Working at a brewery is not all about free beer and pretzels.
Just ask Steve Welsh, the packaging manager at Yards Brewing, about the summer of 2008, about the heat and pain of digging ditches, building walls, and tying rebar for the floor of the brewery's new location on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown.
This was not exactly what he'd signed up for when he started work at Yards a few months earlier. He wanted to be a brewer, working with malt and hops and yeast, not sacks of cement and spools of wire.
But money was tight at Yards. The company's former partners had split, prompting president and founder Tom Kehoe to move from its existing facility in Kensington to an empty building along the river. A new brewhouse, tanks and packaging equipment would be installed that summer, but there just wasn't enough cash to pay the contractors.
The company's nine employees had no choice but to pitch in and help with the construction.
"It was one of those times when we needed all hands on deck," said Kehoe.
Welsh said: "Here I was, just trying to get my foot in the door, and I was climbing a ladder to the ceiling. It must've been 20 degrees hotter up there, sweat just pouring off my face…"
The blood, sweat and tears of the summer of 2008 wasn't just a challenge for the company and its employees. The heat also forged an ethos that every employee has some skin in the game at Yards.
It's a culture that is reflected in Yards' standing as one of Philadelphia's top workplaces of 2015 and winner of a special Appreciation Award as voted by its employees in an independent survey by the WorkplaceDynamics employee consulting firm.
Today with 50 full-time workers and nine part-timers, Yards boasts an inclusive environment where hard work is rewarded and appreciated.
The salary is not huge (starting pay is $10 an hour), but full-time employees get health insurance and 401(k) contributions from the company. There are also scholarship programs through the Master Brewers Association of Americas and bonus trips to out-of-town beer conferences and festivals.
But those benefits alone do not explain the positive company spirit that a visitor notices among the workforce. From kitchen help to master brewer, everyone seems proud of their role in producing a tangible product that has come to define Philadelphia's place in the world of beer.
It was appreciation of craft beer that drew James Sinclair, 25, a Temple grad with a liberal arts degree, to his blue-collar job at the brewery two and a half years ago.
"Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale has been one of my favorites ever since I started drinking," he told me while monitoring CO2 pressure on a huge vat of beer. Playing a role in actually making it, he said, "gives me a sense of pride."
He added, "Working at Yards, I've learned how to use tools. I've learned how to take apart a machine and fix it. There's something about doing your routine, and getting it right."
As with many people who come to work here, Sinclair's aim is to be a brewer someday. Yards, however, insists that all its workers – even salespeople – first learn the basics in the packaging department. It's a monotonous job of filling bottles and stacking cardboard cases that not only teaches the nuts and bolts of brewery operations, it ensures that all of its workers appreciate the grunt work that goes into every case.
"It's part of our screening process," said head brewer and production manager Tim Roberts. "We can always teach someone how to open valves in the brewhouse. But putting them on the packaging line helps teach the value of team effort."
And afterward, the free beer ain't a bad perk.
Joe Sixpack's column appears weekly in the Philadelphia Daily News.