Never one to be afraid of trying something new, Yards Brewing Co. owner Tom Kehoe decided to try something old and recreate the beers of the Founding Fathers
“I love beer.”
Those are the first words to come out of Tom Kehoe’s mouth when he is asked how his craft-beer empire got its start. Sitting in the Yards Brewing Co. taproom in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties district, Kehoe is decades older and miles away from the dorm room where he lived as a student at Western Maryland College. That’s where the dream first took root.
While at Western Maryland in the late ‘80s, Kehoe became popular by brewing beer for friends. Today, as the owner of Yards, he oversees the process of brewing beer for millions.
Kehoe recounts his college days with a Cheshire cat smile, perhaps amused that his dorm offered him his first fans— as well as his first guinea pigs for his early experimentations in brewing.
“People in the dorm wanted to try it!” Kehoe says with a hearty giggle, as if still surprised at the concept.
But success didn’t come without trial and error. And beer wasn’t his first undertaking at Western Maryland.
“Actually, I tried distilling before brewing beer and failed miserably,” Kehoe says. “We were watching M*A*S*H, and [we related to the characters who had a still in their tent]. So, I got a book from the library on distilling and tried to figure it all out.
“We actually had a Soloflex exercise machine in our living room, and we hung the distilling column from that. The Soloflex was only there for art purposes; it was never used. That’s why we put the distillery there. It was pretty funny.”
In addition to engaging in dorm-room science, Kehoe says he was always looking for new tasting experiences in the bars, even in the days before he took up brewing.
“We would go out and try to find something new all the time with imports,” he says, naming German beers like Becks Dark, Löwenbräu Zurich and Höllenbrand. Over time, he developed a taste for the pub beers of England.
But it was a chance encounter with an Anchor Steam brew that really changed everything.
“I liked it, and it was made in the U.S.,” he says. That’s when the light bulb went on, and he bought a homebrew kit shortly afterward. Gone was the dorm-room distillery, and in its place, the tiniest of breweries.
As we sampled some fine Yards brew, I quizzed him about his early trial-and-error era as well as Yards’ Ales of the Revolution series, a re-creation of beers of the Founding Fathers that the company started in 1999. Here’s what he had to say:
O&A: So how did you get from brewing beer in your dorm room to where you are now?
Kehoe: It was actually a really cool progression. A professor approached us—there were a couple of us making the beer; we shared responsibilities. This professor comes up to us and says, “So, I hear you’re making beer.”
We were like, “Well, yeah, we just give it to our friends and stuff.”
And he says, “I make beer every weekend, and we’re doing a whole-grain mash this weekend if you want to stop by.”
So we all went over there and made beer with him with a full-grain bill, not just with the extract, which was the way we’d been doing it.
Then he was like, “Do you guys want to go to a brewery?” And we were like, “Sure, yeah.”
It was a small brewery that had recently opened up in Maryland, and we ended up going there six or seven weeks in a row. We’d do the tour and hang out. And it got to the point where they needed help with a few things, so we started making beer with them.
It was called the British Brewing Co. back then, and then it changed to the Oxford Brewing Co.
We learned how to brew there. It was kind of funny because they weren’t that mechanically inclined. They could fix pumps and stuff like that, but there was stuff they couldn’t do like solder pipe. And I knew how to solder pipe. So [when certain things needed to be done] I went and did it. And they were like, “Yeah, we’re going to keep your around for a little while.”
O&A: I’ve always been fascinated by your Ales of the Revolution and how you embraced that series with all the research that went into it. Can you elaborate on how that series came about?
Kehoe: We have this great place downtown called City Tavern. At the time, they’d been going for three or four years.
Part of their lease is that they have to do things of the time—the time of the American Revolution.
So they had three breweries that made beer for them, and nobody was doing anything except saying, “Yes, this is our stout; you can call it ‘Washington’s Porter.’ And this is our barleywine; you can call it ‘Thomas Jefferson.’ And this is our wheat beer; you can call it . . .”
O&A: In name only.
Kehoe: Yeah, in name only. But we had a wholesaler who basically said to them, “You should really talk to Yards. They would probably like to do something like this with you guys.”
We ended up sitting down with them and said, “Yeah, we’re small enough to do these beers, and it would be great fun.”
The Washington beer recipe they had. They had what they thought was a good Jefferson recipe. And we did a little bit of research because Jefferson talks about how he didn’t really have a recipe for the beer. He had all the ingredients.
He quoted different books, which we have—these old brewing books like Michael Combrune’s book [The Theory and Practice of Brewing, published in 1762].
From what Jefferson was saying and what they were doing at the time, it was kind of easy to make a recipe of that time. The issue we came into was that if you actually made that Thomas Jefferson recipe, it’s about an 11-to-13-percent ABV beer. That’s just rocking. Almost raw.
We decided we couldn’t really do that, but we could do something that’s going to imitate that, so we did an 8-percent beer that had the honey and the wheat in it and things like that.
What Thomas Jefferson was trying to do was say, “You can make all this beer with all the ingredients grown right here in Monticello.”
O&A: Wow, so some original farm-to-table stuff.
Kehoe: Original farm-to-table. He was big on agriculture. He was like, “Agriculture is how we are going to grow the country.” That was his thing, and one of his examples was his beer. Monticello was his big experiment.
O&A: What about the Ben Franklin beer?
Kehoe: With the Franklin, it was interesting: It was coming up on his tercentenary—his 300th birthday, I guess, in early 2006—and there were a bunch of things that were happening.
They were doing a contest to come up with Ben Franklin’s beer for the brewers association. And we were like, “No, we’re going to do a Ben Franklin beer for City Tavern.” And they were all into it.
So, what happened was that the American Philosophical Society here in Philadelphia—who basically has all of Franklin’s writings—published a book about Franklin on food. [With that] they put out a recipe by him on how to make a spruce beer.
It was pretty cool. The issue was we had to ease that back a little bit because it called for so much molasses. A lot of molasses was being used in those days as a sugar to create the alcohol. But it would have been too much [for today’s tastes] so we knocked down the amount. But the molasses is really neat because it works well with the spruce, in terms of balancing that out.
O&A: When these beers were introduced, they were only available at City Tavern. When did you make them available at stores and other bars in bottles and kegs?
Kehoe: When we started growing, that’s when we went to the folks at City Tavern. When we moved to a bigger facility over in Kensington in 2001, we had the ability to make a lot more beer. So, when we told the folks at City Tavern that we wanted to market and sell [the beers we created for them], they were all about it.
We still have the City Tavern on a lot of the packaging for the Ales of the Revolution—you know, “Visit the City Tavern” and stuff like that. They did a big press conference for the initial release in 2004, and the National Parks were a part of it. It was really cool.