley.
CTH: Yards was founded in 1994. What was biggest change you've seen in the Philly craft beer scene since that time?
Tom: It's not just the beer scene. It's that whole move towards sustainability, to buying local, to buying better food. This whole craft movement is taking advantage of local products. That's what's elevated the brewing industry. We absolutely fit that role.
Tim: And the bars. I moved here in 1997. There was craft beer, but not like there is now. The bars have been part of bringing it to everyone and they've capitalized on everyone wanting good food. There's so many good bars in this city that serve great food and also serve great beer. Yards is completely indebted to the bars in this city. They really support us.
Tom: We still maintain good growth in the city. One of the reasons is there are new bars opening up all the time. They're not opening up without craft beer as part of what they're doing. Since we're the leader right now in the area, they look to us to be an influencer. It's great to be in that position. We want to help people grow.
CTH: What do you think Yards' biggest contribution to Philly has been?
Tom: ESA! [laughs] I haven't figured out how to say this yet. We're trying to run a company that has good values. We try to push those values onto other companies and push it into the community. Whether we're donating to charity, trying to be better citizens; we're coming up with a campaign that's trying to emphasize that. I think that's one of the things we're really trying to do. Move it on to others.