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Yards Brewing Company president Tom Kehoe pours a pint of "Brawler," a traditional English-style session ale.

Yards Brewing Company president on creating a cult following

Company: Yards Brewing Company

President: Tom Kehoe

Founded: 1994

Employees: 26 full-time, 13 part-time

Headquarters: Philadelphia


Fun fact: Yards still uses its original six-keg brewery for pilot brews and small batches, served in the Yards tasting room and at special events.

Kehoe’s favorite beer: Yards’ Extra Special Ale

By Rachel Cieri 

It was the 1990s, at the height of the microbrew movement at Bertha’s Mussels in Baltimore. Tom Kehoe helped lug a firkin keg inside, and the owner of the tiny corner bar “banged the spigot” himself. Before the beer even started flowing, patrons were lined up, handing their prepaid glasses over the bar, just to get the first taste of Yards’ newest brew. It was at that moment that Kehoe, president of Yards Brewing Company, got his first inkling of the cult following they’d create back in Philadelphia.

Kehoe and college buddy Jon Bovit first started brewing to fuel their own thirst for quality beer, proudly sharing their creations with friends and family. Before long, they outgrew the homebrew operation and started working in a tiny, English-style brewery in Western Maryland. In 1994, Kehoe and Bovit founded Yards, moved to the Manayunk neighborhood of Philly and worked from a homemade, three-barrel system in a space the size of a garage.

In a time when microbreweries were bubbling up faster than the foam from a newly tapped draft line, Yards distinguished its beers right away. Unlike the bulk of the ’90s microbrews, the beverage was high quality and memorable.

“We started off with a niche product, which was cask ales,” Kehoe says. “It was an English-style beer that can be served in either draft or with a beer engine. It was more of a traditional style.”

The growth was slow and organic. “We never had the money to overextend ourselves, so we never did,” Kehoe explains. “We were very conservative.”

At its latest location in Northern Liberties (after three subsequent moves, from Manayunk to Roxborough to Kensington), Yards gives free tours to visitors, and as Kehoe puts it, “it’s almost like we’re making friends every time. We like the beer, and our friends like it, and that’s why we’re growing as a business.”

Expansion plans, for now, mirror the slow, steady growth Yards has sought in years past. Rather than expanding his distribution area, Kehoe wants to fill in the gaps in eastern and central Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, tightening its grasp of the Mid-Atlantic market, and especially Philadelphia.

“We want to be the Philadelphia beer,” Kehoe says. “We want people to think of us as one of the reasons we like Philly. We’re very well-known in the beer community and in the bar and restaurant community, but the common person doesn’t really know Yards. I’d like us to be more of a household name in Philadelphia and the surrounding area.”

“We never had the money to overextend ourselves, so we never did.”

But Kehoe says he’s not competing with other Philly microbrewers who might like that title. “We work well with the other micros to try to get our products on the bars,” he says. “We’re competing against the bigger guys who have the power to demand these taps.”

Yards has also made its mark as Pennsylvania’s first wind-powered brewery. His young staff, Kehoe says, has strong feelings about the importance of eco-friendliness, and that mindset has worked its way into the company culture. Every employee participates in the sustainability efforts with the same care they take in creating the brews.

“What I don’t want to do is outgrow quality,” Kehoe says. “[I want to] be very smart about growing and keep our quality as good today as it’ll be in two years.”

Last year, Yards produced 21,000 barrels, and it’s on track to make 30,000 by the end of 2012. CEO

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This article was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Philadelphia SmartCEO magazine.

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