On May 18, 1995, Dave Wilby needed a beer engine, and needed it bad. The young owner of Manayunk’s Dawson Street Pub had scored one of the first three kegs of Yards ESA, and had planned a special happy hour for that Friday, May 19. He’d even ordered a special hand pump from Europe so he could properly pour the unfiltered English bitter — and sawed a hole in his wooden bar top to install it — but by Thursday evening, it still hadn’t arrived.
There were no tracking numbers back then, so it took some doing to find out what happened his beer engine. Turned out it was held up at Customs — few, if any, other bars in the U.S. used such a device, and officials were worried it might be gun parts. Wilby negotiated for the hand pump’s release, and on Friday morning, it finally arrived.
At 5 p.m., as customers filtered into the tucked-away tavern, Wilby finished the last bit of plumbing and hooked up his prize keg. He gave a few pulls of the pump, and then offered a guest the first-ever commercially sold pint of Yards. It was a beer like few had ever seen this side of the Atlantic — cloudy, only lightly carbonated and full of rich flavor — but it was a hit.
The Khyber and Cavanaugh’s had also been lucky recipients of kegs from Philly’s newest brewery, but bartenders there had decided to wait until after their regular weekend rotations came off the draft lines. By that Monday, Wilby’s keg had already kicked. Wilby went through another ESA keg the next week, and another two the week after that. The next week, an article raving about the special, hand-pump beer came out in Jim Anderson’s Beer Philadelphia, and demand skyrocketed. Dawson Street Pub started going through five or more kegs of ESA each week.
It wasn’t easy for Yards Brewing partners Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit to keep up with demand. The friends had founded Yards with a tiny, 3-barrel system that they were running out of a small shack behind a tunnel on Krams Avenue in Manayunk. After getting their official brewing license on April 8, 1995, they’d leased the 900-square-foot space for around $500 per month, and pushed the residential garage to its limits as they installed their brewhouse — at one point, the concrete floor even resounded with a huge crack down the middle.
Their efforts paid off, though, when they debuted their English-style bitter at April’s Philadelphia Craft Brew Festival. Organizers brought more than 5,000 attendees to the old Philadelphia Civic Center for the daylong fest, which featured more than 30 breweries, most from out of town. Hot West Coast “microbreweries” Sierra Nevada and Rogue were pouring, as were many “imports” from Europe, along with Philly’s Dock Street, Independence Brew Pub and Sam Adams Brewpub. Many breweries had brought along several varieties of their beer to sample, but Kehoe and Bovit didn’t. Yards didn’t have many beers — in fact, they only had one.
Wilby had organized a bus trip from Manayunk for the fest, and as the event neared its end, he was busy herding folks back toward the departing vehicle. Just after he stepped out the Civic Center door, a friend came running after him.
“Come back! There’s a beer you have to try before you go!”
Wilby walked over to the Yards table. “Would you like ESA, or ESA?” said Kehoe. One sip, and Wilby was in love. The 20-something-year-old already fallen for English-style ales. He had turned his pub — formerly biker hangout Uncle Charlie’s — into one of the first craft beer bars in the region, and immediately jumped at the opportunity to serve this local edition. He chatted with Kehoe for all of five minutes before he had to run, but the two formed a lasting bond.
A couple of weeks later, Kehoe and Bovit dropped off one of those precious initial kegs at Dawson Street’s door. The held-up beer engine arrived just in time, and Wilby tapped the ESA and made history.
He’s celebrating the 20th anniversary of the event throughout the weekend, when you can step up the small stairs into his now-renovated pub for a taste of Yards classics (including that famous ESA), plus something that’s almost more special — a limited-edition, barrel-aged sour. Made from a blend of a Brettanomyces saison, a bourbon barrel-aged Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale and Yards Brawler, this beer promises to be interesting, and only 16 sixtels will be released around the city.
Dave Wilby is getting his hands on more of them than anyone else — a well-deserved thanks to his historic role in Philly beer lore.