The Founding Fathers of Philly Beer
The Book & The Cook, an annual culinary festival for chefs and authors that was the high point of our restaurant scene for years, was never about the food for Bruce Nichols, Tom Peters and Don Russell. To these three — a catering company head, a bar owner and a Daily News reporter — it was all about the beer. Nichols, who runs Penn’s Museum Catering and will soon open HeadHouse bar, organized one of the festival’s biggest recurring events: a tasting with writer Michael Jackson, a world authority on beer. (Jackson died in 2007.) “It got bigger and better every year,” says Nichols. “And people would start requesting the things they tasted at the bars. It helped drive the scene forward.”
So when The Book & The Cook fell to pieces, Peters, owner of Monk’s (Philly’s original hard-core beer bar), brainstormed a new way to keep the yearly party going. What if it was a whole week? Would that be possible? He brought the inchoate Philly Beer Week notion to Nichols and Russell, a.k.a. Joe Sixpack (“Because there could not be a Beer Week without him!”), and together they planned a modest inaugural celebration.
They hoped to grow it to 50 local events — tastings, special meals, talks. In 2008, the first year, there were more than 300. In 2009, that number swelled to 700, and though copycat beer weeks have launched in other cities, none have captured the original’s success.
Why? Well, no one else has Peters, Nichols and Russell. Our magnanimous beer-geeks-in-chief did two crucial things differently: Philly Beer Week is a nonprofit whose mission is to spread the gospel about beer in Philadelphia, not to make money. And, says Russell, “It’s all grass-roots. It’s organized from the bottom up. The bars do whatever they want — they plan things and run with it.” — Joy Manning
Like a lot of people, Tom Kehoe, a Haddonfield native, drank a lot of beer in college. But there was something different about his enthusiasm. His zest for tasting any new beer he could find led him to buy a home brewing kit, which he set up and used right in his Western Maryland College dorm. That was back in 1988, and while he was supposed to be studying engineering and business, he was mostly soaking up the finer points of ale, both in his room and at a local brewery where he volunteered, grateful for the learning experience. He knew he wanted to open a brewery. In 1994, Kehoe and then-partner John Bovit ordered some equipment, incorporated as Yards Brewing Company, and began making beer in a Manayunk garage. By the time Kehoe sold his first keg of English-style ale to the Khyber, he had found his calling.
Yards has come a long way since those early days in Manayunk. Two expansions later, the brewery now occupies a spacious Northern Liberties warehouse in which Kehoe’s team churns out much greater quantities of English-style ales. “When we began, this style of beer was practically dying, and I believe Yards helped bring it back, here and around the country,” says Kehoe. In 2006, the New York Times named Yards’s Philly Pale Ale one of the best beers of its type in the country.
But that’s hardly Kehoe’s most treasured achievement. He’s proud of the vibrant beer culture he’s helped create here, and of the generation of beer pros he’s influenced. With Yards’s continued growth, there’s no doubt he’ll be shaping the way Philadelphia drinks for a long time to come. — J.M.