The story of "Philly's Brewery" started in a 1,000-square-foot garage in Manayunk. That might be hard to imagine when you're perched at one of the long community tables inside the massive taproom of Yards Brewing Co.'s new 70,000-square-foot facility on Spring Garden Street, where there are house 20 beers flowing on draft and diners can choose from updated pub grub and trendier snacks, like ramen, tuna poke, and pork belly skewers glazed in spruce ale.
This airy industrial space laced with piping and wrapped in glass walls is meant for brewpub shock and awe, with 280-plus front-row seats to what is now the largest brewing showcase within the city limits. From the cushy tall banquettes and big square bar lined in the wood of an old bowling alley, you can look onto a production floor with gleaming new brew tanks and a towering stack of Brawler cans ready to rumble through the new canning line. Out front on the sidewalk, a phalanx of enormous silo-shaped fermenters are perched like an arsenal of Intercontinental Beer Missiles poised to deliver Philly Pale Ale peace and Love Stout on earth.
We'll be able to eat and drink in their benevolent shade on Spring Garden once this endless winter subsides, and the taproom's front garage door wall finally rolls up to spring. And we can also ponder what it really means to be "Philly's brewery," not to mention a truly great brewpub. Is greatness, at least in terms of food, even possible at such a scale? With 1,000-plus diners already coming through on a weekend day, maybe not. But working with a talented chef like Jim Burke, a Starr and Vetri alum who made his name in fine dining at James, is at least a very good start.
It's much too much of a big gulp these days for one brewery to represent all that's happening on the local beer scene, with at least two dozen craft breweries now based in the city proper, and several dozen more in the suburbs. Some (like Victory and Tröegs) are bigger, and plenty of others (like Tired Hands, Free Will, Forest & Main, Brewery ARS, and La Cabra) are far more experimental than Yards. But there is no questioning Yards' standing as one of the pioneers of the region's craft brewing scene, having launched in that garage in 1994 and built its brand on admirably slow but steady growth with a deep local following for its traditional portfolio of mostly predictable but well-made English-style beers. Its most recent location on Delaware Avenue in Northern Liberties will be vacated this spring.
Kehoe and his current partner, Trevor Prichett, have promised to spice up the offerings with more taproom-only special releases and an ambitious barrel-aging program they never had space for before. A spicy Belgian yeast twist on the Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, a coffee-infused Love Stout perked up with La Colombe beans, a deep Russian Imperial stout, and citrusy Cicada IPA were among my favorites of the current limited releases.
But make no mistake: Yards has already created a major new asset for Philly's beer world simply by committing to remain in the city with its latest move (the fourth). Stepping up to create a far more ambitious taproom than the old tasting room, which didn't even have a proper kitchen, is a golden opportunity to create a more immersive experience — and Yards is better for it, even as it still has room to grow. Not only can you sip beers at their freshest and taste how well these classic styles work with food, but the old Destination Maternity Building has been transformed into an essential new public space and community hub for the rising new beer district on Spring Garden and in Fishtown, north and east of Center City.
True to Yards' character, the approach to the taproom has been safe but solid. It's not reinventing the brewpub concept here so much as refining it, with quality updates to scratch-cooked comfort food classics reimagined by Burke with recipes that can be churned out with consistency, affordability (almost entirely under $15 a plate), and speed. We learned that the hard way as a blitz of 10 dishes intended for a multicourse meal all appeared at once in a blink. Our servers were bright, informed, and friendly. But you'll have to pace the meal yourself by ordering it in stages, which is more fun if you plan to settle in to explore a series of beers, right through the dessert of a Love Stout float.
I was nonetheless mostly impressed by the quality flavors that arrived. A minestrone soup brimming with fresh vegetables tastes handmade and wholesome. A hearty bowl of chili was filled with slow-braised shreds of beef shank, black beans, and tiny cubes of butternut squash that delivered hits of sweetness, but also surprising bursts of hickory smoke. A bowl of mussels was standard, cooked with wine and buttery leeks, but the shellfish were also exceptionally clean and tender, with hunks of good grilled High Street on Market bread for dipping.
There are some lighter dishes here to give the menu some breadth and balance, like a bowl of simply cubed tuna poke in sesame-soy vinaigrette, avocado and crushed macadamia nuts; or a grilled toast piled high with sweet and lemony lump crab ribboned with spicy pickled peppers. A miso ramen with mushrooms was a decent stab at a thoughtful vegetarian choice (the soft-cooked egg is optional), even if its flavor and finesse didn't measure up to better bowls in Chinatown not far away.
But Yards has its pub classics well covered. A beer-infused pretzel made for the taproom by Metropolitan Bakery comes with Brawler mustard and an addictive horseradish honey butter. The chicken wings come unconventionally glazed in the startling green hue of an herbal hot sauce made from smoked long hot chilies left to ferment with beer, a punchy but well-balanced sauce that somehow does not diminish the wings' crispness.
The Yards deep fryer is also especially on point. Crispy saffron rice arancini balls stuffed with flavorful lamb ragù are a nod to Burke's Italian training. Reuben fritters stuffed with the corned beef, kraut, and Swiss cheese fixings of one of the world's great sandwiches were irresistible one-bite indulgences. Burke turns to some molecular gastronomy to produce the perfectly squared hunks of boneless thighs that get brined, layered with meat glue, and parbaked with stock for his chicken sandwich. But once they're cut and fried to order in a buttermilk crust, then layered with house pickles and tangy herbed ranch dressing, they become what is now one of the best chicken sandwiches in the city. A whipped cream siphon, meanwhile, is the secret to the airy beer batter that perfectly coats a flaky hunk of Icelandic cod for the satisfying fish and chips, which sit over a vivid green mash of lemon-scented "mushy peas."
The chunky potatoes on that plate, which are ubiquitous throughout the menu, were a subject of debate at my table. They were crisp on the outside and fluffy in the center, and easier to produce fresh at a large scale than traditional fries. But they can also be bulky and overwhelming, especially for a traditionally frites-centric dish like foie gras poutine, which came off as dry.
My biggest disappointment here was the BBQ platter, which, despite the presence of a proper smoker, was more proof that great smoked meats cannot be a sideline: The pit master has to be all-in. The brisket was dry and lacking smoke; the smoked brats oozed orange ribbons of odd processed cheese. The St. Louis ribs were fine, but mostly because the BBQ sauce was one of the kitchen's best uses of beer, with Tavern Porter, dried hot chilies, the tang of vinegar, and a molasses kiss adding balance.
The skewers of pork belly were another beer cuisine winner, the tender chunks glazed in a sweet dark reduction of the colonial-theme spruce ale. But for the most part, this food simply pairs well with Yards' brews, like the patty melt burger whose good short rib patty is topped with a mop of Brawler-caramelized onions over butter-toasted High Street rye.
The roast pork sandwich, meanwhile, is a classic Philly flavor bomb boosted with garlicky herbs and a little milk in the Italian-style braise to add extra intensity. With a smear of roasted garlic puree on a lightly toasted seeded High Street roll, along with peppery broccoli rabe and a smoky roasted long hot to add some extra voltage, this sandwich of layered flavors already ranks among the city's best. But when you can pair it with a citrusy Philly pale ale fresh out of the tank — or an old-school pour of malty ESA on cask — there's definitely added value.
As Yards' kitchen continues to refine its menu and explore new ways to showcase its beer even more in a restaurant setting, that value should only grow.