It was 2008, and Yards Brewing Company, then based in Kensington, was going through changes. After splitting with his former business partner, owner Tom Kehoe decided he’d keep the Yards Brewing name and move the company’s headquarters to the Delaware Avenue waterfront near Northern Liberties with the plan of making Yards the first green brewery in Pennsylvania. Then the recession hit, and it quickly became one of the worst times to launch a major business initiative since the 1930s. And yet, the wind-powered brewery sits along the banks of the Delaware River today, with its own tasting room, an assembly line producing hundreds of beers per minute and an expansion under way that’ll further Yards’ presence in the mid-Atlantic region.
Part of that success, Kehoe says, has to do with the steps he’s taken to make Yards a part of Philadelphia’s food and drink scene: sponsoring local events, having a huge presence during Philadelphia Beer Week, etc. But the other part of it is pretty simple: In good times and bad, people want to sit down with their friends and have a beer.
You had this vision to create a green brewery. Did that ambition make it harder to get the new facility up and running in a time of recession?
Not at all. Just the decisions we made, they were more decisions of, “It might take a little more time, might cost a little bit more,” but it wasn’t enough to say, “This is a no-go.” There were just other things we did going forward, like trying to use recycled materials. Like this room here [the Yards’ tasting room], almost everything we did kept that in mind. Everything is used—this [table] used to be a door, things like that. When we were doing the brewery, we tried to use as much used equipment as we could.
Since then, how has the greenness of the brewery affected how you’ve done business?
One of the cool things is we have a young staff, and they really believed in doing things greener and putting out a product ... the right way. They were like, “Yeah, this is great. I don’t really mind taking an extra 25 minutes and putting the cardboard in the cardboard trashcan area rather than the regular trash area.” And back then, we were having it picked up by the Pedal Co-op, and they would pedal all of our recycling to Blue Mountain.
Was there any point over the last four or five years when Yards was feeling the recession the way a lot of other people and industries were?
One of the issues with growing into this new brewery is we knew we had to increase our sales, because it was a transition of going from a 30-barrel system to a 50-barrel system; you need to just make more beer to hit your break-even point where you can sustain yourself. Growth didn’t happen overnight. We really had to work on it and really work hard to keep it going.
When we started back up, no one really lost confidence; I think everybody was like, “Ok, great! Yards is back.” They might have been critical in the beginning, but then it was like “OK, tastes like it’s supposed to.” It’s almost like we didn’t skip a beat, but we still had to grow, and that was growing at a tough time. Within that time, the growth of the industry and the growth of restaurants and bars in the city were really taking off. I think people will always make time, even if it’s [economically] tough out, to go and have a beer with a friend.
Has it become easier since 2008 being a company that utilizes green energy?
It has gotten cheaper to do it. Plus, we are becoming a bigger user at the same time, so that’s actually helping our cost of things. Once you start using more, they want to start selling you more at a cheaper price. That’s helped.
Besides the recycling and the repurposed materials in the building, what else has the brewery done to go green?
We’re 100 percent wind-powered, so we do the wind credits. We were the first brewery in Pennsylvania to do that, and we continue to do that even though we switched who we were going through. It was Community Energy in the beginning and now it’s Washington Gas and Electric. So it’s all wind power.
And we recycle a lot of things, not just cardboard. Our grain goes to a buffalo farmer to feed the buffalo. Then we use the buffalo here in our chili. The stuff that he can’t take, we send to a cow farm up in Warminster.
We’re also looking at recycling water—we are actually looking at a way to capture rainwater. We may be able to put a tank in the ground to try to do that. It’s in the project phase. We don’t know if it is going to be feasible. We don’t know if it going to be cost-effective to do that.
We wouldn’t use the rainwater for brewing. I think we’d just rather be using the rainwater for washing things down and that extra maintenance water that breweries end up using. We would be filtering it, and that’s part of the cost of doing it. And it would be less water we’d be using from the Water Department.
Is the beer itself getting ready to move further out in the country?
Nope. We’re still going to stay mid-Atlantic. We’re growing about 25 percent. In the mid-Atlantic, there are still areas we still haven’t assigned wholesalers yet. In Pennsylvania, we’re looking to get a wholesaler in York, Pa., and Fulton County by the end of the year. So we’re growing locally—we’d rather grow and get depth than just grow and be shallow in other areas. We really want to have beer that holds on and is going to be here if things change.